Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Party in Washington D.C.

Posted in Nuclear Proliferation, U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy by Dan on April 13, 2010

By now, I’m sure everyone has heard that President Obama is hosting the largest international gathering in Washington since the immediate aftermath of World War II (and if you are not familiar with this story, then I suggest you get out from under that rock).  The issue on the docket is none other than…you guessed it…nuclear weapons and the threat such weapons pose to global peace and security.  But we aren’t talking about the immediate impact of nukes per say, nor is the conference focusing on nuclear-aspirant states, like Iran or North Korea.  Rather, the topic is how to secure loose nuclear material and lock this stuff up before terrorists or criminal organizations get their hands on it.

All I have to say is “it’s about time.”  While the Cold War threat is over, and while the world is much more interdependent in the security spheres than it once was several decades ago, nuclear weapons still pose an existential threat to world in general.  Thousands of tons of loose plutonium and uranium stocks are scattered throughout the former Soviet Union, and many of the storage facilities that house these radioactive stocks are under less than sub-par security.  Hospitals that work with radioactive isotopes- mainly for cancer treatment- are not really protected the way they ought to be protected, which again poses an enhanced risk that some uranium could somehow be stolen by terrorist groups with dangerous ambitions.

I’m just shocked that a Nuclear Security Summit took this long to happen.  Scattered uranium and plutonium is not a new problem, and yet security measures have continued to be lax at best.  In fact, this lack of concern could have had a devastating ripple effect back in 2003, when Al’Qaeda officials in Saudi Arabia were close to purchasing a smuggled bomb from Russia.  Luckily, the plot was intersected and destroyed by the Saudi Government, but such an example shows how quickly plutonium and highly enriched uranium can fall into the wrong hands.

Herein lies Obama’s nuclear summit, whose goal is an ambitious one at that; lock down all nuclear material in four years, promote a global plan to better monitor the trafficking and transport of nuclear material, and entice states to give up their own stocks.  It sounds like a tough hill to climb, but Obama has gotten off to a good start.  He held a personal one-on-one meeting with the president of Kazakhstan- a country that inherited over 1,000 nuclear bombs when the Soviet Union dissolved- and has quickly struck a deal with the Ukraine, whose leaders agreed to relinquish its bomb-grade uranium for economic assistance.

But Obama- and the world- still has a long way to go.  The summit only lasts for 2 days, which is such a short period of time that I don’t know if you can even consider this summit and actual summit.  And as with all international conferences, other interests are at play.  Pakistan is not going to end its nuclear production because India could exploit the situation and capitalize on the opportunity by building more nukes of its own.  Israel won’t destroy its arsenal unless perhaps Arab states normalize relations and Iran ends its own quest for a nuclear program.  Europe is not as concerned with nuclear terrorism as the United States is, and some even question whether new security measures are cost-effective (nuclear security is expensive).  Obama is, after all, one man.  He can’t control everything.

But challenges aside- and there are a number of them- just the fact that 47 leaders have decided to participate in this conference demonstrates how serious the world deems the nuclear weapons related threats, like nuclear terrorism.  A united policy on nuclear security would be a bonus.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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