Tuesday, April 13, 2010

SANTIAGO, Chile | Deep inside the containment building of a nuclear reactor that Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet built for his army, an aging engineer in a white lab coat struggled with a common house key to unlock a closet door.

Opening a dusty wooden box he pulled from a shelf, he revealed an array of thin aluminum-coated plates, and lifted one out with his bare hands.

“This is it,” said Hugo Torres, the reactor’s operations manager.

“It” is highly enriched uranium 235, HEU for short. It’s the material that most worries anti-terrorism experts. Just 55 pounds of it in a nuclear bomb could devastate an entire city, in the same way the United States destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

President Obama’s major shift in U.S. nuclear strategy puts a new emphasis on securing this kind of weapons-grade nuclear material, recognizing that terrorists and rogue states pose a much more immediate threat than the old fears of a communist nation provoking nuclear Armageddon by attacking the U.S. or its allies.

Mr. Obama now hopes to enlist leaders of 47 other nations at a White House summit that began Monday to help him keep an ambitious promise, made a year ago this week, to secure all the world’s vulnerable nuclear material within four years.

He has proposed a 68 percent increase in the Global Threat Reduction Initiative’s budget to $559 million next year, to recover more HEU and fight smuggling of nuclear material by strengthening border controls and port security.

But the U.S. needs extensive cooperation from other nations to get the job done — and Chile has become an example of how small countries can play a big part in the process.

Chile was among the first to agree to surrender its last HEU, 40 pounds it got from Britain and France for its two research reactors. A team of Americans finally shipped it out last month just after the country’s massive earthquake, weaving a convoy of trucks around shattered highways in the middle of the night to reach a functioning port.

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