THE NEW YORK TIMES. APRIL 11, 2010. Editorial.
After 9/11, the world was forced to contemplate an even more terrifying nightmare: the possibility that terrorists could buy or steal a nuclear weapon. Far too little has been done since to head that off.
The vulnerabilities run from thousands of poorly secured short-range nuclear weapons in Russia to poorly guarded nuclear reactors or fuel storage sites in far too many states. There are no mandatory, international security standards for nuclear facilities or for hospitals whose radioactive waste could be used in dirty bombs.
On Monday, President Obama holds a summit meeting in Washington to address these dangers. His very ambitious target is to secure all weapons-useable nuclear material within four years.
The president and his aides worked hard to get 46 other countries to attend. (Iran, North Korea and Syria were not invited; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel pulled out, but his deputy will be there.) They will have to work even harder to get key participants — Pakistan and India are suspicious of any perceived interference and determined to expand their nuclear programs — to commit to serious actions.
Feel-good communiqués will not be enough. The meeting needs to produce concrete deadlines, working groups and future meetings to measure progress.
Beyond the 20,000-plus nuclear weapons in the Russian and American arsenals, experts estimate that worldwide there are roughly 2,100 tons of material that altogether could be used to make some 120,000 bombs. A bomb’s worth can fit in a suitcase. Most of that material is held by the United States and Russia, but there are also stocks in other weapons states and in countries with civilian power programs.
After the cold war, America was rightly focused on the dangers of loose nukes in the former Soviet Union. Since 1992, Washington has used the Nunn-Lugar program to secure sites in Russia and remove fissile material from former Soviet republics. The effort has broadened over the years. Recently, Chile’s last batch of highly enriched uranium from two research reactors was moved to America. There is still much work to be done.
After 9/11, the United Nations Security Council ordered all states to lock up vulnerable material, but left countries to come up with their own plans. There are no mechanisms to verify their actions or punish scofflaws.
This summit meeting must do better. The Obama administration says that mandatory measures are still not feasible. We think it is too early to give up. Here are some other important steps for the conference to take:
The only way to prevent nuclear terrorism is to keep all nuclear materials under strict control. That will take strong and consistent leadership by Mr. Obama and like-minded leaders, beginning with strong commitments at this week’s summit meeting.