Dan Poneman on the Nuclear Summit and buying time

Speaking in Prague nearly a year ago in an address that was cited by both supporters and critics for its ambition, President Barack Obama pledged America’s commitment to “a world without nuclear weapons.” Supporters of the administration’s approach hailed the speech for reviving a goal that has languished since Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev proposed nuclear disarmament at the Reykjavik summit in 1986. Critics, on the other hand, slammed the prospect of a world without nuclear weapons as naïve and even dangerous insofar as it could destabilize a largely peaceful, if not nuclear-free, status quo. 

Poneman characterized Obama’s remarks in Prague as laying out an “aspirational vision.” But the deputy secretary added that the president recognizes we may not see this vision realized within any of our lifetimes. He noted that the administration’s long-term ambition in the nuclear nonproliferation arena is tempered by realism about what is possible and desirable in the short run. “While we have nuclear weapons, those weapons should be safe, secure and effective,” Poneman said, adding that this agenda has been “under-capitalized” for a long time.

Poneman identified two priorities. The first is securing stocks of highly enriched uranium around the world. President Obama has called for locking down all such nuclear material within four years. The second is preventing terrorists from getting their hands on nuclear material, or what is called “terrorist diversion.”

The deputy secretary noted that these priorities are complicated by the fact that the world could increasingly rely upon nuclear power for its electricity in the future, as the shift away from carbon-based fuels continues. Even if the share of electricity that is fueled by nuclear power stays the same, increased energy use in the future could result in a tripling of the global nuclear fleet by 2050. 

When asked about the threat that a nuclear Iran would pose, Poneman stated that this threat is “of grave significance.” Last October, the deputy secretary joined the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, in Vienna to negotiate a deal that would get 1200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium out of Iran before further enrichment and then returned to Iran for use in a small reactor that produces medical isotopes.

The agreement fell through, but Poneman maintained that Iran, unlike North Korea, is sensitive to diplomatic pressure. He said, “The negotiations in Vienna, I think, made clear that a fault line will now separate Iran from the rest of the world. They have in Tehran responded when there has been a solid international front confronting them. If they persist in that defiance, they will find themselves increasingly isolated.” 

Poneman closed the talk by reminding the audience that, at least in the world of nuclear nonproliferation, no outcome should be viewed as inevitable. President John F. Kennedy famously warned that, barring a dramatic breakthrough in the nuclear nonproliferation regime, there could be as many as 15 to 20 nuclear powers by 1975. Over three decades later, there are still only nine countries that have successfully detonated nuclear weapons.

The deputy secretary cited Kennedy’s mistaken prediction as evidence that the nuclear nonproliferation regime can work. “That’s really what nonproliferation is about,” he said. “It’s often about buying time.”


Kathy Kemper is founder and CEO of the Institute for Education, a nonprofit foundation that recognizes and promotes leadership and civility locally, nationally and in the world community.

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