Time for action on nuclear security

17:14, Mar 22 2014
JOHN KEY: The Prime Minister will be a very small fish in a big pond at the Nuclear Security Summit.

As Europe hovers on the brink of a second Cold War (or so the rhetoric goes), there could not be a better time for more than 50 world leaders to gather to discuss nuclear security.

Prime Minister John Key will join the likes of US President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korea's President Park Geun-hye in the Hague tomorrow.

The Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) was established back in 2009, by Obama, to respond to the threat of nuclear terrorism, and shore up international security systems around fissile materials.

It's the third such meeting. Previous pow-wows failed to realise Obama's ultimate goal: to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials by the end of 2013.

Key was a star-turn at the last summit in Seoul in 2012. In an off-the-cuff address, he cautioned a room chock-full of the world's most powerful, that they would be held to account for failing to stop a nuclear terrorist attack.

The speech clearly made an impact on Obama - who gave Key a shout-out in his closing remarks. He had personally invited him to the first nuclear security summit in Washington in 2010 because of New Zealand's staunch anti-nuclear position.

And since then? Actually, New Zealand,  that shining light of nuclear-free policy, is yet to ratify the Nuclear Terrorism Convention. It pledged to do so in Seoul. Radiation safety legislation is decades old - and the Health Ministry are still drafting a new bill - more than a decade after review.

New Zealand, of course, does not have a nuclear reactor. But like every other country in the world, radioisotopes are used in both medicine and industry.

The Government - particularly as it campaigns for a seat on the UN Security Council - also has an obligation as a global citizen to demonstrate a commitment to counter-terrorism and international standards.

But in the grand scheme none of this matters too much. He's been feted by the Chinese leadership in Beijing this week, but when he steps off the plane in the Netherlands, Key will be a very small fish in a big pond.

All eyes will not be on Key, or even the main event, but a G7 meeting on the sidelines. Leaders from the US, Germany, Britain, Japan, France, Italy and Canada will gather to discuss their response to Russia's moves to absorb Crimea.

With a Russian TV news anchor openly talking about reducing the US into "radioactive dust" with a backdrop image of an explosion,  the issue of nuclear security should be in sharp focus.

But a similar sense of urgency hung over Seoul in 2012, as North Korean prepared to launch a missile just 90 minutes from where the summit was taken place. A year earlier the Fukushima disaster in Japan raised questions about plant security. There was also a spike in the number of attempts to steal weapons-use nuclear material.

A draft communique, reported earlier this year, indicates leaders will call for more action to minimise civilian use of highly-enriched nuclear fuel to keep atomic bombs from the hands of extremists.

Many challenges remain, especially around cross-border co-operation to secure highly-enriched uranium and plutonium.

Ukraine gave up its weapons in the mid-1990s in exchange for international guarantees on security. Events in the last month offer no incentives to Iran and North Korea to go nuclear free.