World Leaders Gather To Discuss Staving Off Nuclear Catastrophe

Around 50 heads of state are in Washington D.C. to focus on the nuclear threat

It's not just the Koreas who have a nuclear problem. — REUTERS
Apr 01, 2016 at 8:09 AM ET

As the newly minted leader of the free world, President Barack Obama gave a speech in Prague in April 2009 that outlined his vision of a world without nuclear weapons. To get there Obama spoke of new U.S. policies related to nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and energy, and he announced that the United States would host the first summit on nuclear security the following year. It was an aspirational speech designed to capture the attention of a world no longer focused on the Cold War nuclear arms race between the United States and the former Soviet Union. At the first Nuclear Security Summit in 2010, U.S. organizers could not even get participants to listen to a briefing on the threat posed by nuclear weapons and materials.

That’s unlikely to happen this time, as roughly 50 heads of state gather in Washington, D.C. this week for the fourth and likely final Nuclear Security Summit, where everyone will be focused on the nuclear threat.

In January the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea conducted its fourth test of a nuclear device, followed the next month by the successful launch of a multi-stage rocket, events suggesting that the bellicose and unpredictable regime in Pyongyang may soon be able to threaten U.S. cities with nuclear annihilation. After annexing Crimea, dismembering Ukraine and declaring NATO his country’s chief adversary, Russian President Vladimir Putin – who sits atop the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons and materials – declined to even attend this week’s summit out of pique with the United States. Meanwhile, recently captured video footage has revealed that the same terrorist cell behind the massacres in Paris and Brussels had a Belgian nuclear scientist under surveillance, quite possibly with the idea of sabotaging a Belgian nuclear reactor or acquiring radiological material for a “dirty bomb.”

More The Islamic State Seeks Doomsday Weapons

Visions of a world without nuclear weapons aside, the Obama administration hopes this week’s summit will help avoid an all-too-plausible nuclear catastrophe.

“We know that terrorist organizations have the desire to get access to these raw [nuclear] materials and their desire to have a nuclear device.  That was certainly the case with al Qaeda, and that is certainly the case with ISIL as well,” said Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor, speaking to reporters this week. “And given the ongoing concern about chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria, we have seen ample proof that terrorist organizations like ISIL have no regard for innocent human life or international norms, and that only redoubles the need for us to have effective international nuclear security approaches.” ISIL is another word for ISIS, which is also called the Islamic State.

As a result of the growing risks of nuclear proliferation and breakout, this week’s Nuclear Security Summit will feature multiple threat briefings and discussions. On Thursday President Obama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and held a trilateral discussion with Japan and South Korea. The chief topic of those talks was North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. As a result of its recent provocations, the U.N. Security Council passed the toughest sanctions ever imposed on North Korea, with China’s consent as a permanent member. In the trilateral discussions the Obama administration discussed the deployment of additional missile defenses to the region to guard against possible North Korean aggression.

More A Brief History Of North Korea’s Nuclear Tests

The Obama administration will also hold a special sub-summit of world leaders focused specifically on the threat posed by ISIS, and its plots to attack urban centers. A major focus of those talks will be efforts to better secure still vulnerable stockpiles of radiological materials to keep the group from acquiring a “dirty bomb.”

“I do think there has been a kind of lasting change in countries’ perspectives about the nuclear threat,” said Sharon Squassoni, director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. At the first Nuclear Security Summit in 2010, she noted, organizers could not get other countries to even listen to a threat briefing, so none was held. By 2014, Dutch leaders of the summit held in the Netherlands ran a tabletop exercise depicting a nuclear catastrophe. Last January, U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz gathered his counterparts from many Nuclear Security Summit countries for a table-top exercise looking at responses to a nuclear event that creates radiological contamination across national borders.

“And this week we’re watching actual events play out in Belgium, where the terrorist activity has lit a fire under Belgian officials in terms of strengthening their nuclear facilities,” said Squassoni. “Just last month, for example, there were no armed guards at their nuclear power reactors. Now there are armed guards.”

More Is This What A North Korean D-Day Would Look Like?

With no further Nuclear Security Summits planned, the Obama administration hopes this week to institutionalize ongoing international efforts to secure global stockpiles of nuclear material, which still include roughly 2,000 metric tons of nuclear weapons-usable materials such as highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium. Since the effort began in 2010, 14 countries have eliminated their stockpiles of nuclear material, and many others have implemented security measures to better protect their stocks. To maintain that momentum, the Obama administration anticipates issuing “action plans” at the conclusion of this week’s summit designed to empower organizations such as the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency, the Global Partnership that promotes cooperative nuclear threat reduction programs, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism co-chaired by the United States and Russia, as well as Interpol.

Obama administration officials are also working on 17 joint statements of cooperation among various groupings of countries – called “gift baskets” – that commit them to specific steps to address issues such as nuclear smuggling, insider threats at nuclear facilities, and cybersecurity. Over the course of the previous three Nuclear Security Summits, participants have made over 260 such national commitments, roughly 75 percent of which have been implemented. To try and sustain that effort, the administration will also launch a “Nuclear Security Contact Group” of senior-level, international experts who will monitor initiatives and commitments made at the summits.

More Sanctions Lifted: Historic Iran Nuclear Deal Goes Into Effect

The Obama administration sees the summits focused on securing nuclear materials as a cornerstone of its “Prague Agenda” outlined back in 2009. That legacy includes disarmament measures such as the 2011 New START treaty with Russia reducing and limiting the nuclear weapons arsenals of both countries; and the deal limiting and monitoring Iran’s nuclear program, the administration’s signature nonproliferation achievement. On Friday, President Obama is scheduled to meet with the “P5-plus-1” countries that negotiated the deal with Iran (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany), to discuss ongoing implementation of the Iran deal.

“What we’ve been trying to do since the Prague speech is to reinvigorate both bilateral and multilateral efforts and to challenge nations to examine their own commitments to nuclear security.  And the Nuclear Security Summit process has been central to those efforts,” said Rhodes. “Since the first summit in April of 2010, President Obama and more than 50 world leaders have been working together to prevent nuclear terrorism, to counter nuclear smuggling, and to enhance nuclear security through the summit process. Because of these efforts, it is harder than ever before for terrorists or bad actors to acquire nuclear materials, and that makes all of our people more secure. So we believe that we’ve built a track record of meaningful progress on nuclear security.”