RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
President Obama has just returned from signing a nuclear arms treaty with Russia, and he's plunging into a summit of world leaders aimed at keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists. Leaders of nearly 50 nations are gathered in Washington, D.C., seeking ways to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. Yesterday, the president met with some of those presidents and prime ministers, and he warned of the possibility of terrorists getting a hold of nuclear weapons.
President BARACK OBAMA: This is something that could change the security landscape in this country and around the world for years to come.
MONTAGNE: Mr. Obama goes into the summit hoping to accomplish one specific goal: getting all vulnerable nuclear materials and weapons locked down within just a few years.
NPR's Mike Schuster has more.
MIKE SCHUSTER: Although the U.S. and Russia have been trying to secure dangerous nuclear materials for more than a decade, there has never before been an international summit this large and at such a high level focused on nuclear security. It's part of the shift in thinking that is taking place globally as the nuclear confrontation of the Cold War gives way to other concerns, says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Clinton spoke on Friday at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.
Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): The nature of the threat has changed. We no longer live in constant fear of a global nuclear war, where we're in a standoff against the Russians with all of our nuclear arsenal on the ready. But as President Obama has said, the risk of a nuclear attack has actually increased. And the potential consequences of mishandling this challenge are deadly.
SCHUSTER: Now, the risk of nuclear attack is from terrorists intent on getting their hands on a nuclear weapon, according to Ben Rhodes, the president's deputy national security adviser. Rhodes was speaking from Air Force One on its return to Washington after the signing of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in Prague.
Mr. BEN RHODES (Deputy National Security Adviser): We know that terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, are pursuing the materials to build a nuclear weapon. And we know that they have the intent to use one. This, of course, would be a catastrophic danger to American national security and to global security, were they able to carry out that kind of attack.
SCHUSTER: The stockpile of dangerous materials that could be used to make a nuclear weapon is enormous: 500 tons of plutonium and 1,600 tons of highly enriched uranium around the world. That's enough to make more than 120,000 nuclear weapons.
Despite much work spearheaded by the U.S. and Russia, a significant portion of that stockpile is still vulnerable, says Gary Samore, director for nonproliferation in the National Security Council.
Dr. GARY SAMORE (Director, Nonproliferation, National Security Council): If we're able to lock those down and deny them to non-state actors, then we have essentially solved the risk of nuclear terrorism.
SCHUSTER: This summit is designed to rally the world to take action urgently. The idea of the summit has garnered applause from many outside the government who have been trumpeting this cause for years, such as Matthew Bunn, an expert on nuclear proliferation at the Managing the Atom project at Harvard.
Professor MATTHEW BUNN (Managing the Atom Project, Harvard): This material, unfortunately, is easy to smuggle and hard to detect. The nuclear material needed for a nuclear bomb would fit easily in a suitcase. Hence, insecure nuclear material anywhere is really a threat to everyone, everywhere.
SCHUSTER: Over the last 15 years, many programs have been established and billions of dollars have been spent to secure some of the world's plutonium and highly enriched uranium. But the effort still has fallen short, says Ken Luongo, a former Department of Energy official, now president of the Partnership for Global Security.
Mr. KEN LUONGO (President, Partnership for Global Security): As important as this event is - because no one has ever convened this kind of an event before, and the president and his administration deserve credit for that - if it just focuses on ratifying the status quo, I think that's going to be inadequate, because the status quo for preventing nuclear terrorism is inadequate.
SCHUSTER: President Obama may have had that in mind when he said recently that this gathering will not end in some vague, gauzy statement. The summit, the president said, will spell out clearly how to lock down all the nuclear materials over the next four years.
A bold statement, notes Luongo, but still far from the budget and concrete actions needed to accomplish that goal.
Mike Schuster, NPR News.
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