WASHINGTON — The leaders of almost 50 countries, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, descend upon the U.S. capital today for a nuclear security summit aimed at stopping terrorists from unleashing nuclear attacks on their enemies.
“It is absolutely fundamental to view this summit with the starting point of the grave nature of the threat of nuclear terrorism,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, said in a conference call late last week.
“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.”
The summit, being held Monday and Tuesday in downtown D.C. amid the tightest security since President Barack Obama’s inauguration last year, comes just after the U.S. and Russian signed a new arms reduction treaty in Prague.
That pact will cut nuclear warheads in each country by about 30 per cent.
In Ottawa, a senior government official warned the situation is dire in terms of the global availability of materials that can be used to build nuclear weapons.
“There are materials worldwide to produce hundreds of nuclear bombs, and that material is located in thousands of different places . . . and could be available to terrorist groups or even organized crime,” the official said in a briefing with Canadian media in advance of the summit.
He added that Canada would be pushing at the summit for countries to share and exchange as much information as possible about the sale of nuclear material.
On Friday, Harper met a Canadian delegation that urged him not only to push for a treaty that would eliminate nuclear weapons around the globe, but to stop the importation of weapons-grade uranium from the United States.
Dr. John Polanyi, a scientist and Canadian Nobel laureate, was among the group.
“We’re painting with a big brush and asking for Canada to be vocal on the subject of reducing the elevation of nuclear weapons,” Polanyi said in an interview from Ottawa.
The group beseeched Harper to ensure Canada stops importing highly enriched uranium from the U.S. for the manufacture of medical isotopes, used in radiation therapy, at Chalk River Laboratories northwest of Ottawa.
The Chalk River reactor has been offline for a year for repairs, and could re-open this summer.
But the federal government has signalled it’s moving out of the medical isotopes business, announcing recently it will not build another reactor to replace the Chalk River facility.
Chalk River is the world’s leading producer of medical isotopes, but after they’re manufactured, Polanyi said, the weapons-grade uranium remains in Canada — “enough material for quite a number of Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons.”
“If it fell into the wrong hands, it could be refashioned into nuclear weapons … Canada should offer to return this waste material to the United States for safekeeping. It would be good global citizenship,” Polanyi said.
Harper “listened with interest but didn’t comment,” he added.
Canada, in fact, is one of several countries that’s advocating the move to low-enriched uranium as opposed to high-enriched, the technical term for weapons-grade uranium. While such a transition “won’t happen overnight,” the Canadian official said, other countries should still be encouraged to make the change.
U.S. officials say they have three objectives for the summit: an official communique recognizing the threat and endorsing Obama’s four-year plan to reduce nuclear weapons; detailed plans by countries to bolster nuclear security; and specific actions by the nations in attendance to reduce nuclear materials.
They pointed to Chile’s recent decision to do away with all high-enriched uranium, and the U.S.-Russian agreement that will eliminate 34 metric tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium by burning it in reactors.
The most dramatic absence from the summit is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who pulled out late last week, reportedly due to concerns that his country would be pressured to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty. Instead, Israel will be represented at the summit by the deputy prime minister.
Israel won’t confirm or deny that it has nuclear weapons, and has resisted signing the pact. During the summit, Muslim and Arab countries want to focus on the fact that Israel won’t sign the treaty.
“A lot of people, including statesmen around the world, feel we are at a cusp in history and if we don’t take this opportunity, with the type of leadership Barack Obama is providing, to reduce our dependence on nuclear weapons, than we are going to have to live in a world indefinitely with a number of potentially dangerous nuclear powers,” Polanyi said.