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Puffing Up the Nuclear Summit: What’s Being Ignored


Even before Obama’s Washington Nuclear Security Summit to secure vulnerable nuclear-weapons materials begins, administration spin meisters are casting it as the largest international-security conference since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1945 San Francisco convention established the United Nations. The clear implication here is that it will be just as historic. Although it would be churlish to oppose efforts to prevent terrorists from acquiring nuclear bombs, popping champagne corks in advance of this summit flies in the face of several states’ efforts to make sure the summit does nothing to defeat their efforts to make more of the very stuff the summit is supposed to somehow secure.

In the run up to today’s summit, France — one of the world’s largest civilian nuclear exporters — was first to object to any physical-security proposals that might undercut its efforts to export plants to chemically strip out or reprocess spent power-reactor fuel and produce tons of additional weapons-usable plutonium for “peaceful” reuse in reactors. Never mind that using this fuel costs several times what it would cost to use fresh uranium. A sale is a sale, and there are plenty of states that are more than okay with amassing nuclear-weapons-usable fuels. To whom does France plan to sell such plants, besides Japan — which already has squired away over 2,000 crude bombs’ worth of weapons-usable plutonium and is about to open its first massive French-designed reprocessing plant? China.

India, meanwhile, just signed a deal with the United States that would give it the green light to reprocess whatever U.S. nuclear fuel it acquires. This will allow it to produce tons of additional weapons-usable plutonium for use in its “peaceful” breeder reactor — a system originally designed to make even larger amounts of weapons-grade plutonium. Under the deal, New Delhi may be able to continue to reprocess U.S.-origin spent fuel even if India decides to resume nuclear testing. India also continues to build up its nuclear-weapons plutonium stockpiles through its dedicated military program.

In the Far East, South Korea — ever envious and worried about the nuclear activities of North Korea, Japan, and China — has been pushing Washington to let it recycle spent fuel to make plutonium-based fuel. In the lead-up to the Nuclear Security Summit, Seoul has made it clear that it wants the U.S. to renegotiate its civilian nuclear cooperative agreement with South Korea (which lapses in 2014) to allow such nuclear fuel-making.

Meanwhile, to the west, Pakistan is pushing to enlarge its nuclear capacity. Stung by Washington’s 2008 nuclear cooperative agreement with India and frightened that that the deal’s lifting of the embargo on civilian nuclear-fuel exports to India would indirectly bolster New Delhi’s military nuclear production, Pakistan just announced plans to expand its civilian nuclear efforts with Chinese help. Today, the New York Times reported Islamabad has just brought on line an additional, new military production reactor, which will at least double its military plutonium production.

So far, the White House has said little or nothing in opposition to these pre-summit gambits. Worse, it has done all too little to iterate the U.S. policy line, announced by Pres. Gerald Ford in 1976, that the U.S. does not reprocess and other states don’t need to do so either. Instead, when pressed on what the U.S. position might be on such reprocessing activities, senior White House officials say the answer must await advice from Department of Energy, a department whose secretary has already made it clear he would like the White House to reverse U.S. policy and revive commercial plutonium recycling here and, implicitly, abroad.

Coincidently, the White House is touting a recent agreement to give Russia nearly half a billion U.S. taxpayer dollars to have Russia use the 34 tons of plutonium Moscow declared some time ago to be in excess of its military requirements in its breeder reactors. These machines are designed to use weapons-usable plutonium to produce even more, higher weapons-grade plutonium. One has got to assume that the White House got ironclad assurances that Russia will not operate its breeders to produce more plutonium, but the mere endorsement of running such machines, which cost several times more to build than conventional power reactors and use weapons-usable plutonium as fuel, is a pretty horrendous precedent. Certainly, India, which has breeders it is planning to use to make bombs, is sure to take note, as is Japan, which has a flagging breeder program of its own.

None of this augurs well for nuclear security. At a minimum it suggests why seeking consensus at the Nuclear Security Summit by avoiding these fractious issues would be a mistake. The president’s summit may never be historically as important as the creation of the U.N. But if we are not careful, it could, in limiting its focus too narrowly to the goal of somehow securing nuclear-weapons materials, end up giving a pass to those that would only increase the number of countries that have them and the amounts being produced.

Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and served as a member of the congressionally mandated Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, which completed its work earlier this year.