Commentary / World

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.