The Islamic State’s brazen terrorist attacks in Paris last November and its follow-up attacks in Brussels last month cast a shadow over a summit of world leaders in Washington, D.C., about tightening global controls on nuclear materials usable in a terrorist bomb.
President Obama, speaking on April 1 at the capital’s convention center to 37 heads of state or prime ministers and delegations from 52 countries, said significant progress has been made over the past eight years, during which he led four summits on the subject.
Agreements were reached at the meeting to keep the discussion alive within the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and INTERPOL, the international crime-fighting agency. But Obama also warned — as he has at previous summits — that “there’s still a great deal of nuclear and radioactive material around the world that needs to be secured.”
U.S. officials said the task was made more urgent by the discovery last year that Islamic State sympathizers in Belgium were monitoring the movements of a nuclear official there, as part of an apparent plot to steal radioactive materials that could be attached to a so-called “dirty bomb” that would sow wide contamination. Obama screened a video for the leaders depicting the chaotic consequences of such a blast in an urban center.
“The Belgium example, I think it reinforces what we’ve seen for many years, which is that we have seen indications both through their public statements and through their actions that terrorist organizations like al Qaeda and ISIL [the Islamic State] have an interest in getting their hands on these types of materials,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, told reporters during a briefing on the summit’s first day, March 31. “They want to do as much damage as possible.”
The discussion about “dirty bombs” forged from radioactive materials in an estimated 70,000 industrial and health devices around the globe was a notable shift in emphasis, because Washington had previously worried more about the risk that a terrorist might get ahold of plutonium or highly-enriched uranium, the sparkplugs of a potential nuclear blast like those that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.
Leaders at the summit made no concrete commitment of funds or manpower to diminish the “dirty bomb” threat, but 23 of the countries agreed to ensure they were better prepared for such a detonation through exercises, training and communications planning.
More generally, the U.S. joined 21 countries in pledging to use alternatives to highly-enriched uranium for civilian nuclear purposes, like research reactors, power plants and medical isotopes, or to shut the reactors down. For 20 of the countries, the agreement represents a departure from current policies.
Thirty nations also signed on to agreements to strengthen cybersecurity at nuclear sites. Twenty-seven pledged to improve protections against insider threats and 37 agreed to expand surveillance for radioactive materials in international ports.
Obama reflected on the accomplishments of the past six years when he took the stage for more than a half hour at the summit’s conclusion. He touted the 3.8 tons of nuclear material — enough to make 150 nuclear bombs — that’s been corralled from 50 facilities in 30 countries. Obama pointed to the 14 nations and Taiwan, including Argentina, Chile, Libya, Turkey and Vietnam, which have given up their plutonium and highly-enriched uranium.
“As of today, South America, an entire continent is completely free of these dangerous materials,” Obama said. “As terrorists and criminal gangs and arms merchants look around for deadly ingredients for a nuclear device, vast regions of the world are off limits,”
And the U.S. took a step of its own at the final summit. Responding to growing controversy over the Navy’s longstanding use of highly-enriched uranium to power nuclear reactors at sea, the Obama administration agreed to explore the feasibility of powering its vessels with low-enriched uranium, which cannot be diverted into nuclear weapons. The proposal had the support of 35 Nobel laureates.
In his remarks at the end of the summit, Obama singled out only North Korea for specific criticism, but said progress is needed between Pakistan and India. He referred disparagingly to the fact that “global stocks of plutonium are growing” – a circumstance that experts say is occurring in Japan, India, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom. He also expressed worry that “nuclear arsenals are expanding in some countries with small tactical weapons that could be at greater risk of theft” – an issue that relates primarily to Pakistan.
The chilly relationship between Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin was a frequent topic of discussion in the halls of the summit, since Putin had decided not to attend this meeting after participating in the first three. When senior administration officials were asked about it, they all said Russia had “only isolated itself.”
But independent experts —and less senior U.S. officials — have expressed deep frustration about the absence of any serious nuclear security dialogue between the two countries, emphasizing that Washington cannot verify that Russia is adhering to tight nuclear security standards without being able to visit sites that have benefitted from past U.S. economic aid.
“Because Mr. Putin came into power, or returned to his office as president, and because of the vision that he’s been pursuing of emphasizing military might over development inside of Russia and diversifying the economy, we have not seen the progress that I would hope for,” Obama said during his address at the end of the summit.
Obama has authorized an unprecedented modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal that will cost $1 trillion over the next three decades, according to several estimates. A new fleet of submarines, a new ground-based nuclear-tipped missile system, and a precision cruise missile are among the weapons systems that Obama has endorsed.
“It is very difficult to see huge reductions in our nuclear arsenal unless the U.S. and Russia as the two largest possessors of nuclear weapons lead the way,” Obama said during his speech. He told a questioner that the modernization work was required because “we have a nuclear stockpile that we have to make sure is safe and make sure is reliable,” Obama said.
For all its accomplishments, the summit process failed to address the security of military weapon stockpiles – those that are involved in weapons programs and are beyond the reach of standard regulatory framework. It is estimated that 83 percent of all nuclear materials worldwide are in military stockpiles, and therefore out of sight for independent checks to ensure they’re well protected and accounted for.
The Obama administration, in an attempt to persuade other countries to be more transparent about their military holdings, released a detailed accounting of its military nuclear material holdings on the final day of the summit.
“While there has been a lot of progress on the civilian side, the issue of military materials has to be addressed and has not been sufficiently addressed at this summit,” Andrew Bieniawski, a former senior official at the Department of Energy who’s now the vice president for material security and minimization at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an independent group that advocates for tighter nuclear security, said.
“The path that this administration cut was to highlight the issue and bring people together,” Kenneth Luongo, president of the Partnership for Global Security, another nonprofit focused on international security issues. “That is new. That is valuable.” But Luongo and others said they’re disappointed that more wasn’t accomplished, mentioning in particular that the summits did not set distinct goals for tightening security and timelines to complete them.
While the end of the summits worries Luongo and other independent experts that momentum will fade, its legacy will live on in a less formal way and below the heads-of-state level that was agreed to at the summit. The International Atomic Energy Agency is slated to host continued meetings involving high level experts. INTERPOL will help foster a new era of communication across borders about terrorist threats. The United Nations is to oversee future progress reports on nuclear security. A Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction will guide summit nations in continued improvement of security measures.
“President Obama deserves a lot of credit,” Miles Pomper, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation, said. At the same time, “I think he could have done a lot more….As in a lot of issues, his legacy will depend in part on what happens next. Does the next president intend to make this a top issue, or do they forget about it?”
Help support this work
Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.