Reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism

President Obama spearheaded a Nuclear Security Summit and gained pledges from 46 nations to work toward locking down all nuclear material worldwide within four years.

What happened

Seeking to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism, President Obama this week gained pledges from 46 nations to work toward locking down all nuclear material worldwide within four years. Obama said there had been “unprecedented progress” in tightening lax security standards at nuclear facilities during a two-day Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., the world’s first. Obama said even an apple-size quantity of plutonium could cause mass casualties. “Terrorist networks such as al Qaida have tried to acquire the material for a nuclear weapon,” he said. “Were they to do so, it would be a catastrophe for the world, causing extraordinary loss of life and striking a major blow at global peace and stability.” Another security summit was scheduled for 2012 in South Korea.

Several nations, including Vietnam, Chile, and Ukraine, agreed to dispose of hundreds of pounds of highly enriched uranium, and Russia said it would close its last weapons-grade plutonium factory. But Republican Sen. Jon Kyl said the promises made at the summit were nonbinding, and that Obama had made “no meaningful progress in dealing with nuclear terrorism threats.” Experts estimate that some 1,600 tons of bomb-grade uranium and 500 tons of plutonium—enough for more than 100,000 warheads—are at risk around the world; at least 18 cases of theft or loss have been documented. Analysts say that al Qaida operatives have made several attempts to buy nuclear material, and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili revealed this week that in March his government had disrupted a criminal effort to smuggle highly enriched uranium.

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What the editorials said

It was the largest gathering of world leaders since Franklin Roosevelt launched the United Nations, said Economist.com. Obama managed to translate goodwill into real progress, and Ukraine’s agreement to safely dispose of its nuclear stockpiles is a good first step. Still, the task remains daunting, said The New York Times. Threats range from poorly secured Russian nukes to hundreds of nuclear reactors and even hospitals abroad “whose radioactive waste could be used in dirty bombs.” What’s needed now are “concrete deadlines, working groups, and future meetings to measure progress.”

Even the most sincere commitments from the likes of Canada and Ukraine won’t amount to much, said The Wall Street Journal. Terrorists aren’t about to obtain nukes from “well-run democracies that play by international rules.” The biggest threat of all is the prospect of Iran becoming a nuclear power—a development Obama has done nothing to stop.

What the columnists said

We’ve been lucky so far, said David E. Hoffman in ForeignPolicy.com. The fact that terrorists have yet to deploy a nuclear weapon strongly suggests that they have yet to obtain one. But to “ensure the number of nuclear terrorist incidents remains zero,” countries need to consolidate and lock down their uranium and plutonium stockpiles, and civilian facilities using weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium must switch to low-enriched uranium. We still have time, but it’s running out.

Actually, true nuclear security is “impossible,” said Michael Levi in WashingtonPost.com. “Bomb-usable ingredients” are transported routinely around the globe, and even the desirable process of breaking down nuclear warheads can produce “dangerous flows of weapons-grade materials.” At least it might help to focus on the right objective, said Henry Sokolski in National Review Online. The summit did nothing to limit production of plutonium in breeder reactors—“the very stuff the summit is supposed to somehow secure.” And by emphasizing the security of nuclear materials and bombs, rather than their proliferation, we risk allowing the number of countries that have them to grow.

The summit served as the unveiling of the new “Obama Doctrine,” said Michael Crowley in The New Republic Online. Obama is constructing a foreign policy designed, above all else, to “lower the risk that a nuclear weapon will be exploded in the United States.” If Dick Cheney were warning that “the risk of a nuclear attack” by terrorists has “gone up,” it would sound like a scare tactic. When Obama uses those words, “they are genuinely scary.”

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