WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama kicked off his landmark nuclear summit on Tuesday by calling it a “cruel irony of history” that the threat of nuclear terrorism is mounting even as the possibility of nuclear war between countries diminishes.
“The risk of a nuclear attack has gone up,” Obama told the summit, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the leaders of 46 other nations were in attendance amid the tightest security in D.C. since the president’s inauguration last year.
“Terrorist networks such as al-Qaida have tried to acquire the material for a nuclear weapon, and if they ever succeeded, they would surely use it,” he said. “Were they to do so, it would be a catastrophe for the world, causing extraordinary loss of life, and striking a major blow to global peace and stability.”
Obama urged nations to move beyond discussion and take concrete action over the next four years to ensure that nuclear weapons do not fall into terrorist hands.
“It is increasingly clear that the danger of nuclear terrorism is one of the greatest threats to global security — to our collective security.”
On the eve of the summit, Harper did his bit. He agreed to send highly enriched uranium from the Chalk River Laboratories reactor near Ottawa back to the United States, where it will be rendered useless in terms of making nuclear weapons.
Canada has been exporting weapons-grade uranium for decades from the United States to manufacture medical isotopes at Chalk River. Hundreds of kilograms of the highly enriched uranium has accumulated there, enough to make several “Hiroshima-sized” nuclear weapons, Canadian scientist John Polanyi has said.
As the summit got underway on Tuesday, Canada, the United States and Mexico announced an agreement to work together to convert the highly enriched uranium in Mexico’s research reactor into low-enriched uranium. Canada will kick in $5 million to help transport the uranium to the U.S. and fully convert it.
All three countries lauded the announcement as something that will strengthen nuclear security in North America.
“I welcome this critical step forward, which is a signal of our strong political partnership and our shared commitment to nuclear security in North America,” Obama said in a statement.
Harper added: “This nuclear security project demonstrates that collective action can deliver concrete results.”
The Ukraine has also announced it intends to rid itself of weapons-grade uranium in the years to come.
Although Canada stressed Monday that Canadian security measures at its nuclear reactors were “world class,” massive amounts of plutonium and weapons-grade uranium in countries around the globe are thought to be insufficiently protected from terrorist groups and organized crime.
The issue is a major focus of the summit as it shines the spotlight on countries like Iran, North Korea and others that are viewed as a threat to global nuclear security.
European Union President Herman van Rompuy called on all countries on Tuesday to sign and ratify the convention on the 1980 Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. That pact was amended in 2005 to require states to protect materials like plutonium and weapons-grade uranium at all times, not just when it’s in transit.
“Nuclear terrorism … represents a most serious threat to international security with potentially devastating consequences to our societies,” Van Rompuy said.