Nuclear peril should galvanize Asian leadership

by Nobumasa Akiyama, Shahriman Lockman, Tanya Ogilvie-White, Manpreet Sethi and Chang-hoon Shin

It’s no secret that nuclear dangers are mounting in Asia. Nuclear weapons arsenals are growing, nuclear power programs are expanding, and fissile and radioactive materials — which could be used to target innocents anywhere — are used, stored and transported throughout our region, sometimes in insecure conditions. It’s a discomfiting picture, and contrary to what skeptics would have us believe, it’s not an exaggerated one. We should be putting pressure on our political leaders to accept their responsibility to address our concerns before a nuclear catastrophe happens.

This week an opportunity exists for them to be pro-active in the face of nuclear dangers as leaders from around the world gather Monday and Tuesday in the Netherlands at the world’s third Nuclear Security Summit to agree on actions that should be taken to reduce nuclear risks across the globe. What are these risks?

Let’s travel across the Asian nuclear landscape with our eyes wide open. First stop: Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state with the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenal and military stockpile of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium (Pu). It is believed that there are Islamist sympathizers among its military, and a number of terrorist organizations operating from its soil. The risks of nuclear sabotage and theft at Pakistan’s military and civilian sites must not be underestimated.

Heading south to India, the nuclear landscape is marginally better. New Delhi too is in the process of building its credible deterrence and the stockpile of weapons-usable HEU and Pu is growing. India also has an ambitious nuclear power program with 21 nuclear power reactors already operational, more being built, and also a new reprocessing facility at Kalpakkam. Physical and material security at the increasing numbers of sites must be of the highest standard, given that threats could emerge from within the country or across the border.

Onward to China, where the nuclear arsenal may be growing more slowly (creeping up from 240 to an estimated 250 nuclear warheads since the 1980s) but where a massive expansion of nuclear energy is under way. Currently 17 nuclear reactors are operational, more than 25 are under construction, and several more are planned by 2020. Indeed, China has by far the most ambitious nuclear power program in the world. While countries in Asia have a rationale for expanding nuclear energy to meet their rising electricity needs, the demands that this imposes on nuclear security must not be taken lightly.

Across the border, the Korean Peninsula is another nuclear hot spot. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and reports that it is continuing to operate its reactors, combined with complete opacity in how the nuclear material and facilities are being secured, and doubts over the state of the regime, raise worrying scenarios. Moreover, although the nuclear landscape in South Korea is currently benign from a weapons point of view, the nuclear energy program is certainly ambitious, raising the same nuclear security concerns as elsewhere.

Our next stop, Japan is scarred by the events triggered by the earthquake and tsunami three years ago. There are no nuclear weapons here, but this is home to a stockpile of weapons-usable plutonium and the largest quantity of civilian HEU in Asia. It’s fair to say that nuclear vulnerabilities abound. Indeed, the Fukushima crisis exposed a culture of complacency and public confidence in nuclear energy is yet to be re-established.

Countries in Southeast Asia must also be a part of our itinerary since many of them are contemplating nuclear programs. Currently, public safety concerns are restraining plans for nuclear power, but even so, Vietnam intends to build and operate more than 10 nuclear reactors by 2030. In time, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines may follow a similar path.

The reality for the world, not just for Asia, is that nuclear weapons and nuclear energy will be part of our lives for the foreseeable future, with all the risks that this entails. Of course, civilian applications of nuclear technology have many benefits for humanity, but acknowledging that fact shouldn’t tempt us to downplay the dangers.

Our political leaders need to open their eyes to this and accept responsibility for it. We hope they will candidly discuss concrete ways of strengthening capacity to secure nuclear materials across our region. For that, confidence and security building is essential. Despite the difficult political climate, there is no option but to cooperate, to prevent Asia from becoming an epicenter of another nuclear catastrophe. Each state, whether it is a nuclear weapon state or not, should make extraordinary efforts to increase national accountability for their nuclear programs according to accepted international benchmarks.

Nobumasa Akiyama is a professor at the School of International and Public Policy, Hitotsubashi University. Shahriman Lockman is a senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), Malaysia. Tanya Ogilvie-White is research director at the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament at Australian National University and Fissile Materials Working Group regional representative for the Asia-Pacific. Manpreet Sethi is a senior fellow at the Center for Air Power Studies, India. Chang-Hoon Shin is director of the Nuclear Policy & Technology Center, Asan Institute for Policy Studies, South Korea. This article first appeared in The Star newspaper in Malaysia.

  • Hell Boy

    I think the writer has not gone through the recent report published by NTI in which Pakistan has scored much regarding the troubling score Indian’s gained for the safety and security of nuclear weapons. A country whose nuclear weapons are out of the NPT agenda, securing their ambitious role. Where, thousands of protestors are united against KKNPP. Where, their engagement relations with US in nuclear cooperation has given them the nuclear liability issue. Where, every month a nuclear submarine met with accidents. Lastly I would like to make a notice that Pakistan increases national accountability for their nuclear programs according to accepted international benchmarks.

  • Zeenia

    The above account is a good read with respect to the ongoing nuclear security summit. No doubt threat of nuclear terrorism has arisen since the inception of terrorist activities. And there is a dire need to strengthen the safety and security mechanisms in order to avoid the chances of nuclear material sabotage. But author has become a bit discriminatory in handling and settling the Asian countries on the safety and security caliber like Pakistan I personally think It is a responsible nuclear power and has maintained its safety and security establishment up to the international standards which depicts the devotion and concerns of the country. Efforts of Pakistan must not be undermined as it is running its nuclear program under safety and security shelter and in a much better way than other countries.

  • tipu

    Wikileaks claims that Hindu extremists are a great threat to the world peace, which is much bigger than Al-Qaeda or Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. It further conveys that the Indian nuclear program is emerging as a real peril for the world due to the increasing cases of theft from Indian nuclear installations and because the Indian nuclear scientists are the easiest victims to the Hindu extremists.

  • tipu

    As to the Naxalites Movement, the Indian intelligence agency RAW had reported 20,000 armed cadre Naxalites, in addition to 50,000 regular cadres, to be operating in India. Even, their growing influence forced the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to declare them as the most serious internal threat to India’s national security, while fearing that these extremists could take over Indian nuclear installations and thus, could easily blackmail the world. Still, various atomic plants like Uranium Processing Plant, Uranium Cooperation of India Ltd, Taljir Heavy Water Plant and Institute of Physics are present in the area which is under Naxalites’ custody. To boot, there are many atomic scientists who seem to have their sympathies with Naxalites and are secretly helping them in the illegal trade of Uranium.
    Moreover, more than 75% of Indian nuclear installations are present in the areas where Hindu extremists are in action; also some Indian missile Installations are placed in those areas where separatists are running movements, like Sikhs are operating in “Khalistan”, Chandi Gharh; besides, Pritivi missile stock is instituted in Jammu Kashmir.

  • Sophia

    Pakistan labelled as “most improved nation” for nuclear
    security according to NTI index which is appreciable. This also drops off all
    the worries also of international community towards Pakistan. Asia is dominant
    with nuclear but what about the rest of the world? The nuclear is not limited
    to this region only. Yes, we have nuclear threats all around. This NSS 2014 is
    being aimed to address the global security issues in the presence of nuclear
    domain. For the success, there is a dire need to be unbiased and non-hypothetical
    about the development and possession of nukes by the states.

  • Algore

    It is very interesting to know that people often neglect the real reason for South Asian nuclear arms race. We need to identify the core reason of southasian nuclearization. Indian nuclear program and nuclear test of 1974 has compelled Pakistan to respond in similar way. Even Pakistan has asked India to make South Asia nuke free zone but India refused. Today, it is prime responsibility of International community to restrict India from further nuclear developments as these steps further provokes other states to respond in same way.