When the last of President Barack Obama’s four summit meetings on keeping weapons-grade material out of the hands of terrorists and criminals ended on April 1, there were no headline advances to report, as experts were predicting. Instead, Obama took the opportunity at a farewell news conference to count how considerable progress had been made in recent years, and he called on the United Nations, its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Interpol to keep the discussions going, as military and civilian use of nuclear power is piling up tons of spent nuclear fuel, mostly plutonium, at an unstable moment in world affairs.
Obama listed the 3.8 tons of nuclear material removed from 50 sites in 30 countries, and the 14 nations (plus Taiwan) that have given up their stores of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, including countries diverse as Argentina, Chile, Libya, Turkey, Ukraine and Vietnam. When Poland and Indonesia complete their removal of these materials, he said, there will be three completely nuclear-free zones: Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and Latin America, which was the first region to take that step decades ago.
As Obama tallied the results that have been achieved in the recent past, he also delivered an extraordinary future warning to the international media and, by extension, the 51 government leaders who attended the summit, held in Washington, D.C., that should Donald Trump (whom he did not name) be elected president later this year, all the decades of effort to stop the spread of nuclear weapons could be undone with catastrophic results.
“We don’t want someone in the Oval Office who doesn’t recognize how important that is,” Obama said. With the world listening, he characterized Trump, the leading Republican Party candidate, as knowing nothing about foreign policy or the world in general.
“Even those countries that are used to a carnival atmosphere in their own politics want sobriety and clarity when it comes to the US elections because they understand that the president of the United States needs to know what’s going on around the world,” he said.
One issue going on around the world that was not a topic of much, if any, discussion at the recent summit was the growing demand in Africa for nuclear energy.
Hubert Foy is the director of the African Center for Science and International Security, based in Accra, Ghana. He wrote in a commentary before the summit, published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, that attention must be paid to the African region, and by extension other developing countries with nuclear ambitions but little technical maturity to pursue these aims safely.
“Across my home continent of Africa, for example,” he wrote, “security measures are inadequate. In a number of nations, including some where terrorists operate, governance is patchy and regulation weak. Meanwhile, Africa is a continent where more than 20 nations have announced interest in establishing nuclear energy programs. South Africa, the only nation on the continent with nuclear power today, plans to expand its capacity. So — in one dedicated format or another — the summit process should continue beyond 2016.”
Foy acknowledged that there had been positive gains in the African region.
“Africa has made an important contribution to eliminating civilian HEU [highly enriched uranium] and consolidating spent fuel,” he wrote. “In 2010, South Africa finished converting its SAFARI-1 reactor — which produces molybdenum-99, the world’s most important medical radioisotope — to low-enriched uranium. Additionally, 6.3 kilograms of US-origin spent HEU fuel were removed in 2011 from a South African research facility.”
He added that IAEA training in nuclear security involved more than 2,000 people in 2012, and that in 2015 the US enabled more than 40 nuclear experts from developing countries — including Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa — to attend the annual meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, where they learned about promoting a culture of nuclear security in their own countries. Numerous African nations have joined or ratified conventions on nuclear terrorism.
“In Africa, seven countries host a total of eight operational research reactors,” he wrote. Two of these reactors, in Ghana and in Nigeria, have been powered with highly enriched uranium, which is now being converted. “When these conversions are complete, Africa will have eliminated highly enriched uranium in civilian nuclear applications and the world will be a step closer to freedom from nuclear terror,” Foy wrote.
Nonetheless, important issues remain. “Another remaining challenge, particularly in some developing countries,” he said, “is that complacency sometimes surrounds the threat of nuclear terrorism. A majority of developing countries do not prioritize nuclear terrorism in their national security agendas. . . . Indeed, many political leaders in Africa believe the probability that nuclear terrorism will occur on their territory is zero. In the global nuclear security system, nations such as these are weak links that terrorists might exploit.”
Finally, he argued: “The summit process could in some sense be continued if countries at the 2016 summit agreed on ways to promote, at the regional and international levels, comprehensive intelligence sharing. Political leaders across the developing world would thus become aware of the real dangers associated with terrorism and nuclear materials — and would be more likely to promote strong nuclear security measures in their nations.”
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.