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Nuclear security summit: a historic gathering

Can 47 world leaders make progress in keeping nuclear material out of the hands of terrorists?

Members of a welcoming party wait on the tarmac to greet of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych as he arrives ahead of his participation in the nuclear security summit in Washington called by U.S. President Barack Obama, at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, April 11, 2010. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — The threat is the stuff of blood-tingling Hollywood thrillers, but the unheralded work of keeping nuclear material out of the hands of terrorists is not so exciting. President Barack Obama hoped to rectify the imbalance by hosting a historic summit of foreign leaders here this week, to focus on nuclear security.

Representatives of 47 nations, including dozens of foreign heads of state, joined in the largest such gathering on U.S. soil since the San Francisco conference that launched the United Nations in 1945. Obama added to the luster of the already impressive gathering by scheduling a number of bilateral meetings, with China and other powers, to push for measures to contain the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Obama’s goal — to secure all the world’s plutonium and highly enriched uranium within four years — was boosted by pre-summit announcements from the governments of Chile and the Ukraine, which vowed to secure their nuclear material or ship it to the United States for safekeeping. The White House is hoping other nations will follow suit in the days and months ahead.

“The nuclear security summit was designed with that in mind, to have something that would be splashy, that would have style but also substance,” said Sharon Squassoni, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.

In welcoming the leaders to the capital on Sunday, Obama reminded them, and Americans, that “the single biggest threat to U.S. security, both short-term, medium-term and long-term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon.” If even one nuclear device was detonated, in London, Johannesburg, New York or elsewhere, Obama said, the impact on the international economy, and on worldwide cooperation and security, “would be devastating.”

“We know that terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, are pursuing the material to build a nuclear weapon,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser at the White House, and that “there is a substantial amount of vulnerable nuclear material around the world.”

“If we are able to lock those down and deny them to non-state actors, then we have essentially solved the risk of nuclear terrorism,” said Gary Samore, the White House national security aide who helped plan the summit.

The danger is very real. For almost a decade, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, in league with scientists at Harvard University, has issued annual reports on the state of the world’s nuclear stockpiles and materials. This year’s report, released today, declared that an “urgent danger” still exists, and warned that complacency is a threat to progress.