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Leaders Pledge To Improve Security Of Nuclear Stocks

President Obama greets Chinese President Hu Jintao during the two-day Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C.
Charles Dharapak
President Obama greets Chinese President Hu Jintao during the two-day Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C.

President Obama warned world leaders gathered at an international security summit in Washington on Tuesday that it would be a catastrophe if they failed to act decisively to keep nuclear weapons from terrorists.

"Two decades after the end of the Cold War, we face a cruel irony of history," Obama said. "The risk of a nuclear confrontation between nations has gone down, but the risk of nuclear attack has gone up."

The president underscored the danger of nuclear materials in the hands of terrorist groups: "Just the smallest amount of plutonium, about the size of an apple, could kill and injure hundreds of thousands of innocent people," he said.

The speech comes exactly one year after Obama delivered a speech in Prague in which he called for a worldwide effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials.

He said Tuesday that progress toward that goal has been made, citing a closed session among the leaders last night.

The two-day summit closed Tuesday, with rulers from 47 nations attending. At a news conference at the end of the day, the president said he was confident China will cooperate on possible new sanctions aimed at getting Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions.

"Words have to mean something. There have to be some consequences," Obama told reporters.

Obama said that the new sanctions would make it easier to isolate Iran, as the global community had done for North Korea as it continued to develop nuclear weapons.

Obama said Pyongyang had chosen a path of "severe isolation," which has hurt the North Korean people. Obama said he hoped sanctions would add pressure on North Korea's leaders to return to the six-party talks.

"Sanctions," Obama acknowledged, "are not a magic wand."

But Obama said he believes the U.S. approach would make it more likely for North Korea to alter its behavior rather than allowing the communist nation to operate its nuclear program without consequences.

Obama met with China's President Hu Jintao on Monday, and Iran was a major topic during the 90-minute session, according to White House national security aide Jeff Bader. Obama has been pressing for a fourth round of sanctions on Tehran to curb its nuclear ambitions, but China has historically been averse to tough sanctions and uneasy over potential damage to trade ties with Iran.

"They're prepared to work with us," Bader said, adding that it is "another sign of international unity on this issue."

But when pressed, Bader demurred on specifics, saying only that the two sides would "be working on that in the coming days — coming days and weeks."

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu added more uncertainty, saying that "pressure and sanctions cannot fundamentally solve" the dispute. She added that Beijing supports a "dual-track strategy" combining diplomacy with the possibility of international sanctions against Iran.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters in Tehran on Tuesday that China's comments did not confirm the U.S. statement, nor did it mean Beijing would cooperate with Washington "in any kind of unjust action" against Iran.

Great Britain, France and Germany have firmly backed sanctions, while Russia has indicated a willingness to join in the effort.

Obama opened the two-day Nuclear Security Summit after rounds of meetings with selected leaders of the 47 countries gathered to discuss ways of stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and keeping bomb-making materials and technology out of the hands of terrorist organizations.

The White House's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, said Monday that "we cannot wait any longer before we lock down these stockpiles."

Brennan said al-Qaida was working vigorously to acquire both the materials and expertise to make a nuclear bomb and that the U.S. is willing to assist other countries with money and technical advice to secure their nuclear material.

In some cases, that could mean the material would be stored on U.S. soil, said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

"Our goal is to make sure that's secure. If the most secure place is to have that here, that's our goal," he said.

Ukraine, which agreed to surrender its nuclear weapons in 1994 in the aftermath of its breakaway from the Soviet Union, said Monday it would get rid of its weapons-grade fuel by 2012.

Gibbs called it a "landmark decision" but said the details — such as how and where the radioactive material would be disposed of — have yet to be worked out. He declined to say exactly how much fuel was involved, but noted that it was enough "to construct several nuclear weapons."

Getting Ukraine to hand over the stockpile "is something that the United States has tried to make happen for more than 10 years," he said.

The White House also received other pledges of support, including an agreement from Malaysia to adopt stricter import and export controls to curb the spread of nuclear weapons or material.

On Tuesday, Obama planned to hold face-to-face meetings with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The draft communique for the summit calls for securing all nuclear material within four years. Steven Pifer, an arms control expert at the Brookings Institution and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said the timetable is probably too ambitious.

"Nobody wants to see nuclear materials leak out," Pifer said. "The question is, can they come up with a plan of action that allows them, in perhaps as short as four years, to reach a point where they can say with some confidence that these materials are under safe and effective control."

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