Why nuclear dangers should galvanise Asian leadership at the Hague Summit

Nuclear Security Summit 2014Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is heading to the Netherlands for next week’s Nuclear Security Summit. Although Australia has earned a reputation for taking the threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism very seriously and for implementing stringent preventive measures (see, for example here and here), the same is not true of all governments in the Asia-Pacific. In this multi-national op-ed, scholars from across Asia point out that nuclear dangers are growing in our region, that weak links need to be addressed, and that it’s time for Asian leaders to come together and show leadership in the Summit process.

It’s no secret that nuclear dangers are mounting in Asia. Nuclear weapons arsenals are growing, nuclear power programs are expanding, and fissile and radioactive materials—which could be used to target innocents anywhere—are used, stored and transported throughout our region, sometimes in insecure conditions. It’s a discomfiting picture, and contrary to what skeptics would have us believe, it’s not an exaggerated one. We should be putting pressure on our political leaders to accept their responsibility to address our concerns before a nuclear catastrophe occurs.

Next week, an opportunity exists for them to be pro-active in the face of nuclear dangers as leaders from around the world gather in the Netherlands at the world’s third Nuclear Security Summit to discuss and agree on actions that should be taken to reduce nuclear risks across the globe. So, what are these risks?

Let’s travel across the Asian nuclear landscape with our eyes wide open. First stop: Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state with the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenal and military stockpile of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium (Pu). It’s believed that there are elements who are sympathetic to extremist groups among its military, and a number of terrorist organisations operating from its soil. The risks of nuclear sabotage and theft at Pakistan’s military and civilian sites mustn’t be underestimated.

Heading south to India, the nuclear landscape is marginally better. New Delhi too is in the process of building its credible deterrence and the stockpile of weapons-usable HEU and Pu is growing. India also has an ambitious nuclear power programme with twenty-one nuclear power reactors already operational, more being built, and a new reprocessing facility at Kalpakkam. Physical and material security at the increasing numbers of sites must be of the highest standard, given that threats could emerge from within the country or across the border.

Onward to China, where the nuclear arsenal may be growing more slowly (creeping up from 240 to an estimated 250 nuclear warheads since the 1980s) but where a massive expansion of nuclear energy is underway. Currently, 17 nuclear reactors are operational, more than 25 are under construction, and several more are planned by 2020. Indeed, China has by far the most ambitious nuclear power programme in the world. While countries in Asia have a rationale for expanding nuclear energy to meet their rising electricity needs, the demands that this imposes on nuclear security mustn’t be taken lightly.

Across the border, the Korean peninsula is another nuclear hot spot. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and reports that it’s continuing to operate its reactors, combined with complete opacity in how the nuclear material and facilities are being secured, and doubts over the state of the regime, raise worrying scenarios. Moreover, although the nuclear landscape in South Korea is currently benign from a weapons point of view, its nuclear energy program is certainly ambitious, raising the same nuclear security concerns as elsewhere.

Our next stop, Japan, is scarred by the events triggered by the earthquake and tsunami three years ago. There aren’t any nuclear weapons here, but Japan is home to a stockpile of weapons-usable plutonium and the largest quantity of civilian HEU in Asia. It’s fair to say that nuclear vulnerabilities abound. Indeed, the Fukushima crisis exposed a culture of complacency in the management of nuclear energy and a misplaced public confidence that’s yet to be re-established.

Countries in Southeast Asia must also be a part of our itinerary since many are contemplating nuclear programs. Currently, public safety concerns are restraining plans for nuclear power, but even so, Vietnam intends to build and operate more than 10 nuclear reactors by 2030. In time, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines may follow a similar path.

The reality for the world, not just for Asia, is that nuclear weapons and nuclear energy will be part of our lives for the foreseeable future, with all the risks that this entails. Of course, civilian applications of nuclear technology have many benefits for humanity, but acknowledging that fact shouldn’t tempt us to downplay the dangers.

Our political leaders need to open their eyes to this and accept responsibility for it. We hope they’ll candidly discuss concrete ways of strengthening capacity to secure nuclear materials across our region. For that, confidence and security building is essential. Despite the difficult political climate, there’s no option but to cooperate, to prevent Asia from becoming an epicentre of another nuclear catastrophe. Each state, whether it’s a nuclear weapon state or not, should make extraordinary efforts to increase national accountability for their nuclear programs according to accepted international benchmarks.

Tanya Ogilvie-White is research director at the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University. Nobumasa Akiyama is a professor in the School of International and Public Policy, Hitotsubashi University, Japan. Shin Chang-Hoon is director of the Nuclear Policy & Technology Centre, Asan Institute for Policy Studies, South Korea. Shahriman Lockman is a senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), Malaysia. Manpreet Sethi is a senior fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, India. Image courtesy of Flickr user Nuclear Security Summit 2014.

This post is a modified version of an op-ed that appeared in The Star here.

Correction: an earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Prime Minister Tony Abbott was attending the Nuclear Security Summit.