Australia urges vigilance in face of nuclear threats

US President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the nuclear summit in Seoul. [AFP]
PHOTO

US President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the nuclear summit in Seoul. [AFP]

Naomi Woodley and staff

Last Updated: Tue, 27 Mar 2012 20:26:00 +1100

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has used key talks in South Korea to call on countries to be more accountable about the safety and security of their nuclear material.

After days of preamble about North Korea and its plans to launch a satellite with a long-range rocket, 52 leaders and delegates at the nuclear summit in Seoul got down to the business of preventing nuclear material getting into the hands of terrorist or extremist groups.

In her main speech to the representatives, Ms Gillard also proposed greater powers for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

"We need to determine how we can further empower the International Atomic Energy Agency to continue its important work beyond 2014," she told the summit.

She also told delegates Australia had met the commitments made two years ago to ratify an anti-nuclear terrorism convention and to allow the IAEA to inspect the Lucas Heights reactor in Sydney next year.

"For some countries, of course, there are big strides forward that they can make," she said.

"For us, because we start from a high base, we are identifying significant practical steps forward. They are small steps, but that's because we do start from a high base."

Australia will also help other nations in the Asia-Pacific region do their part by hosting a forum on security standards.

"Best-practice discussions with our region can include the fact that we are at the forefront of using technology, so that you use low enriched uranium rather than more highly enriched uranium," she said.

"We have made that switch so we have a capability of explaining the ability to not have the highly enriched uranium but use uranium of a lower grade, so that's important.

"Second, we are at the forefront of capability in forensic technology to detect illicit nuclear material - we can share that."

In her official speech to the summit behind closed doors, Ms Gillard suggested that domestic security relationships could be peer-reviewed for more accountability and proposed better cooperation between governments, industry and NGOs.

Some of those in the room said her remarks were very well received.

Nuclear terrorism

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama, who initiated the first nuclear security summit in Washington in 2010, said much progress had been made in the two years since.

But he said it was still possible for terrorist groups to acquire enough material to make a nuclear weapon or dirty bomb.

"Too many bad actors in search of these dangerous materials and these materials are still vulnerable in too many places," he said.

He told the summit the threat posed by groups could not be overstated.

"It would not take much - just a handful or so of these materials to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people - and that's not an exaggeration, that's the reality that we face," he said.

"As a consequence of this summit, more commitments will be made - more real, tangible steps. As a consequence, more of our citizens will be safer from the danger of nuclear terrorism."

While the summit focused on nuclear terrorism, North Korea's nuclear program loomed large over the event.

All eyes on North Korea

Pyongyang's plan to launch a satellite using a long-range missile next month - in breach of a UN ban and a US food aid deal - dominated discussions on the summit's sidelines.

Earlier, Chinese president Hu Jintao told Mr Obama he was taking North Korea's nuclear program very seriously. The two leaders met on the sidelines of the Seoul summit.

Ms Gillard repeated her call for North Korea to abandon the plan.

"Whilst the North Korean regime is a difficult regime for anyone to influence, countries with the best ability to influence it, like China, need to use their efforts to get North Korea to step back," she said.

Ms Gillard will return to Australia on Wednesday.

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