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Making Matters Worse

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 31/03/2016 Robert Gallucci

2016-03-31-1459429660-5171310-475283172.png © Provided by The Huffington Post 2016-03-31-1459429660-5171310-475283172.png The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images
When you want to get out of a hole, first stop digging.
That bromide should be the action plan for the meeting in Washington this month of those who have been working for six years to improve the way countries secure their nuclear weapons and fissile material. This fourth Nuclear Security Summit will admit we are in a hole, but there appears to be no recognition that we need to stop digging.
Everyone knows lots of reasons to worry about nuclear matters. Deterrence could fail and nuclear war could break out between two or more of the nine nuclear-armed countries. Nuclear proliferation could make nuclear war far more likely. An accidental or unauthorized use could kill thousands and prompt nuclear retaliation. Or a terrorist could acquire a nuclear weapon and attack a city.
Governments acknowledge this last concern and have taken steps to secure their nuclear material and weaponry. U.S. presidential candidates routinely identify nuclear terrorism as the top national security threat.
What often goes unsaid, however, is that the likelihood of nuclear terrorism is considered extremely small. This erroneous perception accounts for government unwillingness to take even the most obvious steps to get us out of the hole we are in, or even to stop digging.
True, governments don't make this dismissive argument in public because it would be politically incorrect. But scholars are not so constrained. How likely is it really that terrorists could get their hands on a nuclear weapon?
The arguments are that no nuclear state would dare transfer a weapon to a terrorist group; that such states secure their materials and weapons so well that they cannot plausibly be stolen; that highly enriched uranium has been the object of improved security for years and has been significantly reduced in quantity by "blending down"; and that plutonium is not useful to a terrorist for technical reasons of nuclear weapons design.
All but one of these arguments are false.
First, North Korea calculated a decade ago that it was a good idea to build a plutonium production reactor in Syria, where terrorist groups abound. Next, security standards vary alarmingly from country to country, as do the capabilities of terrorists. And while much has in fact been done to meet concerns about highly enriched uranium in the civilian sector (that one is true), the argument calling plutonium useless is technical nonsense. Indeed, plutonium and its vulnerability to theft are increasing, and this alone promises soon to utterly change the calculation about the probability of nuclear terrorism.
Reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel for reasons of waste management or recycling will not take place in the United States any time soon. But the same cannot be said of Japan or China. The Japanese reprocessing plant at Rokkasho will be separating more than 6,000 kilograms of plutonium annually - enough for more than a thousand nuclear weapons - when it begins operation. And France has contracted to build a similar reprocessing facility in China.
The separated plutonium in both countries will be used to produce mixed oxide fuel for the current generation of reactors. This will require transport of huge quantities of plutonium around the countryside, a tempting target for any terrorist. The reprocessing plants cannot be safeguarded against diversion either. We know from the history of nuclear facilities that a certain amount of plutonium can be expected to go "unaccounted for" in the process of extraction from spent fuel. That means that large quantities of plutonium might not only go missing, but also that we would have no way of knowing that it did.
So why then will we probably not deal at the coming summit with the "game changer" for nuclear terrorism, access to plutonium? Why do we keep digging?
The answer is that it is hard to ask the French to forego the sale of their reprocessing plant to China and thereby acknowledge that their approach to the fuel cycle remains dangerous if sent elsewhere. It is hard to ask China not to explore thermal recycling if Japan is doing it. It is hard to ask Japan not to operate a plant that is already completed. And it will be harder still to get the Republic of Korea to forego reprocessing if plants are operating in Japan and China.
The stark fact that the economics of reprocessing and mixed oxide fuel fabrication are horrendous should be a persuasive argument against them, independent of international security implications. But so far it has not carried the day. What should move the Obama administration to take on the diplomatic mission of pushing against reprocessing plants anywhere in Northeast Asia, however, is the equally stark fact that keeping to the current path will legitimize the use of plutonium.
For those concerned about nuclear terrorism, in short, the coming summit is likely only to make matters worse by failing to face this clear threat to international security.

The views expressed above are the author's own.
This post is part of a blog series produced by The Huffington Post and Carnegie Corporation of New York about issues related to the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit. World leaders will gather in Washington, D.C., on March 31-April 1 to address the threat of nuclear terrorism and steps toward creating a global nuclear-security system to prevent it. To view all of the posts in the series, visit here. Join the conversation on Twitter at @CarnegieCorp, #NSS2016.

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