sponsored by

Analysis: Nuclear summit signals new mindset

Send a link to a friend

[April 20, 2010]  WASHINGTON (AP) -- In two fast-paced April days in Washington, the world took a big step out of the age of MAD and into an even madder age, when a dark vision of random nuclear terror will shadow our days for decades or more to come.

Almost 20 years after the Cold War's end, after the end of the chilling U.S.-Russian nuclear standoff of mutually assured destruction, President Barack Obama ushered in the new era with an unprecedented, 47-nation summit to begin to confront this ultimate threat.

It was an important first step. From the highest levels, it conferred top priority on what is planned as a continuing effort to better marshal global resources to keep the stuff of nuclear bombs -- plutonium and highly enriched uranium -- out of the hands of terrorists and smugglers.

Doing so will demand unusual, difficult cooperation around the world. Nations' nuclear secrets may be exposed. Global inspectors may spotlight governments' ineptitude. International advisers may have to rewrite nations' laws to crack down on nuclear sloppiness.

What's needed is a "new manner of thinking," Obama told the assembled presidents and premiers, echoing a prophetic warning from the earliest days of the nuclear age.

On Monday and Tuesday, signaling their readiness to join in, those leaders pointed to or pledged actions to better lock down weapons-grade nuclear material and technology.

Egypt boasted of new legislation criminalizing trafficking in nuclear goods, for example, and Malaysia of a law tightening export controls, in a nation grown notorious as a clandestine transit point for nuclear technology. Ukraine, Mexico and others vowed to give up their highly enriched uranium. And the leaders' final communique endorsed Obama's goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years.

Experts say that will be hard to do, however, as the world tries to ascertain just how much is out there, where it is, and what's "vulnerable."

The fissile materials sit in some surprising places worldwide -- in the power plants of Russian icebreakers and U.S. missile submarines, in university research reactors, in storehouses within Japan's nuclear power system. And hundreds of tons are packed into deployed or disused nuclear warheads in the U.S. and Russia.

Experts can only estimate the amounts: Something between 1,300 and 1,900 tons of weapons-grade uranium is stockpiled worldwide, the authoritative International Panel on Fissile Materials reported last year. Mere pounds, meanwhile, can make a city-leveling bomb.

The deadly tonnage accumulated during the MAD era, when the U.S. and Russia outdid each other in producing these exotic manmade heavy metals, and even donated some to friendly nations for research reactors.

That Cold War rivalry has faded, but its fissile legacy lingers on. Now a nervous world worries less about a superpower Armageddon and more about the known nuclear aspirations of al-Qaida and other terror groups.

[to top of second column]

Nursing Homes

No evidence has emerged that any have gotten close to obtaining or building a doomsday bomb. But analysts note that the world didn't know of the 9/11 terror plot before al-Qaida struck.

"With what confidence does the intelligence community answer that question (about terrorists' nuclear capabilities)?" wondered ex-ambassador Robert Gallucci, a veteran U.S. government nonproliferation negotiator. "We really don't know very much with confidence."

As for the extent of nuclear trafficking, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, counts almost two dozen known incidents involving plutonium or highly enriched uranium since the early 1990s. But, again, the world doesn't know what it doesn't know.

Experts say what's needed are more universal and stronger treaties and other agreements to collect and dispose of fissile materials, to stop their production, to share intelligence, to enact tougher domestic laws and with more money flowing from rich to poor nations to tighten borders and controls on illicit trade.

A stronger IAEA and possibly new, permanent oversight bodies would have to grow ever more intrusive in demanding an accounting of bomb materials, even in the excess stockpiles of the U.S. and Russian militaries, no-go areas in today's world.

That's why the U.S. president told the summit the post-MAD era's deadly new challenge requires "a new mindset," and why he drove the point home with an assist from a genius who forever mourned his role in the making of the nuclear age.

"We are drifting toward a catastrophe beyond comparison," Obama quoted Albert Einstein as saying in those early years. "We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive."

[Associated Press; By CHARLES J. HANLEY]

Charles J. Hanley has reported on nuclear arms control for three decades.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

< Top Stories index

Back to top


News | Sports | Business | Rural Review | Teaching & Learning | Home and Family | Tourism | Obituaries

Community | Perspectives | Law & Courts | Leisure Time | Spiritual Life | Health & Fitness | Teen Scene
Calendar | Letters to the Editor