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Loophole in nuclear summit: spread of nuclear power?

President Obama's nuclear summit aims to keep terrorists from procuring nuclear weapons. But the US is encouraging countries to develop civilian nuclear power. But what are the proliferation risks?

By Staff writer / April 13, 2010

President Barack Obama holds bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India at the Blair House April 11 in advance of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP



The goal of President Obama’s unprecedented gathering of world leaders in Washington Tuesday on the issue of nuclear security is to put under lock and key the world’s nuclear materials that could be used by terrorist organizations to make a nuclear bomb.

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Yet as reassuring as that objective may sound, it hides a global reality that is going to make the goal all the more difficult: Worldwide production of the primary nuclear materials of concern – highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium – is going to increase in coming years as civilian nuclear programs grow to produce more energy.

And very often that growth will come at the encouragement of countries like the United States, France, and Russia, which want to cement their own nuclear energy industry’s involvement in a growing market.

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So while it may be going too far to say that the Obama administration is working at cross purposes as it tries to secure nuclear materials and at the same time encourage their growth, some nuclear experts say there are at least “contradictions” in US and other countries’ actions.

“The administration’s heart is in the right place in wanting to encourage raising the level of security for these materials, and I think they are succeeding at that,” says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. “But the fact is that contradictions remain – like the US at the same time launching a nuclear deal with India that will only raise new security concerns – and they’ve had to ignore some problems to get this far.”

France's concern

One of those “problems,” Mr. Albright says, is French insistence that Obama’s summit not turn into a backdoor to limiting the production of separated plutonium, which is a core element of France’s nuclear energy industry.

The Obama administration would have preferred language in the summit’s final communiqué about limiting the production of separated plutonium, Albright says, “but France was there to block that, so now it will only talk about securing these materials,” he adds.

Administration officials are unequivocal about the coming boom in the very materials Obama speaks of in stark terms as posing one of the world’s greatest threats.