A summit goal: Making plutonium and uranium harder to get

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

PRESIDENT OBAMA was right to focus the 47-nation summit he convened this week in Washington on the challenge of securing nuclear materials. More than the strategic nuclear weapons of Russia, the thousands of tons of uranium and plutonium held by dozens of countries around the world pose a critical threat to the United States -- because, as has been established beyond question, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups are seeking to buy or steal the small amount of that material needed for a bomb.

Though U.S. programs to safeguard or eliminate the materials have been underway for years, they have been underfunded, often treated as an afterthought by previous administrations and resisted by some foreign governments. Mr. Obama has given this serious problem the high-level attention it needed and has won support for a clear goal: safeguarding all nuclear materials within four years.

Perhaps inevitably the summit communique and "work plan" issued Tuesday were relatively short on specifics. The administration timed a few important announcements for the meeting, including the agreement by Ukraine, Mexico and Chile to give up their stores of highly enriched uranium and the implementation of a long-stalled accord by which Russia and the United States will each dispose of 34 tons of plutonium, which is enough for 17,000 weapons. Commitments by the participating states to secure their own nuclear materials, invest in new safety mechanisms and adopt laws to prevent theft or diversion could prove significant -- but they will need diligent follow-up.

Further progress toward Mr. Obama's goal will require more cooperation from prickly foreign governments -- starting with Russia. Most of the civilian reactors still containing bomb-grade uranium are under Moscow's control; the goal should be not just to secure those facilities but to end their use of highly enriched fuel. Russian stocks of uranium and plutonium also need to be centralized away from the some 250 places where they are now stored. Congress also has a role to play: Mr. Obama has asked for an increase of $225 million, or 67 percent, in funding for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative in next year's budget. That would allow the needed acceleration of operations to remove highly enriched uranium from those countries ready to give it up.

This week's summit won't do much about several of the world's most pressing proliferation problems, including Iran's drive for a nuclear bomb and North Korea's refusal even to negotiate about its arsenal. Pakistan's prime minister made it clear while in Washington that his country will resist any move for a worldwide ban on the production of more bomb materials -- a step that is essential to any long-term plan to prevent terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Mr. Obama's hope is that by focusing global attention on the problem and by taking steps to reduce the U.S. arsenal, pressure and multilateral support will grow for solutions to these issues. Whether or not that occurs, the president is right to invest personally in pressing Russia and other nations to give up or secure their uranium and plutonium. It's hard to think of a better use of his diplomatic capital.

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