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Japan surrenders part of its nuclear stockpile for disposal

March 24, 2014 at 6:48 PM EDT
Japan said it would relinquish a large cache of weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium -- enough to build dozens of nuclear weapons -- to the U.S. for disposal, just as a nuclear security summit opens at The Hague. Gwen Ifill assesses the deal with Matthew Bunn of Harvard University.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: dismantling the world’s nuclear arsenal.

Japan agreed today it would relinquish enough weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium to make dozens of nuclear weapons. The announcement came as leaders from around the globe gathered in The Hague for a nuclear security summit.

Matthew Bunn, an expert on nuclear proliferation issues at the John F. Kennedy school of government at Harvard University, joins us to explain the day’s developments.

So what led up to this handover, and if, in fact, they were so insecure, this fissile material, then what took so long?

MATTHEW BUNN, Harvard University: Well, this is something the United States has been talking about with Japan for some years.

And I wouldn’t say that it was very insecure in Japan. There have been some important security improvements there in recent years. After the 9/11 attacks, they added armed guards at this site. There have been some more significant security improvements quite recently.

But this is really a tremendous step forward. This is some of the best material for terrorists if they could get their hands on it that exists in states without nuclear weapons. And now we’re going to be getting rid of it entirely. It’s material that’s really the same stuff you would get if you broke into a U.S. nuclear weapons facility, but not with the same kind of security that exists at those facilities here in the United States.

GWEN IFILL: They also — I’m sorry. They also asked today that they would be doing the same — handing over some materials from Belgium and Italy and the U.S. would be taking control of these materials. Does that mean that it’s happening around the world, that there are a lot of locations where this material exists?

MATTHEW BUNN: Well, actually, that’s right.

This is one part of a much larger global effort that’s bringing these 53 countries together in The Hague. So far, just over the last five years, there are 13 countries that have eliminated all of the material on their soil that you could use to make a nuclear bomb. So that represents really in a very real sense bombs that will never go off.

But, at this summit, we’re also seeing a lot of progress in other areas. There are going to be new initiatives where a number of countries agreement to follow IAEA regulations — that’s from the International Atomic Energy Agency — and to accept regular peer review of their securities arrangements.

There’s going to be a new initiative on radiological sources that’s been announced. So there’s really quite a number of major steps that are being taken at this summit.

GWEN IFILL: I have to ask you a really practical question. What happens to this material once it’s handed over? If it’s dangerous there, why isn’t it dangerous here?

MATTHEW BUNN: Well, this is material that is going to be added to large stockpiles that already exist in the United States and already require very serious security.

And then the sides have agreed that the highly enriched uranium will be blended down to low-enriched uranium. You can actually destroy highly enriched uranium so that it’s not useful in nuclear bombs anymore and use it for the standard fuel for nuclear power plants. And the plutonium will be added to whatever measure we eventually manage to figure out for our own stocks of excess plutonium.

GWEN IFILL: Well, fewer — as you said, fewer nations now have this kind of material than had maybe five, even 10 years ago, but which nations still have it that you worry about the most?

MATTHEW BUNN: Well, I would argue — and we argued in a report we just put out from Harvard University a few days ago — that pretty much every one of the dozens of countries where this material still exists has more to do to make sure that it is secure.

There are about 30 countries where this material exists, although, in a handful of them, it’s less than a kilogram. And there are hundreds of buildings. But really the biggest stocks are in the United States and Russia, the two countries that have something like 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons and more than three-quarters of the world’s potential nuclear bomb material.

GWEN IFILL: Who pays for the transfer of this kind of material?

MATTHEW BUNN: Well, Japan will pay the United States a fee for the management of this highly enriched uranium and plutonium.

If past experience is any guide, that fee may not quite cover the full cost. So I would say, my guess is that, in the end, the United States and Japan will end up sharing the cost of managing this dangerous material, but I think that’s a worthwhile investment in U.S. security, because the reality is that insecure nuclear material anywhere is a threat to everyone everywhere.

GWEN IFILL: And, Matthew Bunn, finally, how — how — is there any global agreement that’s being reached about how to track and secure this kind of material overall?

MATTHEW BUNN: Well, that’s really one part of what we need to do as we look toward the next and probably last nuclear security summit that will be happening in Washington or somewhere in the United States in 2016.

We need to put together a stronger global framework for managing nuclear security that includes effective standards, clear accountability to confirm that states are following those standards, and some way of continuing the dialogue so we can maintain momentum in improving nuclear security after we stop meeting at the summit level.

GWEN IFILL: Matthew Bunn of the JFK School at Harvard, thanks so much.

MATTHEW BUNN: Thank you.