Prevent a Nightmare from Happening

Nuclear weapons pose a global challenge. Not only its use which though seems rare, any misjudgment or miscalculation relating to weapons of mass destruction presents greater security threat. That is why the former Australian Foreign Minister and a strong advocate of nuclear disarmament, Gareth Evans in his Project-Syndicate piece “Nuclear Illusions” warns that acquisition and possession of nuclear weapons always put our security at risk.

According to him the current stockpile of nuclear weapons globally is 19000 of which two major nuclear powers i. e. the U.S. and Russia hold 18000 and unless these countries show genuine willingness to cut down the size of their arsenals, other will hardly do likewise. Therefore, he sees a serious problem in realizing reduction in nuclear weapons let alone nuclear disarmament, a scenario when the world will be free of nukes.

In further elaborating the reasons for increasing nuclear proliferation under the present circumstances, Gareth Evans cites the fact that even China shares Russian concerns about American conventional and missile-defense superiority. With this very much under consideration China has been busy in increasing and modernizing its estimated 240-weapon stockpile. The writer then presents the examples of India and Pakistan, the two South Asian nuclear competitors. India’s nuclear program has always been China-induced, which means that she has decided to go nuclear in view of China’s nuclear capability. Not surprisingly, Pakistan, India’s arch rival, despite absence of Indo-Pak wars for more than four decades, becomes more determined to try to surpass India in nuclear arms race.

While the ongoing competition in acquiring more sophisticated nuclear weapons is a great hurdle for securing world peace, the issue of safeguarding such weapons of mass destruction has been no less challenging and problematic. Considering the danger associated with nuclear materials (highly enriched uranium and plutonium) used in producing atomic bombs, the international community has decided to organize an “International Conference on Nuclear Security: Enhancing Global Efforts” in Vienna from 1-5 July, 2013.

Yukiya Amano, a Japanese nuclear scientist and the Director-General of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has persuasively urged the world community to seize the opportunity provided by the above conference to ratify the proposed amendment to the “Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material” (CPPNM). As opined by him in his most recent essay “Securing Nuclear Materials” carried by Project-Syndicate, the said amendment to CPPNM would improve current provisions of securing nuclear materials by obliging countries to protect nuclear material when it is being transported internationally, as is the case now.

The 1980 CPPNM was signed at Vienna and New York with a view to establishing measures related to the protection, detection and punishment of offenses relating to nuclear material. The convention is the only international legally-binding undertaking in the area of physical protection of nuclear material.

In 2005 July an international conference was convened the purpose of which was to amend the CPPNM and strengthen its provisions. The amendment proposed then, if implemented, after receiving the required two/thirds ratifications, would make it legally binding for States Parties to protect nuclear facilities and material in peaceful domestic use, storage as well as transport. It also provides for expanded cooperation between and among states regarding rapid measures to locate and recover stolen or smuggled nuclear material, mitigate any radiological consequences of sabotage, and prevent and combat related offenses.

The IAEA Director-General Amano has expressed his concerns for the lack of necessary ratifications to make the improvement amendment to CPPNM effective. He argues through his article “Securing Nuclear Material” that the behavior of States Parties to the CPPNM needs to change if major vulnerabilities are to be addressed successfully. We can hardly disagree with him on this aspect.

The above reality of failing to bring the amendment to CPPNM into force notwithstanding, the international community at the behest of American administration has encouragingly initiated a summit process related to securing nuclear material and radioactive substances. The first of such initiative was seen in April 2010 in Washington Nuclear Security Summit, which was a success due to Obama’s leadership in his first term. The second summit was convened in Seoul in March 2012 and the next is scheduled in the Netherlands in 2014. The first two summits have underlined the urgency of mobilizing multilateral endeavors to effectively deal with the problem of nuclear terrorism, among others.

When we talk about nuclear security it not only covers protection of nuclear ingredients like highly enriched uranium and plutonium but other radioactive substances of the type held in hospitals, factories, and other locations all over the world. The problem here is that such locations including hospitals are not generally as well protected as nuclear installations are.

The IAEA D-G offers an example of Cobalt-60 —-used in radiotherapy, even in small amount of which could inflict serious harm if combined with conventional explosives in a so-called dirty bomb (or otherwise deliberately used to expose the public to dangerous radiation).

Seen from this lens one wonders why Nepal though not a nuclear power aspirant because of her low level of scientific and other related professional manpower and lack of equipment needed to operate a nuclear power plant, is not displaying any desire to join the CPPNM.

Being surrounded by nuclear powers like India and China and despite being a non-nuclear country, she cannot escape the dangers from radioactivity fallout, should an accident like Chernobyl (1986) or Fukushima (2011) occur in her close neighborhood especially India some of whose nuclear power plants are located in states with contiguous borders with Nepal. Nepal’s non-ascension to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material does not necessarily debar her from discharging the duties of a member of the UN and Nepal has also joined the IAEA. So far as protecting the nuclear material in international transportation is concerned, she as a member of the civilized community is obliged to support the implementation of the CPPNM.

As the present International Conference on Nuclear Security; Enhancing Global Efforts in Vienna (1-5 July) offers us an opportunity to strengthen the existing provisions of the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, all the States Parties to the said treaty should not miss the chance to translate good intentions into concrete action by ratifying the 2005 amendment to the convention. Thus we can contribute to preventing a nightmare of horrible consequences of nuclear terrorism from becoming a reality.

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