Europe’s role in global nuclear security

by Jasper Pandza, Research Analyst, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

The threat of terrorists using nuclear and radiological materials will be on the agenda when 54 world leaders convene at the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit in less than two months. Twelve EU countries and President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy are set to attend. Denmark, current holder of the separate rotating EU Presidency, is one of three new countries recently invited by the Korean hosts.

European leaders accept that a nuclear or radiological terrorist attack is a real possibility, but they do not allocate quite the same priority to this threat as the US does. So what role should European nations play in strengthening global nuclear security?

European countries have done well in protecting weapons-usable nuclear materials from illicit access, and in complying with nuclear security treaties and guidance. But nuclear security conditions can also be improved in Europe. France is a case in point; it has not ratified core international agreements, like the 2005 CPPNM Amendment, and nuclear materials are handled at a many sites across the country.

Indeed, the most important role Europe can play is to set a good example. For countries that have not yet invested sufficient resources in protecting their nuclear and radiological materials, it is essential that developed states adhere to nuclear security instruments and best-practices. Some countries associated with the Non-Aligned Movement primarily see nuclear security regulations as a hurdle to their nuclear energy ambitions. But the EU could help to demonstrate that taking nuclear security seriously does not hinder nuclear energy programmes. EU countries should also boost the IAEA’s Nuclear Security Fund, which relies on voluntary commitments, and share nuclear security know-how and capacities through the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. Numerous countries, especially in Central Asia, have increased their nuclear detection and forensics capacities in that way.

Nuclear energy is an essential part of the EU’s energy mix, producing about a third of its electricity. If Europe wants to keep the nuclear energy option open for the future, then the European public must see nuclear energy as both safe and secure, at home and abroad. Surveying the damage from the Fukushima accident, it’s clear that the social and economic consequences of a possible nuclear sabotage attack would be immense and hard to mitigate. Amid public pressure after the accident, a pro-nuclear German government decided to discontinue its nuclear energy programme by 2022. Admittedly, the German anti-nuclear movement has a long history and Fukushima was a powerful catalyst rather than the sole reason. But Italy decided by referendum to stay non-nuclear and other countries followed suit with similar decisions.

From the 2012 summit preparatory meetings an agreement to minimise the use of highly enriched uranium in civilian applications seems very likely. One can hope for further tangible summit outcomes. But nuclear security summits are unlikely to continue for much longer as dedicated, bi-annual meetings attended by heads of government. Eventually, potential for reaching meaningful agreements at those meetings may peter out and, frankly, the process places a burden on national administrations. At that stage, nuclear security may need to be integrated into a different international process such as the GICNT or the G20 meetings. Whatever choice is made, European governments play an important role in making sure nuclear security remains a high international priority.


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