Obama leads summit effort to secure nuclear materials

By Scott Wilson and Mary Beth Sheridan
Sunday, April 11, 2010

As the junior senator from Illinois in August 2005, Barack Obama traveled to Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan with his more senior colleague, Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, for a tour of some of the Cold War's most fearsome weapons sites.

It was Obama's first trip abroad as a U.S. senator. Lugar, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was taking along its newest member for a crash course in nuclear security.

By then, Lugar had spent more than a dozen years helping to secure and dismantle Soviet-era nuclear stockpiles and weapons systems. Obama, a Democrat, spent much of the trip watching and learning.

Five years later, Obama is no longer the understudy. On Monday and Tuesday, he will be leading one of the largest gatherings of world leaders in Washington history in the first summit to focus exclusively on the threat posed by the world's unsecured stocks of weapons-grade nuclear materials.

"This is truly a global issue," said Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator from Nebraska who met Obama and Lugar in Moscow during the trip and later co-authored nuclear security legislation with the future president. "It's not a front-burner, where's-my-job kind of issue, and many people in America and the world see it as an abstraction. But there is no margin for error here, and I think Obama intuitively understood that as soon as he got to the Senate."

Obama has identified nuclear terrorism as "the most immediate and extreme threat to global security." His aides note that al-Qaeda has sought unsuccessfully to acquire an atomic bomb.

But Obama's central challenge will be to persuade the 46 foreign leaders or their representatives arriving in Washington to care as much as he does about securing the material that could be used to create a bomb -- highly enriched uranium and plutonium tucked away in government laboratories, research universities, military warehouses and other sites around the world.

It will not be easy.

"The 'Made in the USA' label does not necessarily guarantee buy-in from others regarding this threat," said Elizabeth Turpen, an associate at Booz Allen Hamilton and an expert on nonproliferation.

Obama pledged during his presidential campaign to "secure all loose nuclear materials around the world in my first term," a goal experts in the field say he is not on pace to achieve. The summit will test Obama's approach to diplomacy, which often requires countries to set aside important national interests to achieve shared international ones.

Test of diplomacy

Obama will be staging the Nuclear Security Summit, as the event is known, during a period of intensive nuclear diplomacy that includes a new strategic arms-reduction treaty with Russia, a rethinking of when the United States would use nuclear weapons, and an effort to strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the global pact aimed at stopping the spread of the bomb.

But it also comes amid global currents that make securing nuclear material more urgent and more difficult. Rich and developing countries increasingly are turning to nuclear power to meet clean-energy goals and to support growing economies, meaning that more nuclear fuel, some of which would have to be further enriched for weapons use, will be available and vulnerable to theft.

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