Nuclear security summit: a historic gathering

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.

“Terrorists are seeking nuclear weapons, and the materials needed to make them are still housed in hundreds of buildings and bunkers in dozens of countries — many in urgent need of better security,” the NTI reported. The organization said there have been 18 documented cases of theft or loss of plutonium or enriched uranium, as well as chilling near-misses like an armed attack in 2007 on a South African site housing hundreds of kilograms of highly enriched uranium that, fortunately, was saved from the intruders. Meanwhile, the arsenals of nuclear powers like Pakistan and Russia remain vulnerable to thievery by greedy, or ideologically motivated, insiders.

“The threat of nuclear terrorism is real, it is serious, and it is growing,” said John Brennan, a senior White House adviser, who outlined Al Qaeda’s attempts to acquire nuclear weapons at a midday briefing for reporters. “It constitutes one of the greatest threats to our national security.”

This week’s summit is one piece of Obama’s nuclear strategy, which has the declared objective of — one day in the distant future — ridding the world of nuclear weapons. The administration has developed new U.S. policies, struck a strategic arms deal with Russia and is using an upcoming review of the international non-proliferation regime to try to contain budding nuclear powers like North Korea and Iran.

Critics question whether the president’s noble intentions will have the intended effect.

“The most dangerous possibility is that the president’s nuclear agenda will sway none of the world’s truly dangerous actors, while at the same time weakening America’s ability to defend and protect its allies, thereby encouraging them to develop their own nuclear arsenals, ” said Theodore Bromund, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “In nuclear diplomacy, good intentions are no substitute for an appreciation of the unintended consequences of poorly thought-through arms control.”

If arms control measures by nuclear powers could indeed influence rogue states, the president’s critics ask, then why has the world’s nuclear club grown as the U.S. and Russia reduced their arsenals?

“Apprently, Pyongyang and Tehran haven’t gotten the memo,” said Bruce Klingner, another Heritage fellow, at a “Conservative Counter Summit” last week. “Getting Korea and Iran to give up their nuclear weapons programs will be extremely difficult, if not impossible.”