Tireless quest for nuclear security

Tireless quest for nuclear security
Obama and PM Lee at the Nuclear Security Summit, 25 March 2014.

The ownership of nuclear weapons by some states, and their suspected possession or development by others, is a threat to all of humanity. The only safeguard is that the leaders of these nations do realise just how dreadful an instrument of destruction they possess, and how its use on a fellow member of the nuclear club would invite a response that could be devastating enough to nullify strategic gains. Responsible governments worry about the proliferation of nuclear weapons which dilutes the culture of restraint that comes with being a nuclear-armed state.

No such restraint, of course, exists among ruthless terrorists who wish to overturn the global status quo by getting their hands on vulnerable nuclear materials. Reassuringly, these non-state actors and their potential for carrying out nuclear terrorism featured in the communique of the Nuclear Security Summit, held at The Hague this week. The grouping of 53 countries and four international organisations reiterated the life-and-death importance of efforts to prevent terrorists, criminals and other unauthorised players from acquiring nuclear materials that could be used in nuclear weapons. Technical experts, working under political leaders willing to fund the effort, will need to maintain stringent security protocols. This is a gargantuan task given that nearly two million kg of plutonium and highly enriched uranium (raw materials for a nuclear weapon) are spread across 25 countries.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's presence at the summit registered the importance of nuclear security for a small, densely populated country that is also a trans-shipment hub. He announced that Singapore would toughen its laws to prevent and punish criminals who steal, smuggle or misuse nuclear substances. This would be done before it accedes to the Convention for the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials. Practical steps such as these give tangible shape to the quest for nuclear security. Then, there is the issue of nuclear power. The danger that its generation poses is enshrined in terrible memories of the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in the United States, the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl in the then Soviet Union, and the 2011 accident at Fukushima in Japan. Yet, nuclear energy plays an indispensable role in diversifying energy sources and reducing dependence on oil - especially when uncertainty over its availability and price can wreak havoc on the global economy. Indeed, nuclear energy might well be the survival fuel of the post-hydrocarbon age. The challenge here, as elsewhere on the nuclear field, lies in countries abiding by rules that make nuclear energy a safe and environmentally friendly alternative to traditional sources.

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