Danger of Nuclear-Armed Extremists Persists, U.S. President Says

President Obama delivers remarks on Monday at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea. Obama on Monday said potential nuclear or radiological terrorist strikes are still among the greatest dangers to the world (AP Photo/Susan Walsh).
President Obama delivers remarks on Monday at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea. Obama on Monday said potential nuclear or radiological terrorist strikes are still among the greatest dangers to the world (AP Photo/Susan Walsh).

The potential for extremists to detonate a nuclear weapon or radiological "dirty bomb" is still among the most significant dangers facing the international community, President Obama said on Monday in comments reported by Agence France-Presse (see GSN, March 26).

Nations have achieved large strides since 2010 in securing potential nuclear-weapon fuel against extremists, the U.S. leader said prior to the start of this week's Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea.

"But we're under no illusions. We know that nuclear material -- enough for many weapons -- is still being stored without adequate protection," Obama said. "We know that terrorists and criminal gangs are still trying to get their hands on it, as well as the radioactive material for a dirty bomb ... the danger of nuclear terrorism remains one of the greatest threats to global security."

State participants in the summit must "keep at it" and pursue substantive actions to lock down atomic substances, he said in remarks to heads of government or senior delegates for 53 countries.

A significant number of governments appeared set to describe their completion of commitments articulated at the inaugural atomic summit nearly 24 months ago in Washington, and additional nations looked poised to issue further vows on the protection or elimination of sensitive substances, the president said.

"This is the serious and sustained global effort we need. This is an example of more nations bearing the responsibility and the costs of meeting global challenges," Obama said (Agence France-Presse/Botswana Gazette, March 26).

Maintaining medical isotope production using uranium unsuitable for use in weapons is one goal of a deal brokered between by United States, Belgium, France and the Netherlands, the Associated Press quoted the president as saying on Monday. Weapon-usable uranium is in some cases used to manufacture such isotopes, which are employed widely in various medical procedures (see GSN, March 21; Associated Press/Google News, March 26).

The four nations issued a "joint statement" in Seoul that "provides a framework for cooperation on minimizing for the future the use of [highly enriched uranium] in the production of the medical isotope molybdenum 99 (Mo-99) while still ensuring a reliable supply of this lifesaving radioisotope," the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration said in a press release. "Mo-99 is used to produce a medical isotope that is used in more than 100,000 medical procedures every day. This crucial medial isotope is currently produced at aging facilities primarily using HEU" (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration release, March 26).

Separately, an Italian-U.S. initiative unveiled by at the summit is intended to remove unneeded plutonium and highly enriched uranium from the European state, the White House announced on Monday.

Italy's Società Gestione Impianti Nucleari has collaborated over the last 12 months with the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, a program overseen by the National Nuclear Security Administration, to locate substances suited for potential transit to the United States for disposal. A bilateral effort linked to the planned 2014 Nuclear Security Summit would seek to achieve the full removal of the substances (White House release, March 26).

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev conferred with Obama at the Seoul summit on Monday, and he received a commendation from the U.S. leader for moving to protect atomic assets, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported..

Countries including Kazakhstan and Ukraine have relinquished atomic substances for transport to sites in other nations with better protections, Obama said (see related GSN story, today).

"Thousands of pounds of nuclear material have been removed from vulnerable sites around the world," reducing their vulnerability to seizure by extremists or governments pursuing a nuclear-armament capacity, the U.S. president added (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, March 25).

Russia through multilateral atomic security efforts has taken control of a quantity of highly enriched uranium potentially sufficient to power 100 nuclear bombs, Interfax quoted Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the Russian atomic energy firm Rosatom, as saying on Friday.

"Overall, Russia has taken back [3,527 pounds] of highly enriched uranium from abroad, which can be used to make about 100 nuclear warheads as a maximum and 65 as a minimum," Kiriyenko said (Interfax, March 23).

Russia's top diplomat on Friday reiterated his country's support for nuclear security priorities outlined in the 2010 summit communique.

"Russia has signed and ratified the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and its amendment, as well as the Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, adopted by the international community at Russia’s initiative," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wrote in a commentary published by the Washington Times on Friday. "We call on other states that have not yet done so to expedite the completion of the necessary internal procedures for accession to these key international instruments" (see GSN, March 12).

The U.S.-Russian Material Consolidation and Conversion program since 2010 has eliminated 2,910 pounds of surplus highly enriched uranium, Lavrov wrote (see GSN, April 25, 2008).

"We decided to export only low-enriched uranium fuel for research reactors," he added. "The Russian-made research reactor fuel repatriation program is being implemented. Since the start of this program, the total of [1,332 pounds] of fresh HEU and [2,174 pounds] of irradiated HEU has been repatriated from 14 countries. We also plan to repatriate the fuel from Vietnam, Ukraine and Uzbekistan" (Sergei Lavrov, Washington Times, March 23).

The number of verified illicit nuclear and radiological incidents, including smuggling cases, since 1994 now exceeds 2,000, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano wrote in a commentary published by the Washington Post on Sunday. Moldovan authorities last year netted an illicit HEU cache that one person had sought to trade away, Amano noted (see GSN, Sept. 27, 2011).

"Progress has been made since President Obama hosted the first such summit two years ago," he wrote. "But nuclear and other radioactive material is still inadequately secured in some countries. There is a real risk of terrorists acquiring and using such material. This global threat requires a global response. Criminals do not respect national borders. Neither does ionizing radiation."

The U.N. nuclear watchdog chief also urged governments to formally adopt the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, calling the agreement a "a crucial antiterrorism instrument."

"The amendment makes it legally binding for countries to protect nuclear material when it is being used or stored, not just when it is being transported -- as the convention currently stipulates -- and would require them to protect nuclear facilities against acts of sabotage that could have consequences similar to nuclear accidents.

"Agreement was reached on the amendment in 2005, but it has not entered into force because not enough countries have ratified it. More than 20 countries attending the Seoul summit have not taken this indispensable step. That needs to change," Amano wrote.

The health risks posed by atomic substances were previously assumed to deter potential smugglers, but "individuals and groups engage in illicit trafficking despite risk to their own and others’ health," the IAEA chief added.

"The fact that the smugglers in Moldova had tried to evade detection by building a shielded container represents a worrying level of sophistication. Fortunately, Moldovan authorities had the capabilities to detect the materials; the uranium was seized and arrests were made" (Yukiya Amano, Washington Post, March 25).

An effort announced by Obama in 2009 to lock down the world's loose atomic substances within four years will leave significant steps unfinished in 2013, though the initiative has achieved progress toward the goal, according to a new report by Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs (see GSN, Feb. 22, 2011).

“At the end of four years, the global risks of nuclear theft will be significantly lower than they were before,” said Matthew Bunn, a Harvard University nuclear weapons expert who co-wrote the assessment. “But there will still be a great deal left to do to make sure that all the world’s stocks of nuclear weapons and the materials needed to make them are protected from the full range of plausible terrorist and criminal threats -- in a way that will last.”

Roughly 2,200 pounds of weapon-grade uranium has been taken out of research reactor sites and six countries no longer hold any highly enriched material. However, while 14 reactors across the globe no longer use such enriched uranium, the material is remains in place at about 120 research and training sites. Global oversight of atomic protections "is still weak" and the number of countries that have made significant advancements in this sector is limited, a press release cites the report as stating.

Talks on nuclear security collaboration are among the measures needed after this week's summit ends, according to the report (Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs release, March 2012).

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has undertaken a new National Counterproliferation Strategy aimed at preventing extremists from obtaining WMD components and knowledge; containing development of WMD and "advanced conventional" defense systems by nations including Iran and North Korea; and bolstering multilateral agreements and institutions intended to promote global stability, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office announced on Friday (British Foreign and Commonwealth Office release, March 23).

March 26, 2012

The potential for extremists to detonate a nuclear weapon or radiological "dirty bomb" is still among the most significant dangers facing the international community, President Obama said on Monday in comments reported by Agence France-Presse.