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President Obama to chair non-proliferation meeting at the United Nations

Fresh from the office of Susan Rice:

On September 24th, the United States intends to convene a head of state-level meeting of the UN Security Council on nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament during the U.S. Presidency of the Council.  The meeting will be chaired by President Obama.  The Security Council has an essential role in preventing the spread and use of nuclear weapons and is also the world’s principal multilateral instrument for global security cooperation.  The session will be focused on nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament broadly and not on any specific countries. Over the next several weeks, we will work closely with members of the Security Council to prepare for this important meeting.

UPDATE: Reader KP makes a good point that September 24 is also the first day of the G-20 in Pittsburgh.  Busy day for the president, it would seem! 

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Will LEU banks have ATMs?

The IAEA's Director, Mohamed ElBaradei, published an op-ed in the Guardian yesterday, outlining five global problems that he sees undermining the goal of nuclear non-proliferation. He also suggests an innovative step that needs to be taken, one that reminded me of Jeffrey Lewis' idea to "multinationalize the fuel cycle."

Last month, I proposed a key measure to strengthen non-proliferation to the IAEA's board of governors – establishing an IAEA bank of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to guarantee supplies to countries that need nuclear fuel for their power reactors. LEU cannot be used to make weapons. Some such mechanism will be essential in the coming decades as more and more countries introduce nuclear energy.

My proposal is to create a physical stockpile of LEU at the disposal of the IAEA as a last-resort reserve for countries with nuclear power programmes that face a supply disruption for non-commercial reasons. This would give countries confidence that they can count on reliable supplies of fuel to run their nuclear power plants, and therefore do not need to develop their own uranium-enrichment or plutonium-reprocessing capability.

I'm enthusiastic about the idea, which would seem to navigate the balance between the legitimate pursuit of nuclear fuel and the unacceptable one of nuclear weapons. But my skepticism comes into play when thinking about whether countries would be willing to come to an international fuel bank for their nuclear energy (one presumably run, or at least provided for, by Western or current nuclear powers), rather than develop it themselves.  It certainly undercuts the rationale of a country that spurns such an international offer, but would the ensuing isolation be enough to dissuade its own nuclear-nationalistic ambitions?

ElBaradei does stress that "[n]o state would be required to give up the right to develop its own fuel cycle," but in that case, I'm struggling to see how this fuel bank would replace the model whereby each country undertakes its own nuclear fuel process, and thereby acquires the potential to develop nuclear weapons. And the problem is that this model is not only dominant today, but it's fraught with nationalistic overtones. Once an issue is made an object of national pride or greatness, as it has in the Iranian case, it's difficult to undo its symbolic importance. So while I'm a proponent of a multinational organization to monitor and even control countries' fuel cycles, I'm not optimistic that this will fully deflate the incentives for beginning one's own nuclear program.

Here's the ArmsControlWonk himself:

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North Korea sanctions

Those sanctions that were tightening (ahead of schedule) on North Korea -- they are tight indeed.  The asset freezes and travel bans hit the officials and companies most directly responsible for the country's nuclear program.  Pyongyang won't react well verbally, to be sure, but they have to be feeling this one in their pocketbooks.

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Statistic of the day

During the past two decades, the quantity of weapons-usable nuclear material safeguarded by the [International Atomic Energy Agency] has increased tenfold without a corresponding growth in funding.

That's from a great article by Richard Weitz at World Politics Review, on the challenges facing incoming IAEA director Yukiya Amano.

The thrust of the piece -- that Amano is facing some really difficult challenges -- underscores a point that we didn't really make in our coverage of the contentious IAEA elections: that whoever its director is, be (s)he from the global North or South, the IAEA's success will depend mostly on the countries that make up its members -- and, of course, donors.

Point is, IAEA countries will have to pony up.  The Obama Administration has requested a twofold increase in funding from the U.S., which is good, so long as it follows through.  It also makes current director Mohamed El Baradei's request for an 11% budget increase seem eminently reasonable.

On the operational side, the countries that aren't meeting their commitments to the agency -- or are flouting them -- need to either fall in line, or face the possibility that the IAEA be strengthened enough to be able to levy automatic sanctions on rule-breakers, which is an option that Weitz raises in his piece.

Let's hope Amano is getting ready for his tenure to begin in November, but, even more so, let's hope that every country -- from the nuclear powers to the nuclear longshots -- will support him more than they have his predecessor.

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Ramases II, rejoice

You did not have arthritis of the spine. Your reputation as a "great warrior" is intact. How do we know? Nuclear power. Specifically:

The United Nations nuclear agency is using its expertise to help archaeologists unearth millennia-old secrets, from the supposed murder of King Tutankhamun to the mysterious death of Great Pharaoh Ramesses II, from Egyptian mummies.


Paleoradiology is a type of science using nuclear technologies – including x-rays and neutron activation analysis – to study artifacts, skeletons, mummies and fossils.

Oh. Science is pretty cool. And the IAEA is about more than just monitoring Iran's nuclear facilities (which, though important, is actually not the only place where the agency works).

(image from flickr user mharrsch under a Creative Commons license)

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Obama, Medvedev pledge to reduce nukes, dress the same

Diplomacy in action:

At a signing ceremony, Obama and Medvedev, wearing identical dark suits, white shirts and red ties, pledged to finalise a treaty by the year-end to cut the number of deployed nuclear warheads on each side to 1,500-1,675 from levels above 2,200.

If they both happened to wear the same thing, then maybe they just happened to choose similar target numbers for warhead reductions.

Of course, that's not how diplomacy is conducted. I have to agree with Matt Yglesias that, in terms of negotiating with Russia, the game of huffing and puffing about topics on which neither side is at all likely to budge is far inferior to conducting negotiations on issues about which the two countries may actually come to an agreement. If one of these happens to be fashion, then so be it.

To read this Wall Street Journal editorial, one might seriously conclude that Medvedev doesn't deserve to wear the power suit that befits an American president.

Here's an idea. Set aside the dime-store national psychoanalysis and return to first American principles and interests. This summit rests on a fiction: That Russia is an equal power to the U.S. that can offer something concrete in return for American indulgence.

Here's the thing. It doesn't matter that Russia is not "an equal power." Nobody this side of the Cold War is disputing that. But it doesn't change the fact that Russia and the United States have some interests in common, and other issues in which they differ, but both have a lot at stake. The way to achieve these "first American principles and interests" is not to rail against Russia's autocracy and heavy-handed role in certain small, independent countries in its orbit (the protection of Georgia's freedom may be important, but an American "principle" of the first order?). Reducing Russia's nuclear stockpile, securing its cooperation in fighting climate change -- these are the concrete goals that the Journal scorns. And it's going to take something much more nuanced than "indulgence" -- and, okay, more substantive than matching suits -- to reach them.

A picture of the two leaders from before their historic agreement to wear suits that are more than just almost identical.

(image from The Official White House Photostream)