The Nuclear Security Summit: A Viewer’s Guide

BY jbreslow  April 12, 2010 at 12:11 PM EDT

President Obama has invited leaders from nearly 50 nations to Washington this week for a global summit on how to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists.

The two-day summit, which officially kicks off Monday, caps what’s been a busy few weeks for the president on the issue of nuclear security. Last week, the president signed a new arms treaty with Russia, and earlier in the month, the administration rolled out a new road map for reducing nuclear risks to the United States.

Lots of ground will be covered during the talks. Here is a brief breakdown of the players and policy:

What’s the aim of the summit?

There are many facets to the issue of nuclear security and two days is hardly enough time to cover them all. So rather than take up broader topics such as nonproliferation or disarmament, talks will concentrate on nuclear security.

The focus on nuclear terrorism highlights a critical shift in thinking from the days of the Cold War, when the main fear was an attack by a nuclear-armed superpower. In the 21st century, President Obama has said, it is nuclear terrorism that is “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security.”

The first day of the summit will be dominated largely by one-on-one meetings between President Obama and other world leaders, capped by an official welcoming ceremony in the evening and a working dinner on the scope of the threat.

The heavy lifting will occur Tuesday, when President Obama leads two plenary sessions. The first session will focus on steps individual nations can take to secure loose nuclear material inside their borders, while the second will address strengthening nuclear security through international cooperation.

How big is the nuclear security threat?

It’s difficult to quantify exactly, but as the Washington Post notes, there are an estimated 3.5 million pounds of highly enriched uranium spread out across 40 nations around the world and another 1.1. million pounds of plutonium.

“No one who has examined the evidence has any doubt that terrorist groups — including Al Qaeda … have shown serious interest and undertaken substantial efforts to acquire material and equipment for this purpose,” according to a recent op-ed co-authored by Mohamed ElBaradei, former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. “The highly enriched uranium required to make an elementary nuclear bomb could be hidden inside a football,” he writes, along with Harvard University’s Graham Allison and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo.

NPR also has this look at newly emerging questions around laser nuclear technology and the security risk it could pose.

Who will be at the summit?

President Obama will be hosting high-level delegations from 46 nations — all with their own agenda — including 38 different heads of state. Among the invitees are seven of the eight confirmed nuclear states: the United States, Britain, China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, and Russia. The eighth state with a nuclear weapon — North Korea — was not given an invite. Nor was Iran, which is widely-believed to be developing a nuclear weapon.

One notable no-show will be Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who announced he would be skipping the summit after learning that Egypt and Turkey intended to press him on Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal. Israel’s Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister, Dan Meridor, will take Netanyahu’s place.

What to watch for:

Keep an eye on the one-on-one sessions President Obama has scheduled with 10 of the 38 heads of state in attendance:

President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia, President Hu Jintao of China, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, King Abdullah II of Jordan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia, Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan, President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, and Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine.

“It is in those meetings where the president’s top foreign policy priority at the moment, winning international sanctions to dissuade Iran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions, will be hashed out,” says Politico.

Perhaps the most critical bilateral meeting will be with China’s Hu Jintao. U.S.-China relations have been strained by an American arms sale to Taiwan, as well as President Obama’s meeting in February with the Dalai Lama. Chinese resistance has been one of the biggest obstacles to new Iranian sanctions, however U.S. officials are hoping Hu’s appearance at the summit could lead to a breakthrough on Iran, as well as on the issue of China’s currency policy.

What’s likely to be accomplished?

Observers expect the communiqué that emerges from the summit to endorse President Obama’s drive to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years, and a general pledge to increase international cooperation towards that goal. As part of that effort, leaders may propose a global crackdown on the illicit trade of nuclear material, including tougher prosecution for traffickers, better accounting of nuclear materials and stepped-up international collaboration.

Also expect several nations to use the summit to announce concrete initiatives that they are taking to secure their nuclear materials. Chile, for example, is expected to announce that it has surrendered its remaining supply of highly-enriched uranium to the United States.