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U.N. Meetings Push for Nuclear Safeguards and Test Bans

Elizabeth Whitman

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 23 2011 (IPS) - History is strewn with proof of the destructive capabilities of nuclear weapons and power, yet science is also replete with evidence that nuclear power has many advantages.

How to protect against the dangers of nuclear power while ensuring that humans can safely reap its benefits is an ongoing dilemma that leaders gathered to address in high-level meetings at the United Nations on Thursday and Friday.

The accidents at Fukushima in the wake of an earthquake and tsunami in March of this year and at Chernobyl in 1986 “are a wake-up call”, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday when he opened the summit on nuclear safety.

“The effects of nuclear accidents respect no borders,” he said. He called for strong international consensus and safety standards “to adequately safeguard our people”.

On Friday, over 40 ministers and high-level officials met to discuss the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which 182 countries have joined to date and 155 have ratified. Nine more countries need to ratify the treaty before it can enter into force, including the United States.

Discussions Thursday centred on implications of the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant, which have retrospectively underscored the urgent need for the international community to intensify efforts to improve nuclear safety.

Indeed, recommendations did not operate on the basis that all states will cease to pursue nuclear activities.

Sergio Duarte, high representative for disarmament affairs, said in a ministerial session that while some states have decided to phase out or not to pursue nuclear energy, “other states remain committed to developing and acquiring nuclear power”. As a result, disaster and risk analysis need to be further developed.

A system-wide study, which Ban presented Thursday, on the implications of the incident, demonstrated the extent to which Fukushima remains on international radar, at least in terms of nuclear safety.

It examined both the pros and cons of nuclear energy, pointing out, “Safe and scientifically sound nuclear technologies… are valuable tools for agriculture and food production.”

Nevertheless, an accident releasing radioactive material into the surrounding environment leads to serious “contamination of water, agriculture” and other areas and has “direct implications on the livelihoods of people”.

“The principal lesson of the Fukushima accident is that assumptions made concerning which types of accident were possible or likely were too modest,” the study said. “In order to properly address nuclear security, the international community should promote universal adherence to and implementation of relevant international legal instruments.”

Entry into force: the CTBT

The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is one of those international legal instruments. The observational technology of its International Monitoring System is widely considered valuable and effective at detecting potential violations of the CTBT. Its detection capabilities might also prove useful in the event of a nuclear emergency.

In 1996, the CTBT opened for signature. Ban set 2012 as a target year for it to enter into force, but first, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the U.S. must ratify the treaty.

Entry into force of the CTBT has multiple benefits, leaders said.

It is an “indispensable stepping stone to a nuclear weapon free world”, Ban said during a ministerial meeting Friday. He urged remaining states to sign and ratify the CTBT “without further delay”.

The German foreign minister noted that not only would the entry into force help regional tensions such as in the Middle East and East Asia, but would also “strengthen global peace and security”.

Until the treaty enters into force, however, ratification remains the outstanding challenge.

“These are national decisions,” Toth told IPS, in reference to whether the nine remaining countries ratify the CTBT. “Countries will have to assess for themselves whether they feel that with this treaty they have a safety net below.”

Especially in the Middle East and South Asia, “it’s important that… countries see this treaty as one of the important assets to achieve more security,” he added.

Furthermore, “beyond the political security benefits, there is a wider benefit as well on mitigating complex disasters,” he stated.

Sergio Duarte, high representative for disarmament affairs, agreed. “The decision about whether countries want to add nuclear sources to their energy mix or not is a sovereign decision,” he said in an interview with IPS.

All the U.N. can do, he affirmed, is “promote the treaty and show to (countries) benefits that will accrue from their participation” in CTBT.

The U.N. can convene meetings, pool knowledge and resources, and share ideas. It can arm member states with the knowledge necessary to prevent or deal with nuclear accidents, and it can try to develop frameworks and treaties to the same effect. But ultimately, member states are the ones who implement practices or ratify treaties.

“It’s up to them to decide what they want to do,” Duarte said.

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