With fears rising that the Islamic State is trying to obtain nuclear weapons, President Obama will convene a global summit in Washington Thursday hampered by no-show Russia, a key target in the U.S. effort to lock down vulnerable atomic materials.
The two-day conference is aimed at persuading leaders from about 50 countries to secure or eliminate their bomb-making ingredients, although analysts say much of the world’s plutonium is still at risk of falling into the wrong hands due to its widespread commercial use in power plants. Enriched uranium, a particular concern in the Iranian nuclear deal, is also used to make bombs.
But Russia, which has an enormous nuclear arsenal and an increasing emphasis on nuclear weapons in its defense strategy, won’t attend the summit. Mr. Obama’s relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin are rocky at best; White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Moscow’s avoidance of the summit is “yet another consequence” of Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine.
Pakistan, another nuclear power causing major proliferation concerns for the U.S., is sending a lower-level representative after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif canceled his attendance to grapple with a horrific terrorist attack targeting Christians on Easter Sunday. Iran, which has challenged the U.S. with a string of missile tests in recent months despite inking last year’s deal designed to curb its nuclear programs, also will not particpate in Mr. Obama’s summit.
The issue of nuclear proliferation has flared up on the U.S. campaign trail in recent days, following comments last Friday from Republican front-runner Donald Trump that the U.S. should consider allowing South Korea and Japan to obtain nuclear weapons, in part to defend themselves better and ease the burden and expense for the U.S. military.
Although the White House said Wednesday the proposal would be “incredibly destabilizing,” Mr. Trump argued it was inevitable that states such as South Korea, Japan and even Saudi Arabia would soon join the nuclear club.
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“It’s going to happen anyway,” Mr. Trump said at a town hall in Milwaukee Tuesday night. “It’s only a question of time. They’re going to start having them or we have to get rid of them entirely.”
Although the U.S. and its allies still worry about North Korea, the White House believes the threat posed by Iran has subsided due to the nuclear deal, leaving extremist groups as a major concern.
“We know that terrorist organizations have the desire to get access to these raw materials and their desire to have a nuclear device,” said White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. “It’s important that we have a discussion that addresses the most lethal threat from terrorist organizations.”
U.S. officials say they don’t know of any imminent terrorist plots involving nuclear weapons or a “dirty bomb,” a device made of radiological material.
Two of the Islamic State suicide bombers in last week’s attacks in Brussels had secretly filmed the daily routine of the head of Belgium’s nuclear research and development program, and were considering an attack on a nuclear site in the country, Belgian media has reported. The video was found in the extremists’ apartment after the Paris terrorist attacks last November.
The havoc such an attack could wreak in an urban area like New York or London is concerning enough that leaders scheduled a special session on the threat during the two-day summit. U.S. officials said the leaders would discuss a hypothetical scenario about a chain of events that could lead to nuclear terrorism.
Some arms control advocates say the international effort to curb nuclear proliferation that Mr. Obama launched in 2010 is losing steam.
The nuclear security summits “have had a positive effect, but the strategic goal of developing an effective global nuclear security system remains unachieved,” said the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an anti-proliferation watchdog, in a report.
The group’s Nuclear Security Index, which tracks the safety of weapons-grade nuclear materials, said there has been no improvement during the past two years on issues ranging from on-site physical protection and the security of nuclear materials during transport to the ability to recover lost radioactive materials. Seven of 24 countries with weapons-grade material, including China and Belgium, received the lowest possible score for their facilities’ cybersecurity.
Robert Gallucci, the chief U.S. negotiator during the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis, said the West “should really worry about miscalculation, considering their leadership” in Pyongyang. In addition to its belligerent nuclear tests, he said North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un and his advisers “will not understand that it is threatening to the United States uniquely to transfer nuclear weapons or material” to unstable countries such as Syria, where it is more likely to be obtained by extremist groups.
During a discussion of nuclear security at the Wilson Center this week, Mr. Gallucci held up a drinking glass as he talked about “tons” of unsecured plutonium.
“The amount it would take to utterly destroy this city would fit in this glass,” he said. “We are not addressing this problem, because frankly it’s politically difficult.”
He said the U.S. isn’t willing to discourage allies heavily invested in nuclear power plants, such as France, from selling equipment to countries such as China. He said it’s “very misleading” for the administration to claim it is addressing the problem of nuclear security without tackling the availability of plutonium that’s used in nuclear plants.
Laura Holgate, Mr. Obama’s adviser on weapons of mass destruction, noted that 30 countries who attended the last summit in 2014 have agreed to secure their plutonium and enriched uranium.
“The international community has made it harder than ever for terrorists to acquire nuclear weapons, and that has made us all more secure,” she told reporters.
Former California Democratic Rep. Jane Harman, director of the Wilson Center, said another international “miscalculation” that concerns her is “this endless feud between Pakistan and India,” both of which possess nuclear weapons.
Franklin Miller, a former national security council official in the George W. Bush administration, said he’s concerned about India’s potential response to another major terrorist attack originating in Muslim-majority Pakistan.
“Once events get into play, it could be the Aug. 14 scenario,” Mr. Miller said, referring to the start of World War I. “That really worries me, and it’s beyond our control.”
Security experts believe nine countries around the world have nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, Pakistan, India, North Korea and Israel.
During the summit, Mr. Obama will meet first with South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, two crucial allies in the effort to contain North Korea’s expanding nuclear aggression. He’ll also hold a meeting on the sidelines with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss North Korea and a range of other issues, from cybersecurity to human rights.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.