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Summit explores how to keep nuclear material away from terrorists

April 1, 2016 at 6:40 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today here in Washington, world leaders led by President Obama pledged to continue the effort to secure nuclear material and prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.

Margaret Warner has the details.

MARGARET WARNER: It was President Obama’s fourth and final nuclear security summit, an event he launched in 2010. And with less than 10 months remaining in office, he used the meeting of more than 50 world leaders in Washington to showcase progress on one of his signature foreign policy initiatives: to secure nuclear material and sites worldwide.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is a perfect example of a 21st century security challenge that no one nation can solve alone. And the good news is, we have made significant progress.

MARGARET WARNER: But the summit comes amid growing fears that terrorists could get their hands on this deadly material. New evidence of that danger, a raid in Brussels last November at the apartment of a suspected Paris attack planner. It uncovered surveillance video of a nuclear official working at a Belgian research facility.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There is no doubt that, if these madmen ever got their hands on a nuclear bomb or nuclear material, they most certainly would use it to kill as many innocent people as possible. It would change our world. So, we cannot be complacent.

MARGARET WARNER: Even so, administration officials say the video didn’t tell them much they didn’t already know about the Islamic State’s intentions. What really keeps them up at night, they say, is something else, unpredictable North Korea’s growing pace of nuclear tests and missile launches, and ever-more bellicose language.

Pyongyang released a propaganda video last Saturday called “Last Chance” that depicted a nuclear strike on Washington. And just today, South Korean officials in Seoul said the North fired a short-range missile into the sea.

In Geneva, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations said his country will keep pursuing its nuclear and ballistic programs, as long as joint U.S.-South Korea military drills continue.

Back in Washington, there was progress, apart from North Korea.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Nations have improved their nuclear security, including stronger regulations and more physical security of nuclear facilities.

MARGARET WARNER: The White House announced at least two more countries, Argentina and Indonesia, were joining some dozen other nations in removing all their highly-enriched uranium and plutonium, essential fuels for nuclear weapons.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how much was accomplished at this fourth and final nuclear summit?

Hari Sreenivasan picks up the story from there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And for that, we turn to Matthew Bunn, professor of practice at Harvard University’s John Kennedy School of Government. He’s also the lead author of a biannual report on preventing nuclear terrorism.

So, Matthew, I want to ask, what did these leaders accomplish in the way of making sure terrorists don’t get their hands on nuclear materials?

MATTHEW BUNN, Harvard University: Well, I think we have seen some solid progress at this summit today.

We have got, finally, the entry into force of a key nuclear security treaty that provides a better legal foundation for our nuclear security work. And China has agreed to implement an initiative that focuses on all of the IAEA — that is the International Atomic Energy Agency — nuclear security recommendations and accepting peer reviews.

We have got hundreds of kilograms of weapon-grade highly enriched uranium and plutonium removed from Japan, and these two countries committing to eliminate all the weapons-usable nuclear material on their soil.

But I think we also see some missed opportunities. We still have no global rule that says, if you have a nuclear weapon or the materials to make one, it should be at least this secure. And we have only modest strengthening of the nuclear security institutions that will have to take up the slack when we’re not meeting at the summit level anymore.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Right, so there is an agreement that there will be continued meetings, right? But it won’t be between presidents.

MATTHEW BUNN: That’s correct.

So, essentially, a group of interested states have agreed to keep meeting at a senior official level once a year or so on the margins of International Atomic Energy Agency meetings to try to keep the attention on nuclear security and get us on a path to continuous improvement in nuclear security.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, when we heard about nation states deciding to take highly enriched uranium and make it less so, there is still this concern that, in other parts of the world, there are components that are readily available or somehow can be accessed that can turn into a dirty bomb, that a terrorist doesn’t necessarily need to have a warhead to put on a rocket to cause havoc.

MATTHEW BUNN: Well, what we’re worried about is not really a warhead on a rocket. There are really sort of three sets of things you might worry ant.

One is terrorists getting ahold of nuclear material that they could use to make an actual crude nuclear bomb. Unfortunately, repeated government studies have concluded that it is plausible, if a sophisticated terrorist group got ahold of highly enriched uranium or plutonium, that they could make a crude bomb that could incinerate the heart of a major city. That’s one concern.

Another concern is sabotage of nuclear facilities causing an accident like the Fukushima accident that we saw a few years ago. And then the third concern is getting ahold of this radiological material that is used for many very beneficial purposes in hospitals, in industrial sites and elsewhere, but if territories got it and then spread over an area, they could cause panic, force us to evacuate several blocks of a city.

It could cause some major economic disruption, probably wouldn’t kill anybody beyond those killed by the explosives used — that might be used to disperse the radioactive material.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You just rattled off hospitals, academic institutions, all places outside of military facilities. Is there any sort of security level standard that says let’s protect all these things because they could be used in a dirty bomb?

MATTHEW BUNN: Unfortunately, as I mentioned, we don’t yet have a global rule that says, if there is a nuclear weapons, if there’s the materials that could be used to make one, it needs to be at least this secure.

I think that’s one thing we need to be working on in terms of getting a political commitment among key states to implement key elements of nuclear security for those things. I think we need a faster effort to do simple, fairly low-cost security for these radiological sources, things like making sure there is a security camera that sends a signal to the local police, making sure the machine where the source is embedded inside a huge machine is built so you can’t take the source out without special equipment.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Let’s also talk about who wasn’t there. Rust was absent at this. And there are a lot of people are concerned that Russia has one of the largest stockpiles of nuclear material.

MATTHEW BUNN: That’s right.

Russia has the world’s largest stockpile of both nuclear weapons and the material you could use to make nuclear weapons. And it’s in the world’s largest number of buildings and bunkers.

Now, to be fair, security in Russia is dramatically improved compared to what it was a quarter-century ago, but there is still work to be done. And, unfortunately, Russia has cut off most of the very useful cooperation that the United States and Russia had on nuclear security and then refused to participate in this fourth of the nuclear security summits.

There are other channels where the United States and Russia are still cooperating on these issues, but I think we need to put a focused effort on rebuilding a different kind, a more equal kind of cooperation between the United States and Russia. We have a special responsibility as the countries with the biggest stocks.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And, finally, I want to ask about India and Pakistan. What is the level of concern about how secure the materials are in those countries?

MATTHEW BUNN: Well, both of those countries take nuclear security very seriously, as does Russia.

But in Pakistan in particular, they have the world’s fastest-growing nuclear stockpile, with some of the world’s most capable terrorist in the same country. And so that’s inevitably a serious concern.

In India, also, they have a serious terrorist threat, not as big as in Pakistan, but quite serious. So there’s more to be done in both of those countries. But I would argue, really, there is more to be done in pretty much every country where this material exists, including in the United States.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Matthew Bunn, thanks so much.

MATTHEW BUNN: Thank you.