WASHINGTON, April 12, 2010 -- President Obama brought together leaders from 46 other nations today with one goal in mind -- keeping nuclear material out of the hands of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Even before the nuclear summit began, the White House was touting Obama's success in getting Ukraine to agree to dispose of its entire stock of highly-enriched uranium, said to be enough for several nuclear weapons.
"This was one of the priority items that President Obama had when he entered office, and there has been a lot of work that has been done over the past 15 months," White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said.
Obama said he hopes Ukraine's decision will encourage other countries to give up their nuclear material and punish those who don't.
Today, Obama met with Chinese President Hu Jintao and secured his agreement in principle for sanctions against Iran, with the goal of encouraging Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program. China is the last of the five permanent members of U.N. Security Council to agree to sanctions against Iran.
More than 2,100 tons of highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium are currently scattered throughout the globe. At the summit today, Vice President Biden sought to illustrate the danger posed by that material.
"Just 50 pounds of high purity uranium, smaller than a soccer ball, could destroy the downtown of all our capital cities and kill tens, if not hundreds of thousands of individuals," Biden said.
Disposing of Dangerous Material
The material can be disposed of in a variety of ways. In Ukraine's case, Russia will likely take the lead in securing its uranium. The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration also has its own threat reduction team to secure potentially dangerous material around the globe.
About six weeks ago, one such team was invited by the Chilean government to collect highly enriched uranium from two research reactors. The American team transported 40 pounds of weapons-grade material to the Charleston Naval Weapons Station, a location believed to be safe from terrorists and rogue nations.
Nuclear Material Could Become Weapon for Terrorists
Recent cases prove that the threat of nuclear material falling into the wrong hands is very real. Four years ago, a four-man cell of Russian and Georgian smugglers was caught with nearly 80 grams of highly enriched uranium that could have been used to make an actual atomic bomb.
"It's not a hypothetical worry, it's an ongoing reality," said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear proliferation expert at Harvard University. "We need to lock down this material."
Nine countries have atomic weapons, and 38 more store or produce uranium and plutonium. There is enough nuclear material in those known countries to produce more than 100,000 nuclear weapons.
"What's worrisome is the cases we don't know about," Bunn said. "There is a lot of nuclear material that is well-secured, but there is a lot that's not. We need to do something about that, and we need to do it fast."
A Dangerous World
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world's central intergovernmental forum for scientific and technical cooperation in the nuclear field, there have been more than 100 cases where nuclear material has been smuggled since 1993. This includes 18 incidents where highly-enriched, weapons-grade uranium was stolen or lost.
Authorities often point to Russia, the former Soviet republics and Pakistan as the countries that pose the biggest risk. The former USSR held a significant stock of nuclear material, which was put at risk during the political upheaval in former Soviet countries that followed the fall of communism.
Pakistan also has a significant cache of nuclear material, following its development of atomic weapons in an arms race with India in the 1970s. Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, widely viewed as the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, has long been accused of sharing nuclear secrets with rogue states such as North Korea. He is currently banned from leaving Pakistan, after being placed under house arrest there for several years.
Recent incidents suggest that relaxed security at nuclear facilities worldwide remains a serious and pressing issue. This includes the United States, which mistakenly shipped nuclear triggers to Taiwan in 2006.
According to the Kennedy School's Belfer Center, just two months ago, peace activists breached the Kleine-Borgel air base in Belgium, a location where nuclear weapons are believed to be stored. The activists climbed in undetected over a simple chain-link fence and were on the property for 90 minutes before they were arrested.
That incident came after a similar breach at the air base in 2009 and the 2001 arrest of a al Qaeda operative who was planning to bomb the same facility. The group had bought photographs of the base from an insider.
Nuclear facilities in the United States are protected by armed guards, concrete barriers, sophisticated cameras and motion sensors, and the Obama administration wants to make such security precautions standard protocol around the world.
That goal will be difficult, though, because nuclear material is not just restricted to military installations. Components for radiological or dirty bombs can be found in thousands of places around the world, in places as innocuous as hospitals and construction sites.