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Nuke momentum slowed in 2011, but...

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14 December 2011 18:20

2011 was not a brilliant year for the three nuclear S's: safety, security and safeguards.

It was a bad year for non-proliferation. Witness the progression of Iran's 'peaceful' nuclear program, recently documented by the IAEA as conducting activities relevant to the development of nuclear weapons. It was also a bad year for nuclear energy and safety, following the terrible Fukushima crisis in March.

Disarmament negotiations between the two major possessors of nuclear weapons, the US and Russia, are not progressing much, and certainly do not match the ambition of President Obama's 2009 Prague speech, which committed the US to a vision of a world without nuclear weapons.

In Australia, following a flurry of activity supporting the work of the Australia-Japan sponsored International Commission for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), not a great deal of follow-up is visible from the Australian Government. 

And despite the high profile efforts of the so-called 'Four Horsemen' (Henry Kissinger, Bill Perry, Sam Nunn and George Shultz, who in 2007 called for nuclear weapons abolition in the Wall Street Journal) and President Obama's Prague speech, the world's concerns are focused on matters such as global warming, the financial crisis, the Arab spring and food and energy security. There does not seem to be much space for worrying about the world's nuclear dangers.

And yet nuclear dangers are ever present, and growing, with potentially catastrophic consequences. 

Globally, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has come out of its closet of policy neutrality to take up the cause of global abolition. A network of senior leaders in Europe (the European Leaders Network for Multilateral Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament or ELN) and now another in Asia have also sought to keep the momentum going. 

On 12 December the Asia Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (APNL), comprising 31 leaders of different political persuasions from fourteen regional countries and chaired by former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, issued a statement of commitment to reduce nuclear dangers in the region.

As global economic and strategic weight shifts to Asia, our region is increasingly vulnerable to strategic instability and nuclear tensions. Asian strategic rivalries present a real threat for nuclear proliferation and the region's insatiable appetite for energy will make Asia the main locus for growth in nuclear power, notwithstanding the Fukushima disaster.

The APNL statement contains much that is familiar. It also refreshes some good ideas, such as the proposal for an Asian Nuclear Energy Community to further regional collaboration and to promote high standards in non-proliferation, security and safety, an idea promoted by the Lowy Institute's Visiting Fellow John Carlson. John and I have frequently argued that Australia cannot be a regional or international driver of nuclear diplomacy while Australian expertise and infrastructure is on the decline. It is a deficit which needs urgent attention.

Our Nuclear Policy Centre writes regularly on Asia's nuclear future. Like the APNL and ELN networks, the Institute's nuclear policy work has received support from the Nuclear Security Project of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, co-chaired by former Senator Nunn and CNN founder Ted Turner.

In 2008 Rory Medcalf wrote on the need to build an Asian regional order based on nuclear restraint and no-first-use, and the role Australia can play. In the same year, the late Andrew Symons wrote on how to manage security and safeguards challenges arising from the expansion of nuclear energy into Southeast Asia. More recently we have run a blog debate and workshops on extended nuclear deterrence in Asia, to be published as a book in 2012. All our nuclear work can be found on the Institute's Nuclear Policy Centre page.

Building a global constituency is a critical element in keeping the urgent need to reduce global nuclear dangers top of mind. It's good to see that the networks of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, senior leaders in Asia and Europe and the Lowy Institute are all on the case!

Photo by Flickr user IAEA Imagebank.

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