Obama leads summit effort to secure nuclear materials

By Scott Wilson and Mary Beth Sheridan
Sunday, April 11, 2010; A06

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.

Just 55 pounds of highly enriched uranium -- about the size of a grapefruit -- is needed to make a small nuclear device. There are an estimated 3.5 million pounds of the material in 40 countries and 1.1 million pounds of plutonium.

The Fissile Materials Working Group, an umbrella organization for nongovernmental groups working on nuclear issues, estimated that there is enough "weapons-usable nuclear material" in the world to build more than 120,000 nuclear bombs.

"Unfortunately, there's been a sense in some countries, especially in developing countries, that they are not the target of such threats -- that nuclear terrorism is not a realistic worry," said Corey Hinderstein, an expert at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonpartisan group working on the problem.

At the end of two days, the summit is scheduled to produce a communique calling for a crackdown on smuggling, support for past U.N. resolutions on the subject, and standards for securing highly enriched uranium and plutonium stocks. In addition, the participants will endorse a detailed "work plan" to accomplish the task of locking down all loose nuclear materials in four years.

But the Obama administration has also asked the countries participating in the summit to make specific national pledges to help secure loose nuclear materials inside their borders or to ensure that the countries are not used as smuggling routes. Outside experts say those "house gifts," the folksy term U.S. officials are using to describe the pledges, will be as important as the summit communique.

Chile, for example, will announce that it has given up all of its highly enriched uranium. The last 40 pounds of its material were removed from two research reactors last month and secretly whisked to the United States with the assistance of the National Nuclear Security Administration. Canada and Ukraine may announce that they are switching reactors from highly enriched to low-enriched uranium, according to U.S. officials and analysts.

As the only nuclear superpower after the Cold War, the United States has led on the issue of nuclear materials security. The 1991 Nunn-Lugar Act has helped to secure more than 90 percent of the nuclear materials left in Russia and the former Soviet republics, an achievement experts in the field call remarkable.

But what is left remains highly vulnerable. "In a strange turn of history," Obama noted in his April 2009 speech in Prague in which he called for a world free of nuclear weapons, "the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of nuclear attack has gone up."

Persistent attempts

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA officer now at Harvard University's Belfer Center, wrote in a recent report that it would be "extremely difficult" for terrorists to steal a bomb or enough material to build one. But al-Qaeda has tried persistently for 15 years to get such a weapon and attempted to buy nuclear material on the black market at least twice, he said. "Is it worth gambling the future on a bet that terrorists won't roll snake eyes?" he wrote.

"The hardest part of making a bomb is to get the material," Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate in physics, told ABC News in a recent interview. "That's why it's so imperative that we get that material locked up tightly in a way that [is] essentially like a super Fort Knox."

The United States is not immune from problems, experts say. Four U.S. civilian research reactors still use highly enriched uranium. One facility is at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an urban campus in Cambridge. Such reactors are not bound by the same tight security rules as U.S. nuclear power plants.

Miles Pomper, a nuclear expert at the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies, said that "it's a big engineering process" to switch reactors to low-enriched uranium, which is harder to weaponize.

"There's going to be a lot of emphasis on the need for training people in nuclear security, and education," Pomper said. "Especially as you expand nuclear energy worldwide. These countries don't necessarily have experience in how do you protect facilities."

The Obama administration has requested $3.1 billion for "international weapons of mass destruction security programs" for the coming fiscal year, a double-digit increase. In the past, there has been bipartisan support for such security efforts. But the House Appropriations energy and water development committee expressed skepticism last month about the size of the request.

"There's a lot that has been done. There's a lot more to do. And the key will be to convince policymakers and nuclear managers around the world that this is a threat," said Matthew Bunn, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government who has written on the subject.

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