Bold new strategies for reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism are unlikely to emerge from a world summit on the issue, an expert tells swissinfo.ch.
Bruno Pellaud, former deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), says despite recent momentum, he is doubtful about further progress on wider nuclear disarmament.
World leaders, including Swiss President Doris Leuthard, are meeting in Washington.
The two-day gathering follows the publication of the US Nuclear Posture Review and the signing of a new Start agreement on limiting nuclear weapons by the US and Russia, and comes ahead of a five-year review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) next month in New York.
Pellaud was a top IAEA official from 1993 to 1999, dealing extensively with North-Korean and Iranian issues. From 2001 to 2009, he was president of the Swiss Nuclear Forum.
He has maintained a key interest in nuclear energy and non-proliferation and presently writes on nuclear issues for the influential American website Huffington Post.
swissinfo.ch: Can we expect audacious new strategies from this summit?
Bruno Pellaud: No. Nothing dramatic will come out and especially nothing about Israel or Iran. It will be about organising the nuclear branch correctly so that nothing can be stolen.
A lot has been done over the past ten years in terms of organising a defence strategy against the theft or misuse of nuclear materials. It will be more about institutionalising agreements between subsets of countries.
swissinfo.ch: Obama talks about “locking down” all nuclear materials over the next four years. Is this realistic?
B.P.: I think so, at least for the 47 countries participating at the meeting, as they are mostly “mature” countries with nuclear activities and materials that are well accounted for.
There are always rumours about Russia, and materials from the former Soviet Union may not be accounted for, but I think Russia has made major progress in that respect.
swissinfo.ch: How urgent is the threat posed by nuclear-armed terrorists?
B.P.: I’m a little bit puzzled as nuclear terrorism has not really hit the headlines so far. There are reports of materials being stolen but only very tiny quantities – milligrams. There are allegedly transcripts from the al-Qaida number two, who was quoted about the need to look at weapons of mass destruction.
But nuclear terrorism is probably too difficult as it takes several hundred people to develop a nuclear weapon. Chemical weapons are easier and biological are even easier.
The nuclear materials of immediate concern are not really related to plutonium or uranium but to simple radioactive materials used everywhere that could be mixed with explosives and create havoc in any city downtown area - so-called “dirty bombs”.
One of these will happen in the next 20-30 years, but the other scare scenarios are not really realistic.
swissinfo.ch: What is your assessment of progress on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty?
B.P.: The NPT is an unbalanced treaty. You have the privileged P5 who sit as permanent members on the UN Security Council and rule the world. They have nuclear weapons by privilege and the other 184 NPT signatories have committed not to develop nuclear weapons and are frequently bullied into restricting their use of nuclear technology.
The NPT also tolerates three states with nuclear weapons outside the treaty – Israel, India and Pakistan. How long will the international community live with a treaty that is basically discriminatory? Something will have to be done.
The two proceeding review meetings in 2000 and 2005 were complete flops. Nothing happened and there was no agreement, even on the agendas, except for calls for further constraints on the use of nuclear technology by non-nuclear weapon states.
These 184 states will not be willing to play ball if the weapon states don’t move ahead on some of the issues written into the treaty – article six states that weapon states should make efforts to reduce their stockpiles and disarmament.
The [forthcoming] NPT conference will be a difficult one as the non-nuclear weapon states are not that eager to be further constrained in their use of nuclear technology.
I don't think much will happen in New York this time.
swissinfo.ch: Why is Swiss President Doris Leuthard attending the Washington summit?
B.P.: She was invited by the US government so obviously she went. Switzerland has a significant nuclear sector – no enrichment or reprocessing industries but five nuclear power plants and laboratories.
Leuthard will have a private meeting with Obama to discuss nuclear issues which will probably be a highlight. She comes from canton Aargau where there are four nuclear power plants and she has spoken about nuclear matters in the past so it’s not foreign territory for her.
And Switzerland, [which has represented US interests in Iran since diplomatic ties between the Americans and Iranians were severed], may report on past efforts by the Swiss ambassador to Tehran concerning the nuclear dossier.
These were very useful contributions to bridging differences, but the gap is now too wide to hope for very much in the short term.
Simon Bradley, swissinfo.ch
NUCLEAR POWER IN SWITZERLAND
Swiss voters accepted in 1957 a constitutional article on nuclear power.
Switzerland's first commercial nuclear plant, Beznau I in canton Aargau, went on line in 1969, followed by four others until 1984.
Nuclear power came in for criticism during the 1970s, preventing the construction of another plant. The project was abandoned in 1988.
Swiss voters rejected demands to end the use of nuclear energy three times between 1979 and 1984. But the Three-Mile Island incident in the US and the Chernobyl catastrophe in Ukraine increased fears about nuclear security.
In 1990, voters approved a ten-year moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power facilities. In 1998, the government decided that Swiss nuclear plants should be shut down.
But in 2000, Switzerland's new CO2 law gave nuclear power, perceived some as a clean source of energy, a second wind. Three years later voters refused a new moratorium or to abandon nuclear power, and in 2005, the new nuclear energy law confirmed that atomic energy is an option.
In February 2007, the cabinet decided to replace existing nuclear power plants and build gas plants to avoid an energy shortfall.