Q+A: Obama summit to highlight threat of nuclear terrorism

By Ross Colvin

WASHINGTON (BestGrowthStock) – Nearly 50 countries meet in Washington this week for an unprecedented summit aimed at agreeing concrete action to prevent bomb-grade nuclear material from falling into the hands of terrorists.

WHAT IS THE GOAL OF THE SUMMIT?

In a speech in Prague last year, President Barack Obama warned that nuclear terrorism was the “most immediate and extreme threat to global security.” He wants to use the summit to galvanize countries to take the issue more seriously.

The goal of the summit is to reach a common understanding on the threat posed by nuclear terrorism and to agree on a plan of action to secure all loose nuclear material within four years to stop terrorists from getting their hands on it.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the April 12-13 gathering of 47 nations is the largest conference hosted by the United States since 1945. Two countries not on the guest list are Iran and North Korea, both of which are locked in their own nuclear standoffs with the West.

HOW CREDIBLE IS THE THREAT OF NUCLEAR TERRORISM?

Experts describe the threat of a crude fissile nuclear bomb, which is technically difficult to manufacture and requires hard-to-obtain bomb-grade uranium or plutonium, as a “low probability, high consequence act.” In other words, unlikely but with the potential to cause massive harm to life and property.

On the other hand, a “dirty bomb”, where conventional explosives are used to disperse radiation from a radioactive source, is a “high probability, low consequence act” with more potential to terrorize than cause large loss of life.

U.S. concerns about nuclear terrorism are not shared by everyone, especially developing countries facing more pressing issues, including rising energy demands that may require greater reliance on nuclear reactors in the future.

HOW IMMINENT IS THE DANGER?

Nuclear experts say there is no sign that terrorists have got their hands on weapons-grade nuclear material but note there have been at least 18 recorded cases of such material being stolen or going missing since the early 1990s.

“We know that terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, are pursuing the materials to build a nuclear weapon, and we know that they have the intent to use one,” said White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.

Experts say making a crude nuclear bomb is technologically challenging for terrorist groups but not impossible. They would need about 110 pounds (50 kg) of highly enriched uranium and a machine shop to cast it into metal form. One mass of uranium would then be fired at high speed at another mass of uranium in a “gun-type” bomb to cause a nuclear explosion.

WHAT ARE COUNTRIES DOING TO SECURE NUCLEAR MATERIAL?

Until now, the effort to secure weapons-grade material has focused mainly on Russia and former Soviet republics. The United States has helped fund efforts to better protect such materials from theft.

There is a patchwork of ad hoc international agreements aimed at combating theft, smuggling and non-proliferation, including the Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism and the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. Washington wants more countries to sign up to them so that they can become more effective.

Non-proliferation experts do not expect the summit to single out countries that are failing to make the grade. Pakistan, for example, is due to attend, but no mention is likely of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the scientist who was at the center of the world’s biggest nuclear proliferation scandal.

Experts say the biggest area of risk is Pakistan, which has a heavily guarded stockpile of weapons-grade material but faces huge internal security threats from the Taliban and al Qaeda.

WHAT IS ‘LOOSE NUCLEAR MATERIAL’ AND WHERE IS IT KEPT?

Loose nuclear material refers to stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium that are typically kept in military installations, nuclear reactors, research reactors and defense laboratories.

Nuclear experts say the summit should also focus on securing radioactive material that, for example, can be found in diagnostic equipment in hospitals and could be used to make a dirty bombs. U.S. officials say they are more worried about the potential catastrophe of a nuclear bomb exploding.

There are about 1,600 tons of highly enriched uranium and 500 tons of plutonium worldwide, enough to make 120,000 nuclear bombs, according to non-governmental groups.

REALISTICALLY, WHAT CAN THE SUMMIT ACHIEVE?

Leaders will pledge to toughen prosecution of traffickers, improve accounting for weapons-grade nuclear material and better protect vulnerable stocks, according to sources with access to a draft communique.

The communique may urge nations to convert nuclear reactors using highly enriched fuel into reactors using low-enriched fuel, which is harder to adapt to produce nuclear weapons. It also calls for strengthening the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency in enforcing nuclear treaties.

Individual countries are expected to make announcements about specific steps they will take to secure vulnerable material and reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism.

WILL IRAN, NORTH KOREA BE DISCUSSED AT THE SUMMIT?

Iran and North Korea are not on the agenda, but U.S. officials say they will be discussed when Obama holds bilateral meetings with foreign leaders, including China’s Hu Jintao, on the sidelines of the summit. Obama is seeking to impose tough new sanctions on Iran over its refusal to stop uranium enrichment, but has yet to win over a skeptical China. He also wants North Korea to return to nuclear disarmament talks. (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

Q+A: Obama summit to highlight threat of nuclear terrorism