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Nuclear Summit Takes Urgent Tone

Police officers walk past the Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, where security is tightening ahead of the Nuclear Security Summit.
Jewel Samad
AFP/Getty Images
Police officers walk past the Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, where security is tightening ahead of the Nuclear Security Summit.

A two-day international nuclear summit convenes Monday in Washington, with nearly 50 nations sending leaders to join in the discussion. But while the Obama administration wants to see all vulnerable nuclear materials and weapons locked down in four years, not all nations see that goal as an urgent priority.

Although the U.S. and Russia have been trying to secure dangerous nuclear materials for more than a decade, there has never before been an international summit this large and at such a high level focused on nuclear security. It's part of the shift in thinking that is taking place globally as the nuclear confrontation of the Cold War gives way to other concerns, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

"The nature of the threat has changed," Clinton said Friday at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. "We no longer live in constant fear of a global nuclear war, where we're in a standoff against the Russians with all of our nuclear arsenal on the ready. But as President Obama has said, the risk of a nuclear attack has actually increased. And the potential consequences of mishandling this challenge are deadly."


A New Nuclear Threat

The risk of nuclear attack is now from terrorists intent on getting their hands on a nuclear weapon, according to Ben Rhodes, the president's deputy national security adviser. Rhodes spoke from Air Force One on its return to Washington after the signing of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in Prague.

"We know that terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, are pursuing the materials to build a nuclear weapon. And we know that they have the intent to use one," Rhodes said. "This, of course, would be a catastrophic danger to American national security and to global security, were they able to carry out that kind of attack."

The stockpile of dangerous materials that could be used to make a nuclear weapon is enormous — 500 tons of plutonium and 1,600 tons of highly enriched uranium around the world. That's enough to make more than 120,000 nuclear weapons.

Despite much work spearheaded by the U.S. and Russia, a significant portion of that stockpile is still vulnerable, says Gary Samore, director for nonproliferation in the National Security Council.


"If we're able to lock those down and deny them to nonstate actors, then we have essentially solved the risk of nuclear terrorism," he says.

This summit is designed to rally the world to take action urgently.

Action Needed More Than Words

The idea of the summit has garnered applause from many outside the government who have been trumpeting this cause for years, such as Matthew Bunn, an expert on nuclear proliferation at the Managing the Atom project at Harvard.

"This material, unfortunately, is easy to smuggle and hard to detect. The nuclear material needed for a nuclear bomb would fit easily in a suitcase. Hence, insecure nuclear material anywhere is really a threat to everyone, everywhere," Bunn says.

Over the past 15 years, many programs have been established and billions of dollars have been spent to secure some of the world's plutonium and highly enriched uranium. But the effort still has fallen short, says Ken Luongo, a former Department of Energy official, now president of the Partnership for Global Security.

"As important as this event is — because no one has ever convened this kind of an event before, and the president and his administration deserve credit for that — if it just focuses on ratifying the status quo, I think that's going to be inadequate," says Luongo. "Because the status quo for preventing nuclear terrorism is inadequate."

President Obama may have had that in mind when he said recently that this gathering will not end in some vague, gauzy statement. The summit, the president said, will spell out clearly how to lock down all the nuclear materials over the next four years.

A bold statement, Luongo notes, but still far from the concrete actions needed to accomplish the goal.

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