For Fear of Nuclear Terrorism

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), April 13, 2010 | Go to article overview

For Fear of Nuclear Terrorism


Byline: Robert Burns Associated Press

WASHINGTON President Barack Obama optimistically opened a 47-nation nuclear summit Monday, boosted by Ukraines announcement it will give up its weapons-grade uranium. More sobering: The White House counterterror chief warned that al-Qaida is vigorously pursuing ingredients and expertise for a bomb.

At the same time, Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao sought agreement on potential sanctions to discourage Irans efforts to come up with its own nuclear weapon.

Ukraines decision dovetailed with Obamas goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear materials

worldwide within four years an objective that the White House hopes will be endorsed by all summit countries at a closing session today, even if the means to accomplish it are unclear.

The fear is terrorists or a nation other than the major nuclear powers could obtain crucial ingredients and inflict horrendous damage.

Before formally opening the summit, Obama held a series of one-on-one meetings with leaders from China, Jordan, Ukraine, Armenia and Malaysia.

Presidential aides billed the summit as the largest gathering of world leaders hosted by an American president since the 1945 conference in San Francisco that founded the United Nations.

The talks are a centerpiece of Obamas broader agenda for ridding the world of nuclear weapons, a long-term process he says should include gradual disarmament by the nuclear powers, stronger steps to head off a nuclear arms race and more urgent action to lock down tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium that are the key building blocks of atomic weapons.

According to Harvards Belfer Center, there are about 3.5 million pounds of highly enriched uranium and half a million pounds of bomb-grade plutonium in the world. Combined, they could be used to build as many as 200,000 nuclear weapons, or about 81/2 times the worlds current total of 23,360 warheads.

Not all countries share Obamas view the nuclear-materials problem is a priority. Some think the bigger emphasis should be on disarmament, particularly by the United States and Russia, which despite recent reductions still possess 90 percent of the worlds nuclear arms.

At a parallel unofficial conference of more than 200 international nuclear experts, participants said too many leaders dont share Obamas urgency about nuclear ingredients.

"There is a great complacency among policymakers around the world that terrorist groups couldnt make a nuclear bomb," said Matthew Bunn of Harvard.

In a detailed report on the challenge of securing nuclear materials, Bunn said no one really knows the likelihood of nuclear terrorism.

"But the consequences of a terrorist nuclear blast would be so catastrophic that even a small chance is enough to justify urgent action to reduce the risk," he wrote. "The heart of a major city could be reduced to a smoldering radioactive ruin, leaving tens to hundreds of thousands of people dead."

Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy focused on his home region, where both Pakistan and India are building up their nuclear arsenals.

"Unfortunately, I do not see this concern either in Pakistan or India about nuclear terrorism," he said. "Both countries do not see the seriousness of this situation."

Seeking to highlight the urgency of the threat posed by terrorists in pursuit of a nuclear bomb, John Brennan, the White Houses counterterrorism chief, told reporters al-Qaida is actively in search of the key ingredients for a bomb and the expertise to assemble it. …

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