What the Nuclear Security Summits mean for South Africa

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WPS Sidhu provides an in-depth analysis of South Africa’s nuclear position and the ramification of Nuclear Security Summits on South Africa 

The Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) process – to prevent non-state actors, particularly terrorists, from acquiring nuclear material – was launched with fanfare in 2010 by US President Barack Obama with a single ambitious objective ’to secure all vulnerable nuclear material in four years‘. Six years and four summits later – the last of which concluded this month in Washington DC – this aim has not been achieved, despite substantial progress being made towards the target.

Since the NSS process began, over 175 tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) – enough for nearly 7,000 nuclear weapons – has been removed or down blended (mostly from Russia); 30 countries have eliminated all HEU from their territory; and radiation detection equipment has been installed at 329 international border crossings, airports, and seaports – including in South Africa – to prevent, detect and respond to trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive material. Additionally, South Africa and 102 other UN members have signed the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism(ICSANT). Finally, the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM), with the 2005 amendment, has now received adequate ratifications and is expected to enter into force on 8 May 2016, although South Africa is yet to ratify the amended convention.

At the inaugural NSS meeting in 2010, South Africa was one of the first countries to have converted its SAFARI-1 reactor (which produces molybdenum-99, a crucial medical radioisotope) from HEU to low-enriched uranium. Moreover, in 2011 as part of a bilateral agreement 6.3 kilograms of US-origin spent HEU fuel was removed from a South African research facility.

However, an estimated 1,400 tons of HEU and nearly 500 tons of plutonium – enough for about 200,000 simple fission-type nuclear bombs – is still held by more than 30 countries, including South Africa. In fact, according to the International Panel on Fissile Material, South Africa is one of ten non-nuclear weapon states to hold significant amounts of HEU in its civilian stocks. While the exact amount is unknown, South Africa is reported to possess several hundred kilograms of HEU – more than what is held by even India, Israel and Pakistan – at its Pelindaba Nuclear Research Centre.

The safety and security of this stockpile has come under close scrutiny following the 2007 raid on the Pelindaba facility by armed intruders, who gained access to the emergency control centre and shot one employee. As part of the NSS process President Obama has been trying to convince President Jacob Zuma to down blend the HEU but so far South Africa has not acquiesced to the request. Instead the South African statement noted, ’South Africa will continue to work together with the international community to enhance nuclear security‘ and stressed the installation of radiation portal monitors as well as a security audit of one of its facilities by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. These measures are crucial as South Africa plans to expand its civilian nuclear programme in future.

Moreover, though the absence of Russian President Vladimir Putin from the last summit (over strategic differences with the US) was taken as a snub, the absence of President Zuma was not. While President Zuma’s ongoing domestic political troubles was the immediate cause, it is likely that South Africa has downgraded its participation in the last two summits for a number of reasons.

First, Pretoria is unwilling to down blend its HEU stocks at the moment and did not want to feel pressured at the NSS meetings. Second, South Africa, like the other BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) members regards the NSS process merely as political support for the work of multilateral bodies, particularly the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); it considers the NSS to be in the service of the IAEA and not the other way around.

Finally, reports suggest that the group which carried out the Brussels attacks – just a week before the last NSS meeting – were also tracking a scientist working for Belgium’s Nuclear Research Centre and might have been planning to acquire nuclear material to make a ‘dirty bomb’, which though using conventional explosives, would spread deadly radiological material in a blast. Additionally, reports also allege that the group might have been planning an attack on one of Belgium’s seven nuclear power plants. Thus, despite the NSS efforts terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities have not been eliminated even in countries like Belgium. As the South African statement (echoing several other national statements) warned, ’Our own Continent has also been a regular target for terrorist attacks. It is clear that such incidents could occur anywhere in the world: in developing or developed countries, and in nuclear weapon or non-nuclear weapon States.’

These achievements and challenges underline several key lessons from the NSS process. First, because the NSS is narrowly focused on the threat of non-state actors acquiring nuclear material, it took great initiative on the part of the US to launch such a ‘forcing event’. For example, countries without nuclear reactors at present or nuclear weapons, such as Azerbaijan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, did not see how this threat applied to them. It is unlikely that any other leader could have led a similar project. This indicates, as Obama boasted, that even in the multi-polar era the world is dependent on US leadership.

However, as the failure of the process to secure all nuclear material in four years and the absence of President Putin, President Zuma and President Dilma Roussseff of Brazil reflects, there are limits even to what the US leadership can achieve. Besides, the fact that the 2012 and 2014 summits were held in South Korea and the Netherlands respectively – both US allies from the developed world – indicates that Washington is still not able to find willing partners for its initiatives in the global south or even among the BRICS members.

Second, some countries – like South Africa – argue that the NSS process only deals with nuclear material in civilian facilities and not the military nuclear facilities, which account for about 83%t of all nuclear material. This is disputed by others – like India and China – who assert that the NSS Communiqués along with the ICSANT and UN Security Council resolution 1540 deal with all nuclear material – civilian and military. Indeed, the official 2016 NSS communiqué categorically states: ‘We reaffirm the fundamental responsibility of States, in accordance with their respective obligations, to maintain at all times effective security of all nuclear and other radioactive material, including nuclear materials used in nuclear weapons, and nuclear facilities under their control.’ This difference of opinion among the BRICS might be on account of the CPPNM 2005 amendment, which states: ‘This Convention shall not apply to nuclear material used or retained for military purposes or to a nuclear facility containing such material.’ Perhaps that is why South Africa has been reluctant to ratify the 2005 amendment and is also highlighting military nuclear faculties, of which it has none.

What is not in dispute, however, is that the danger posed by forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons, particularly by Pakistan, Russia and the US, has not been addressed and needs to be remedied.

Although the nuclear summits have run their course, their work is now being passed on to several international institutions that South Africa is keen to empower, including the IAEA and the United Nations. Pretoria needs to work with other countries, especially the BRICS, to ensure that they are able to build a common approach and provide leadership to secure all vulnerable nuclear material. Anything less would perpetuate the danger.

Related: Brookings India roundtable discusses India’s nuclear security concerns

This article first appeared in SAIIA.ORG.ZA on April 13, 2016. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.