By Navmi Krishna:
The recently concluded Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) – held on March 31 and April 1 – was in the news for various reasons. While Russia’s snubbing of the United States filled most of the news sections, many were quick to point out that these summits, though celebrated with high-level political attention, have not accomplished much.
The Nuclear Security Summit was first held in 2010 in Washington D.C., United States. Its aim was to prevent nuclear terrorism around the world by drawing attention to the need to secure weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU), the key ingredients for making nuclear weapons.
One of the primary points that critics raise is that the objectives of the NSS and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) often overlap, a sentiment that Russia echoed in a statement. However, the problems of the much touted ‘union of world leaders’ is far from just that.
While India remains an active participant in the Summit, it is surprising that India’s Department of Atomic Energy is still indulging in the separation of plutonium from the spent fuel from nuclear reactors, known as reprocessing. Reprocessing is a chemical procedure by which spent fuel that has been removed from a nuclear reactor is broken down to separate plutonium and uranium from highly radioactive fission products, and other waste products such as the fuel’s metal cladding. The extracted plutonium and uranium can be refashioned into reactor fuel and reused, increasing the amount of energy that can be drawn from a batch of fuel. The process also reduces the volume and level of radioactivity of the remaining waste that must be stored.
However, since plutonium can be used as the fissile core of a nuclear weapon, access to reprocessing technology and expertise can be a pathway to nuclear proliferation. A detailed report from the International Panel on Fissile Materials in 2015 reported that the practice of reprocessing of spent fuel is slowly dying out.
Early in the nuclear age, many countries used to or planned to separate plutonium from spent fuel in the expectation that the world would soon run out of uranium. This assumption was mistaken; geologists have long concluded that global reserves of uranium ore are very large. As a result, most countries have stopped their reprocessing plans. The gradual withdrawal from reprocessing is primarily driven by economics – reprocessing is hugely expensive and highly complicated.
The nuclear situation in South Asia yields little room for comfort. North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, and India are among the four states in the world that continue to produce HEU and plutonium for weapons. As recently as early this year, North Korea successfully conducted its fourth nuclear detonation tests, resulting in a 5.1 earthquake at the location. Meanwhile, India and Pakistan, natural adversaries since Partition, refuse to budge on their tactical nuclear weapons, as was observed by Obama in his wrap-up statement to the media.
However, it can be argued that America is in no position to lecture. The United States and Russia, together possessing about 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons stockpile, are still slow in removing the weapons even from active deployment, let alone eliminating them. For any real progress to be achieved, it is imperative that the two countries lead the way. The United States has to realise that the task set by Obama has not been accomplished. Challenges for nuclear security have not vanished. Even if the summit process has ended, there is a consensus that international efforts have to continue.