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Nuclear summit: How much 'loose nukes' material is out there?

The Obama nuclear summit is focusing less on nuclear weapons and more on more poorly guarded nuclear materials that could be used to build nukes.

By Staff writer / April 13, 2010

President Obama and participants of the Nuclear Security Summit take part in a moment of silence for Polish President Lech Kaczynski during the first plenary session in Washington on Tuesday. The nuclear summit is focusing on securing material to stop 'loose nukes' from falling into terrorists' hands.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP



Why is President Obama’s nuclear summit focused on controlling fissile materials? It’s simple: Obtaining enough plutonium or highly enriched uranium is the most important step toward getting a nuclear weapon.

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It’s possible that Al Qaeda or some other terrorist group could steal or buy ready-made nukes, of course. But the world’s warheads are relatively secure and accounted for, according to Robert Gallucci, a former US ambassador-at-large for nonproliferation issues.

The stockpiles of fissile materials sprinkled around the globe are another matter.

“I think the chances of Al Qaeda acquiring fissile material and making its own improvised nuclear device are greater than the chances it will get an already-fabricated weapon and detonate that,” said Mr. Galluci, now president of the MacArthur Foundation, in a Monday speech.

Agreements to tighten controls

Mr. Obama’s summit already has produced some agreements intended to help corral the world’s "loose nuke" problem. On Monday, Ukraine, Canada, and Malaysia all agreed to either reduce or tighten controls on their stores of highly enriched uranium. On Tuesday, Mexico made a similar commitment.

But overall, how much loose nuke material is out there? A lot. The nations of the world together have about 1.6 million kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and about 500,000 kilograms of plutonium, according to data compiled by Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Security.

Simple division shows the magnitude of the threat this stuff portends. It takes only about 25 kilograms of HEU or eight kilograms of plutonium to make a crude nuclear bomb.

Fissile material is held at hundreds of locations, with varying levels of security. There are more than 130 research reactors alone that are powered by HEU, some of them in developing or transitional countries, notes the Belfer Center.