Obama summit's goal: keep nuclear weapons away from terrorists

The security summit that begins in Washington Monday aims to ensure that nuclear weapons and weapons-grade materials are put under lock and key to prevent terrorists from getting them.

By , Staff writer

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    Technicians at the Lo Aguirre reactor in Santiago, Chile. The reactor holds highly enriched uranium being sent to the US. President Obama wants a global effort to secure this kind of weapons-grade nuclear material in four years.
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The nuclear security summit President Obama holds in Washington this week will be the largest meeting of world leaders ever hosted in the US capital – suggesting just how important the president considers the global task of securing nuclear materials and keeping them out of the hands of extremists and terrorist organizations.

By Tuesday evening, when the two-day gathering of 50 heads of state and government and international institutions closes, Mr. Obama wants to have reached agreement on a plan to secure the world’s stockpiles of plutonium and highly-enriched uranium (HEU) – essential ingredients in the building of nuclear weapons – by 2013.

That date would mark one year from Obama’s Prague speech in April 2009 when he set a goal for reducing the world’s large quantities of nuclear weapons materials to stockpiles under lock and key.

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“The summit is intended to rally collective action behind the goal of securing vulnerable nuclear materials within four years,” says Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.

He notes that the summit is one link in a chain of events related to nuclear security and proliferation the president has either initiated or is renewing as an American priority: from his Prague speech last year on his vision of a world without nuclear weapons to the new START agreement with Russia, this summit, and next month’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference at the United Nations.

Denying weapons-grade material to extremists

Administration officials express confidence that by focusing on the significant but limited challenge of denying nonstate actors like extremist groups and organized crime access to plutonium and highly enriched uranium, the world can end what is now a fearsome threat.

“If we can lock them [nuclear materials] down, we have essentially solved the risk of nuclear terrorism,” says Gary Samore, Obama’s senior adviser on nuclear issues and the National Security Council’s senior director for nonproliferation.

Noting that “the primary responsibility for action rests with individual countries,” Mr. Samore says a number of countries will announce measures they plan to take on behalf of enhanced global nuclear security. Chile will highlight the recent transfer of its remaining stockpile of HEU to the US for disposal, and the US and Russia will announce agreement on a long-stalled plan for each country to dispose of large amounts of plutonium.

But other experts note that nuclear security is not the priority for many other countries that it is for the US – and they say that as a result the US must be prepared to offer those countries incentives reflecting their priorities to get them to cooperate.

“If I were advising President Obama, I’d say you have to be prepared for some trade-offs with countries that don’t place the same priority on this issue that you do,” says Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of Atomic Scientists in Washington.

A trade-off in priorities

“You have countries in sub-Saharan Africa with materials that are weapons usable, but for whom the priorities are more along the lines of development and feeding people and disease,” he adds. “So you’re going to have to offer something they want to get them on board, but I’m not sure there’s been that kind of linkage from the people in charge.”

Another factor that could stymie broad cooperation on nuclear materials security is that the “lockdown” approach “fails to recognize that these materials do have legitimate uses in both the civilian and military sectors,” in research laboratories, for example, Mr. Ferguson says. Securing loose nukes and keeping dangerous materials out of the hands of dangerous nonstate actors may be a legitimate priority, but achieving the goal will be more difficult if developing countries in particular get the sense that they are losing out and paying a price for the developed world’s security, he adds.

One way of bridging the developed-developing world gap on the issue, Ferguson says, is to move beyond “individual country” actions to strengthening the multilateral aspect of steps to be taken. The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, has a relatively recent nuclear security function, but funding for it is voluntary and at the whim of member states.

“If you put the IAEA’s nuclear security department on a regular budget,” says Ferguson, “you’d have a sure way of putting a bigger international effort behind this four-year plan.”

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