President Obama wrapped up a two-day Washington summit on nuclear security Tuesday with a non-binding communique that seems at odds with his administration’s push for atomic energy around the world.
The gathering of 47 world leaders or their representatives was supposed to create a unified approach to making sure countries secure hundreds of tons of bomb-making highly enriched uranium and plutonium that sits in stockpiles, mostly in Russia and former Soviet states.
The fear is that nuclear material in laboratories or military bases can somehow make it to the black market and then to al Qaeda, whose leader, Osama bin Laden, has vowed to use them.
But at the same time, Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, have encouraged nuclear energy expansion to friendly countries in Middle East and Asia. While there are rigorous safeguards on accounting for the low-grade uranium fuel, these plants could be converted to produce bomb-making, or fissile, material. As the 1979 Iranian revolution showed, a friendly government can give way to a decidedly threatening one.
The U.S. is encouraging nuclear energy development in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, which hopes to open its first reactor in 2017. Oil-laden Saudi Arabia also wants to build reactors as it tries to diversity its economy.
Henry Sokolski, who runs the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center, said the global expansion of nuclear materials could prove troublesome down the road. For example, South Korea wants to use plutonium-based fuel produced from a reprocessing procedure that extract usable uranium from spent fuel rods at a nuclear plant. Some fear that the plutonium in the material could fall into the hands of criminal gangs or terrorists.
"It seems like we’ve lost our moral authority on this," Sokolski told HUMAN EVENTS. "We’re doing it in really dangerous places and we’re humoring uneconomical dangerous activities in the case of reprocessing in a number of places. I don’t understand how you can have a world that is safer with less material that has to be guarded when you are encouraging others to make more of it … It does not have to go that way. They could come to their wits and senses over the next few months and say we need to look at this and rethink what we’re doing."
The summit ended Tuesday with voluntary pledges to double-check nuclear stockpiles. The Obama Administration timed the meeting to announce that the Ukraine will give up its 90 kilograms — about four bombs worth — of highly enriched uranium by 2012, likely sending it to the United States for conversion into fuel. Ukraine relinquished its old Soviet missile arsenal in 1994.
No one seems to have a good handle on just how much nuclear material is vulnerable to theft. When the topic comes up, Russia is always mentioned as the most likely source for an al Qaeda bomb. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has eliminated over 360 metric tons of highly enriched uranium, according to a group called the International Panel on Fissile Materials.
Russia has about 590 metric tons stockpiled. There have been no confirmed reports of any major security breaches or of any of the material being stolen or offered for sale.
One of Obama’s themes this week mirrored statements made by President George W. Bush: that al Qaeda is determined to acquire nuclear material and has assigned operatives to steal or buy it.
"The central focus of this nuclear summit is the fact that the single biggest threat to U.S. security, both short term, medium term and long term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon," Obama said. "This is something that could change the security landscape of this country and around the world for years to come. If there was ever a detonation in New York City, or London, or Johannesburg, the ramifications economically, politically, and from a security perspective would be devastating. And we know that organizations like al Qaeda are in the process of trying to secure a nuclear weapon — a weapon of mass destruction that they have no compunction at using."
Obama’s top counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, said, "There is a strong body of intelligence that goes back over the past decade, that clearly indicates that al Qaeda has been trying to procure these materials on the open market and with criminal syndicates. So the evidence is strong. The track record is demonstrated. And we know that al Qaeda continues to pursue these materials."
The two most worrisome regimes did not come to Washington. North Korea, an unabashed proliferator, has built several nuclear bombs and wants more. Iran is determined to become a nuclear power, while threatening to destroy Israel.
Obama, with his offer for direct talks with Tehran going nowhere, is now committed to a new round of economic sanctions against Iran. But he also wants Russia and China on-board, but both countries are cool to anything tougher than a hand slap. Some experts say the only way sanctions will work is to cut off, or reduce, Iran’s ability to obtain gasoline. But Russia, which is aiding Iran’s nuclear power development, and China, oppose that step.
Obama met Monday with Chinese President Hu Jintao. White House briefers put the best spin they could afterwards, saying the Communist dictatorship was willing to discuss penalties on Iran. But no specific agreement was reached.
Virtually all the summit happened behind closed doors, in country-to-country meetings, and full gatherings Monday night and Tuesday morning.
"I believe we made further progress, pursuing a shared understanding of the grave threat to our people," Obama said Tuesday. "And today, we have the opportunity to take the next steps. We have the opportunity as individual nations to take specific and concrete actions to secure the nuclear materials in our countries and to prevent illicit trafficking and smuggling."
The other potential flashpoints — nuclear powers Pakistan and India — did attend, with their leaders meeting separately with Obama.
Pakistan has about 80 nuclear warheads, and at least eight nuclear weapons storage sites around its capital. It devotes over 10,000 security troops to guard them. The White House and Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani assure the world that the Taliban and al Qaeda, who control areas in Pakistan’s western tribal areas, will not be able to capture any weapons.
When the summit ended Tuesday night, Obama announced no new pacts, but instead said leaders agreed to strengthen current systems to secure nuke material in a non-binding communique.
"We reaffirmed that it is the fundamental responsibility of nations, consistent with their international obligations, to maintain effective security of the nuclear materials and facilities under our control," he said. "This includes strengthening national laws and policies, and fully implementing the commitments we have agreed to."
Obama conceded the Chinese have not committed to any particular new sanctions on Iran. And he expressed doubts sanctions would work, fueling speculation his administration has decided Iran will one day own a nuclear arsenal.