Barack Obama, the US President, has warned that nuclear terrorism is the gravest threat to global security as he calls for action to keep nuclear-grade material out of the hands of extremists.
At a two-day summit on Monday, the biggest gathering of world leaders led by an American president since the end of the Second World War, Mr Obama will urge international co-operation on securing every ounce of loose nuclear material within four years. Ahead of the meeting, he said: “The single biggest threat to U.S. security, both short-term, medium-term and long-term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon. “This is something that could change the security landscape in this country and around the world for years to come.” “If there was ever a detonation in New York City, or London, or Johannesburg, the ramifications economically, politically and from a security perspective would be devastating. “We know that organisations like al-Qaeda are in the process of trying to secure nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, and would have no compunction at using them.” Sounding a dire warning in advance of the summit, Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, warned that a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb – smaller than the device dropped by the US on Hiroshima in 1945 – detonated in Times Square could kill a million people. “Beyond the human cost, a nuclear terrorist attack would also touch off a tsunami of social and economic consequences across our country,” she said. “A lot of countries haven’t seen the threat as we see it. It hasn’t been a high international priority and that’s what we intend to make it,” she said. The nuclear security summit marks Mr Obama’s boldest effort yet to exercise global leadership on one of his principal foreign policy themes, non-proliferation, and follows a week when he moved US nuclear policy away from old Cold War threats and signed a new missile reduction agreement with the Russians. Mr Obama expects fellow leaders to agree to his four-year time frame in a final communique that will include pledges of action and calls for tougher prosecutions of traffickers in weapons grade materials. In a series of meetings he will also discuss the nuclear weapons programmes of North Korea and Iran, which have been developed beyond international limits. Tehran has reacted aggressively to the summit, announcing that it was now capable of enriching uranium at a faster rate, and filing a formal complaint with the United Nations against the United States after Mr Obama excluded Iran from a promise not to use nuclear weapons against countries that do not have them. But the US President is keen not to allow anything to overshadow his main aim for the summit, which is concentrating other governments’ minds on the nitty-gritty of how to control global stocks of separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium, the two materials that can be used for nuclear explosives. Much of it is held by private industry, and experts have estimated that terrorists could build an improvised nuclear device with as little as 55lbs of highly enriched uranium, an amount that would be around the size of a grapefruit. They have warned that hundreds of sites holding atom bombs or material may lack adequate security. Though the US and Russia have co-operated on securing stocks in the former Soviet Union – the largest global supply – there have been at least 15 cases of smuggling involving weapons-grade nuclear materials since 1993. Western officials worry about unrest in nuclear-armed Pakistan allowing al-Qaeda to obtain an atomic weapon, or that Iran’s nuclear ambitions leading eventually to the arming of Hizbollah or Hamas with nuclear weapons. North Korea has already been accused of selling nuclear technology to Syria, and officials worry financial desperation could prompt the regime to do business with terror groups. However, many experts view the possibility of extremists building a working atom bomb on their own as remote. Brian Jenkins, a senior adviser at the RAND Corporation think tank, said: “al-Qaeda appears to have figured out that fomenting nuclear terror does not require possession of nuclear weapons at all. Their communication has been so successful on this issue that al-Qaeda has become the world first virtual terrorist nuclear power without possessing nuclear weapons.”