During the Seoul Summit, world leaders called for strong action to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism. “Nuclear terrorism continues to be one of the most challenging threats to international security…….Defeating this threat requires strong national measures and international cooperation,” said the Seoul communiqué. The summit has urged all countries to accede to international conventions on protecting fissile material, and reaffirmed the central role of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Meanwhile, the participating states tried to create a synergy in their effort towards nuclear security by sharing the best practices.

“At least four terror groups…….have expressed determination to lay hands on a nuclear weapon,” said Kenneth Luongo, the Co-Chair of Fissile Materials Working Group, a Washington-based coalition of nuclear security experts. The nuclear materials stored at research facilities, healthcare centres, power plants etc, are generally considered less secure than weapons at military installations. Last year's meltdown at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant also shows how terrorists could launch a radiation hazard simply by sabotaging a facility's functions.

The materials used to make nuclear bombs are stored in different buildings spread across dozens of countries. Even if a fraction of it falls in the hands of terrorists, it could be disastrous. Evidence by Illicit Trafficking Database (ITDB) indicates that it is much easier to possess, steal and traffic materials for Radiological Dispersal Devices (RDDs), or ‘dirty bomb’; these devices can be assembled with relative ease. Building a nuclear weapon is not easy, but a bomb similar to the one that destroyed Hiroshima is "very plausibly within the capabilities of a sophisticated terrorist group," according to Matthew Bunn, an Associate Professor at Harvard University.

The participants of the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington were able to evolve an international consensus about the seriousness of this threat; they agreed to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide by the end of 2014. The Washington Summit underlined the need for putting in place minimum security standards for all nuclear reactors, plants, hospitals and research laboratories.

Likewise, the Seoul Summit focused on a framework of 11 core issues: Global nuclear security architecture; role of the IAEA; nuclear materials; radioactive sources; nuclear security and safety; transportation security; combating illicit trafficking; nuclear forensics; nuclear security culture; information security; and international cooperation. The summit agreed to work on securing and accounting for all nuclear material by 2014. While the UN Security Council Resolution 1540 calls upon member states to adopt “effective, appropriate” security standards, and the IAEA shares appropriate best practices, the summit has attempted to provide operational mechanism for implementing these generalities.

While the threat of nuclear terrorism has considerably reduced than a decade ago, the nightmare scenario of a terrorist exploding a nuclear bomb in a major city is not necessarily a farfetched stuff. The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a Washington-based non-proliferation group that tracks the security of world nuclear stockpiles, said in a January report that “32 countries have weapons-usable nuclear materials.” Some countries, such as the United States, maintain strict control already. However others, including former Soviet Republics, have struggled to secure their stocks, raising fears of "loose nukes" falling into the hands of terrorist groups.

Some countries on the NTI list are a concern because of their government's ties with militant groups or because of corruption among their officials. Others simply, do not yet have good safety practices. 

Despite India’s insistence that its nuclear materials are secure, the NTI ranked it among the top five nuclear security risks saying the government needs more transparency and independence for its nuclear regulator and tighter measures to protect nuclear material in transit. India's lax security was displayed in at least two incidents in recent years in which radioactive materials, from a hospital and a university laboratory, ended up in a scrap dealer's shop. Other recent nuclear scares include a suspected attempt by a crime syndicate in the Eastern European country of Moldova to sell weapons-grade uranium to buyers in North Africa.

North Korea and Iran are viewed with worry because of the fear of nuclear proliferation. But Bunn said that both are "likely small parts of the nuclear terrorism problem. North Korea has only a few bombs' worth of plutonium in a tightly controlled garrison state…….Iran has not begun to produce weapons-usable material."

One of the key points in the communiqué was an emphasis on the need to secure stocks of highly enriched uranium (HEU), which is used to make weapons and has usages in nuclear power plants and medical devices. The communiqué called for the nations to minimise the use of HEU, stressed for effective inventories/tracking mechanisms for nuclear material, and development of forensic capacities to determine its source.

The leaders also welcomed “substantive progress” on national commitments made at the first Nuclear Security Summit in 2010. This included the disposal of 480 kilograms of HEU (equivalent of 19 nuclear weapons) from eight countries. Ukraine and Mexico have cleaned out all stockpiles of HEU, while Russia and the United States have converted HEU equivalent to 3,000 nuclear weapons down to low-enriched uranium.

Experts are of the opinion that modest progress had been made in Seoul and many of the tough issues to fully solve the problem were addressed because the participants were unwilling to make binding and transparent agreements. “The current nuclear material security regime is a patchwork of unaccountable voluntary arrangements that are inconsistent across borders…….Consistent standards, transparency to promote international confidence, and national accountability are additions to the regime that are urgently needed,” said Luongo.

The communiqué also omitted a reference to the need for “concrete steps” towards a world without nuclear weapons, a phrase which had been included in an earlier draft statement. A Seoul government official told the media (on condition of anonymity) that some nations had been uncomfortable about expanding the scope of the summit into nuclear weapons reduction and disarmament, and the call for concrete steps.

The Republic of Korea has done a commendable job in steering the conference in a prudent way. One of its striking features is that the conference agenda was kept away from multilateral politics and a consensual approach was adopted. The summit succeeded in creating a shared space for discussion and coordination.

Pakistan has keenly participated in the nuclear security summits. This indicates its continuity of resolve and abiding commitment to the cause. Since the Washington Summit, Pakistan has set up centres of excellence for training and emergency response mechanisms; upgraded physical protection arrangements; and revised export control lists. Following the Fukushima accident, it has conducted thorough stress tests of its nuclear power plants and is in the process of deploying Special Nuclear Materials (SNM) portals on key entry and exit points to prevent illicit trafficking of radioactive materials.

Pakistan is fully committed to continue working at the national level to maintain the highest standards of nuclear security and cooperate with the international community for achieving a secure and peaceful world.

n    The writer is a retired Air Commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force. At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College and Quaid-i-Azam University.