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New Zealand's security legislation needs attention, writes Dr Tanya Ogilvie-White.

Next week, leaders from around the world will meet in Seoul, South Korea, for the second Nuclear Security Summit. Their goal will be to review the measures that countries have put in place to prevent nuclear terrorism.

New Zealand is taking part in the summit, having earned a place at the table thanks to its regional nuclear security leadership.

Over the past few years, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been funding work under the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism to secure radioactive materials in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

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Last year, senior scientists from the National Radiation Laboratory in Christchurch completed a project in Cambodia, which rendered safe a high-risk radioactive source in the grounds of a hospital in Phnom Penh.

The same scientists have been running Mfat-funded workshops for their counterparts in other parts of Southeast Asia and the Pacific on improving security of medical and industrial radiography sources.

Much of this work has been taking place in close collaboration with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and the Vienna-based World Institute for Nuclear Security, and is part of a much bigger global effort to prevent nuclear and radiological terrorism.

When they show up in Seoul next week, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key will be able to hold their heads high and refer to these activities as evidence their governments have been taking nuclear security commitments seriously.

But Gillard may be able to hold her head a little higher than Key.

The reason is that on February 28 this year, Australia's parliament passed the Nuclear Terrorism Legislation Amendment Act, which imposes penalties of up to 20 years in jail for the misuse of radioactive materials and nuclear facilities.

This will allow Australia to ratify the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, building on its earlier ratification of the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials . These two instruments are lynchpins of the global nuclear security infrastructure, and ratifying and implementing them reinforces Australia's already strong reputation as a leader in the area.

New Zealand has not ratified either instrument, and no decision has been made on enacting legislation to make ratification possible.

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This is a pity in light of New Zealand's excellent record on nuclear security capacity-building in the region, and it is doubly disappointing as the leaders - including Key - who met in Washington DC in April 2010 for the first Nuclear Security Summit called for the universal adoption of these voluntary regulatory instruments.

Countries that have followed through on their pledges of two years ago include Armenia, Georgia, Germany and the United Kingdom. Why not New Zealand?

In fairness, nuclear security obligations have increased dramatically since the attacks of September 11, 2001, shocked many countries into taking action to prevent nuclear terrorism, and many states are finding drafting and implementing the necessary domestic legislation to be burdensome.

It is also true that New Zealand has a very small nuclear infrastructure relative to other states and is one of the few developed states in the world that does not have an operating nuclear research reactor.

So there is perhaps less of a sense of urgency on developing nuclear security measures amid other competing priorities.

In contrast, although it also lacks a nuclear power industry, Australia does produce industrial radioisotopes at the Lucas Heights Science and Technology Centre, 40km southwest of Sydney.

The need to ensure this nuclear facility is not vulnerable to attack or illicit access by terrorists makes nuclear security a more obvious national priority for Australia.

The point is, however, that high risk radioisotopes are widely in use in New Zealand in the industrial and medical sectors (as they are in virtually every country around the world), and for global counter-terrorism efforts to be effective, all states need to demonstrate their commitment to new global standards.

The more states that are seen to be signing up to the relevant international conventions and implementing the appropriate nuclear security measures, the more likely it is that others will follow their lead, and the less likely it is that terrorist groups will be able to acquire materials for use in an improvised nuclear device or dirty bomb.

One hopes that by the time the Seoul Summit convenes on Monday, New Zealand will at least have taken the decision to enact the implementing legislation for the convention on suppressing nuclear terrorism and the amendment to the convention on nuclear materials.

Looking at it from this perspective, surely New Zealand, as a good global citizen, should make this a priority.

Dr Tanya Ogilvie-White is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Canterbury and Consulting Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London. She is co-editor (with David Santoro) of Slaying the Nuclear Dragon: Disarmament Dynamics in the Twenty-first Century, University of Georgia Press, March 2012.