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Peacemaker Redux: 2012 Nuclear Security Summit

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Less than 10 minutes left. Timer on a nuclear bomb is ticking down. 47th Street, nearing the UN building. He was once a loving father and a devoted husband. 46th Street. Tears running down his face, he still remembers holding the lifeless body of his daughter, still warm. 45th Street. Almost there. His backpack is getting heavy. 44 East: in it is the bomb that can undo civilization as we know it.

This is a scene from a blockbuster movie, The Peacemaker. I suggest you watch it, if you still haven't. The story goes that a Balkan-based terrorist group smuggles one of the nuclear warheads hijacked in mid-transit from the former Soviet Union into New York City. The two heroes, in this case Dr. Julia Kelly (Nicole Kidman) and Lt. Col. Thomas Devoe (George Clooney), attempt to stop their evil plot and save the city -- and perhaps the world.

Hollywood dramatization aside, of course, nuclear terrorism is not an easy feat, because it takes a whole nation to create a nuclear bomb. But, the situation drastically changes if a terrorist group somehow procures enough fissile material to make a crude device. With its catastrophic devastation that lingers for decades, detonation of even a very primitive type could cause deleterious consequences.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency's Illicit Trafficking Database (ITDB) a total of 2,164 confirmed incidents of unauthorized possessions, trafficking and thefts/loss were recorded in the past two decades. In 2006 a Russian citizen was apprehended in Georgia for attempting to traffic 100 grams of HEU for $1 million. In August 2010 an attempt to smuggle U-238 refined "yellowcake" was uncovered; and in June of last year quantities of U-235 from Moldova were ceased before shipping. Given such frequency, threats of nuclear terrorism are not limited to the imagination of Hollywood screenwriters, but a grim reality.

Since a total of over 2,000 tons of HEU and plutonium exist around the world, President Barack Obama initiated an ambitious undertaking of hosting the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington D.C. in April of 2010. This was a gathering of 47 heads of state and leaders of international organizations committed to work towards securing all vulnerable nuclear materials and safeguarding nuclear materials and facilities under their jurisdictions.

However, nuclear terrorism is only one part, albeit a serious one, of many nuclear related threats that loom over us. Another alarming issue is the question of nuclear safety. Take, for instance, the Fukushima Daiichi accident. Following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan on March 11, 2011, a series of equipment failures, nuclear meltdown and releases of radioactive materials caused serious worries on a global scale.

The world's nuclear power industry, in parallel with individual efforts, has been working hard to put in place enforceable and comprehensive nuclear safety standards or regulatory bodies to safeguard against any accidents. The World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) and international agencies like IAEA function as ad-hoc watchdogs and regulatory entities, but their oversight and authority remain constrained. Compounding the issue is that the currently available nuclear technologies and reactors are made from various origins with different designs and standards. Therefore, the need for broader and higher standards is more salient than ever.

For instance, North Korea's nuclear program, putting aside the questions of weaponization or proliferation, should draw international attention. The nuclear fallout from a possible accident in Yongbyon or in any other sites in North Korea would be devastating for the region and the world.

According to Nuclear Threat Initiative's Nuclear Materials Security Index -- an international benchmarking project to compare nuclear materials security -- North Korea ranked the lowest among the countries with "one kilogram or more of weapons-usable nuclear materials." According to the report, their deficient investments in safety regulation are substandard at best. Also, their lack of international expertise and oversight compounds the uncertainty. The confluence of these two elements, as well as other risks, prescribes a probable recipe for a disaster. Indeed, the recent agreement between the U.S. and the DPRK to freeze Pyongyang's nuclear and missile development programs is the most welcoming first step. But, the issue of nuclear safety should not be overlooked.

The fact of the matter is that despite all these possibilities of danger, nuclear energy provides more benefits than harm, if it is safely harnessed. First, nuclear power is green, unlike other conventional fossil fuel-based plants. Also, reliability and high load factor -- more output per cost of fuel -- are the major contributing factors in stable electricity prices. With relatively low uranium costs and many technological improvements to the plants' efficiency, stable and low electricity cost have contributed significantly to economic development of many countries.

South Korea has been a long beneficiary of nuclear power. As the world's fifth largest country to have nuclear energy generation capacity, Korea is set to become one of the major players in the global nuclear energy and technology. As such, Korea is firmly committed to advancing more efficient and safe nuclear power and strengthening international cooperation on nuclear security and safety.

In late March Seoul hosts the second global nuclear security summit. President Obama and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will be among the 50 heads of state and international organizations attending this largest summit in recent history. They will seek to adopt a list of specific action plans that expand the momentum of nuclear security generated in 2010. Among them is the issue of nuclear safety. Bolstering global nuclear safety architecture would enhance international interface of nuclear safety. It would also make the discussion more comprehensive.

The meeting will also seek to build public confidence in nuclear energy. Undermined by the recent incident, continued advancement of safe and secure civilian nuclear energy is crucial in sustaining the world's economic growth. In fact, most of the nuclear reactors in the world have been resistant to any accident, while danger from lower level of radiation has been a bit exaggerated.

The Seoul summit is the first forum -- at the highest level -- to address these issues. Veritably, the world audience is curious and anxiously awaiting to see how the episodes will turn out to make the world safer.

So yes, it is time to watch The Peacemaker, the redux; and observe what is being played out in this Summit. But, don't forget. Another highly anticipated sequel, the Peacemaker: A Terrorist's Nuclear Ambition, is also in the works.