Momentum slows on Obama's nuclear security agendaReprints
(Reuters) — Just as fears of nuclear terrorism are on the rise, President Barack Obama's U.S.-led drive to lock down all vulnerable atomic materials worldwide risks losing momentum.
Obama will convene a global summit in Washington this week in the aftermath of deadly militant attacks in Brussels that have fueled concern that Islamic State could eventually target nuclear plants and develop radioactive "dirty bombs."
But despite significant progress in persuading countries to protect or rid themselves of bomb-making materials, much of the world's plutonium and enriched uranium remains poorly secured.
At the same time, the effort has been complicated by fresh nuclear advances by North Korea and diplomatic tensions between the United States and Russia.
All of this weighs on Obama's agenda as he prepares to host world leaders for his fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit on Thursday and Friday. He inaugurated the event nearly six years ago, early in his tenure, after using his landmark 2009 Prague speech to lay out the goal of eventually ridding the world of nuclear weapons as a central theme of his presidency.
While Obama's hopes have bumped up against geopolitical reality, the White House is touting a list of nuclear security achievements as he heads into his final 10 months in office.
Arms control advocates commend Obama for his efforts, but many see progress slowing.
"The Nuclear Security Summits have had a positive effect, but the strategic goal of developing an effective global nuclear security system remains unachieved," the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an anti-proliferation watchdog, said in a report.
According to the group's Nuclear Security Index, which tracks the safety of weapons-usable nuclear materials, the past two years have brought no improvement in a range of measures, including on-site physical protection, security during transport and the ability to recover lost radioactive materials.
The report also said many countries' nuclear reactors were vulnerable to online attacks. Seven of 24 countries with weapons-grade material, including China and Belgium, received the lowest possible score for their facilities' cyber security.
Other critics point to a lack of an agreed-upon set of international standards for nuclear security or a mechanism for keeping tabs on common sources of radioactive material found in hospitals and medical labs.
However, Laura Holgate, Obama's adviser on weapons of mass destruction, cited commitments from 30 countries at the last summit in 2014 to secure their most dangerous material.
"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 in a teleconference previewing the summit.
"Dirty Bomb” Fears
Still, with the summit set to bring together more than 50 countries in the wake of last week's Brussels attacks, U.S. officials acknowledge that the threat of nuclear terrorism from Islamic State could be uppermost in leaders' minds.
Two of the suicide bombers had secretly filmed the daily routine of the head of Belgium's nuclear research and development program and considered an attack on a nuclear site in the country, according to Belgian media.
U.S. experts are less concerned about militants obtaining nuclear weapon components than thefts of easier-to-acquire ingredients for a low-tech "dirty bomb" that would use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material and sow panic.
U.S. officials said they had no doubt that Islamic State, which still controls large swathes of Syria and Iraq, was interested in getting its hands on nuclear and radiological materials. But Holgate said U.S. authorities had no "explicit indications" that the group had tried to do so.
More commitments from world leaders to enhance nuclear security are expected at this summit, but anti-proliferation groups worry that without further meetings at the highest levels, interest could wane and improvements could backslide.
Adding to the sense that Obama's last nuclear summit might not be as productive as the earlier ones, Russian officials are skipping the meeting. The White House called the decision a "missed opportunity."
Some analysts suggested that President Vladimir Putin, chafing over U.S.-led international sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine conflict, was sending a message that Moscow would not abide American leadership on the issue.