The Nuclear Security Summit that just ended Friday in Washington, D.C. discussed several thorny nuclear proliferation and terrorism issues. While over 50 countries attended, the two countries on everyone’s mind were China and Russia.
China, because they have started on the world’s largest nuclear build-up in 50 years. And Russia, because they decided not to attend at all.
The fourth Nuclear Security Summit, in the series begun by the Obama administration, showcased definite successes, particularly the significant global reduction in nuclear weapons, the global reduction in nuclear material stockpiles, the increased security on nuclear facilities, the dozen countries that are now free of weapons-grade materials, a newly-amended nuclear protection treaty, and the historic nuclear deal with Iran that has, so far, gone as planned.
Potential nuclear terrorist threats persist, not surprising given recent Brussels attack and the terrorist’s surveillance of nuclear scientists and facilities.
However, terrorist threats are still much less likely than state threats, such as North Korea and Pakistan, or the possibility of a new nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
The absence of Russia was troubling from several perspectives. They have the most nuclear weapons and nuclear materials in the world and they are a key player in the success of the Iran nuclear deal.
But Russia’s economy continues to deteriorate, leading to crumbling nuclear infrastructure and a lack of funding for nuclear scientists and inspectors. Corruption and organized crime are endemic which leads to fears of nuclear materials smuggling.
But with respect to China, there was both good and bad. China is committed to help thwart nuclear terrorism and rogue states, nuclear safety and security.
China and the U.S. issued a joint statement on nuclear security cooperation, committing each country to working together to “foster a peaceful and stable international environment by reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism and striving for a more inclusive, coordinated, sustainable and robust global nuclear security architecture for the common benefit and security of all.”
The failure to restrain North Korea, and China’s military build-up in the South China Sea, caused some anxiety at the summit. Even though President Xi has declared that China would not pursue militarization of these strategic waterways.
China plans to spend over a trillion dollars to become the world’s largest producer of nuclear power. They will build 40 new reactors by 2020, another hundred by 2030, and over 200 additional reactors by 2050. Their new Five-Year Plan puts China on track to meet this ambitious schedule.
The rush to expand nuclear power comes from China’s tremendous air pollution from existing coal-fired power plants. Coupled with the need to double their energy production in order to move the rest of their population into the middle class.
Not only does China want to replace its old coal fleet with new nuclear, it wants to become the leading exporter of nuclear technology as well, including heavy components in the supply chain where the real global bottleneck on nuclear expansion is. Their recent nuclear deals in the U.K. and Europe are indications that this path is bearing fruit.
China is expanding its sophisticated conventional weapons, modernizing its nuclear arsenal, deploying new mobile land-based missiles, and constructing a submarine fleet for their new ballistic missiles that will be launched from sea. In addition, China is testing long-range high-precision conventional weapons and multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle technology.
The U.S. intelligence community predicts that in 20 years, China will be the largest nuclear nation in the world, producing over a trillion kWhs a year from nuclear power, will have almost a billion middle class, and will have sufficient nuclear weapons to deter even the United States.
This calls for a need to develop a truly global nuclear security system that draws in all countries of the world, superpowers and rogues. And one that will last well beyond the Obama Presidency.