- The Washington Times - Monday, April 12, 2010

A global summit of world leaders begins in Washington on Monday with the goal of preventing terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons.

But the meeting will not address a long-stalled treaty to control fissile material, the key ingredient for nuclear weapons.

Representatives from 47 countries plus U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the leaders from the European Union converge on Washington for two days of talks with the goal of seeking broad agreement on securing nuclear material that is vulnerable to theft or black-market purchase.

The nuclear-security summit reflects the Obama administration’s efforts to focus world attention on the specter of a nuclear terrorist attack.

“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,” President Obama told reporters before meeting with South African President Jacob Zuma.

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The summit is also part of a new emphasis on nuclear security and nonproliferation. Last week in Prague, Mr. Obama signed a treaty with his Russian counterpart to further reduce the number of nuclear warheads for both nations from between 1,700 and 2,200 to 1,550. The U.S. is hoping to strengthen the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) next month in U.N. negotiations in New York.

Mr. Obama, in a speech last year in Prague, set an ambitious goal to secure all such material within four years. U.S. and Russian technical specialists have been working to secure loose nuclear material since the end of the Cold War.

The Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) is a proposed international agreement that would require adherents to forgo any future enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade levels.

Despite its focus on securing “vulnerable nuclear material,” the summit will not focus on limiting the production of fissile material.

Michael Hammer, spokesman for the National Security Council, said Friday that Mr. Obama continues to support starting negotiations for the FMCT, based on the agreement last May at the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament.

“By ending production of fissile material for weapons, an FMCT will make an important contribution to our nuclear security and disarmament goals,” Mr. Hammer said. “We hope the treaty will be given new momentum at the NPT Review Conference next month and that negotiations can start when the [conference on disarmament] reconvenes in June.”

A senior administration official said that the FMCT “may come up in national statements, but it is not an issue that is on the agenda for the summit.”

This official added, “While we are not pressing specific states to sign, we would expect that at a minimum the acknowledged nuclear-weapon states [U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain] would join.”

The FMCT was first proposed in 1998 and gained support from the Clinton administration. Israel, an undeclared nuclear power, has long opposed the treaty on fears that it could bring international inspections to its covert nuclear facility in Dimona.

More recently, Pakistan, another nuclear-weapons state that has not signed the NPT, has maneuvered to stall negotiations on the fissile-material treaty.

Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center, said it was a mistake not to try to tackle the fissile-material treaty. “I think there is a desire to focus on where you can get agreement,” he said.

“It’s OK to pick an exceedingly modest goal to get consensus on, but they need to start talking about the root of the problem, which is its expanded production,” said Mr. Sokolski, a former Pentagon official.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said, “What Obama is trying to do here is to focus on a facet of the nuclear problem that has not gotten high-level attention.”

He said the main goal of the conference was to persuade nations with nuclear infrastructure to “reduce the vulnerability of those facilities and nuclear-weapons-usable materials that they have. The overall goal, I believe, needs to expand support for measures that better secure the materials that exist and to expand technical and financial support for nuclear security and safeguards programs.”

Peter Scoblic, an arms-control specialist, said, “I would love for them to push ahead with the FMCT. But you have to deal with the material that is out there already that presents a clear and present danger before you worry about negotiating a treaty to end the future supply of this stuff. Obama wants to get the current material locked down in his first administration.”

Meanwhile, analysts said one issue likely to be high on the agenda of the summit will be discussion of the danger that al Qaeda will gain control of one or more of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, director of intelligence and counterintelligence at the Energy Department during the George W. Bush administration, said there has been bipartisan concern in successive U.S. administrations about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

“You cannot exclude the possibility that the weapons may be targeted by terrorists,” Mr. Mowatt-Larssen said. “The problem is, people get too comfortable that there is a low probability of this happening. But the question is, is there zero probability?”

Pakistan has bristled at suggestions and statements that its nuclear arsenal is vulnerable to terrorists, a sentiment shared publicly by the Obama administration, which has expressed confidence in Islamabad’s ability to secure its facilities.

David Albright, at the Institute for Science and International Security, is not convinced. “The nukes are not as secure as the U.S. and Pakistan say they are. But the U.S. and Pakistan share a common view that they don’t want this to be a cause of fear,” Mr. Albright said.

Most of Pakistan’s nuclear facilities are located in the north and west of the country and around the capital, Islamabad. The Taliban and al Qaeda forces in tribal areas straddling Pakistan’s western border have placed these facilities in the terrorists’ back yard. “Pakistan’s military has a 10,000-person force specifically designed to protect nuclear facilities. The problem is that Pakistan is in a bad neighborhood,” said Ken Luongo, a former Energy Department arms control and nonproliferation director.

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has declared it his religious duty to get his hands on a nuclear weapon.

In a report last year, Shaun Gregory, director of the Pakistan Security Research Unit at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom, documented three attacks by terrorists on nuclear facilities in Pakistan. These included an attack on the nuclear missile storage facility at Sargodha on Nov. 1, 2007; an attack on Pakistan’s nuclear air base at Kamra by a suicide bomber on Dec. 10, 2007; and an Aug. 20, 2008, attack by Pakistani Taliban suicide bombers at several entry points to one of the armament complexes at the Wah cantonment.

Mr. Gregory does not share “the rhetorical confidence of either the Obama administration or the Pakistani army on the safety and security of Pakistani nukes.”

“I think some inside the CIA and U.S. Army are rather more worried,” he said.

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