WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama's call to secure the world's vulnerable nuclear weapons materials has received the full backing of 47 world leaders at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C.
At a closing press conference, Obama said leaders had committed their governments to the goal of preventing terrorists and non-state actors from acquiring the ingredients to make a nuclear weapon by securing nuclear technology and materials.
"I am very pleased that all the nations represented here have endorsed the goal that I outlined in Prague one year ago: to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world in four years time," Obama said.
"This is an ambitious goal and we are under no illusions that it will be easy. But the urgency of the threat and the catastrophic consequences of even a single act of nuclear terrorism demand an effort that is at once bold and pragmatic. And this is a goal that can be achieved," he added.
Obama convened the summit as part of a comprehensive White House nonproliferation strategy that in just the last week has seen him signing a new START treaty with Russia that significantly reduces both countries deployed nuclear weapons, and unveiling a new national nuclear strategy that reduces the role and number of such weapons.
The Washington summit focused on one deeply troubling aspect of the nuclear threat: the prospect that a terrorist group like Al-Qaeda, which the United States says has been trying to acquire nuclear weapons for several years, might acquire the ingredients needed to make one.
Obama told the group that just a small amount of the necessary material in the hands of a terrorist would be enough to cause massive destruction.
"Nuclear material that could be sold or stolen and fashioned into a nuclear weapon exist in dozens of nations," he said, noting that an amount the size of an apple "could kill and injure hundreds of thousands of innocent people."
"Terrorist networks such as Al-Qaeda have tried to acquire the material for a nuclear weapon, and if they every succeeded, they would surely use it," he said.
Call For Cooperation
The summit's final communiqué calls on the 47 participating nations to maintain effective security of loose nuclear materials -- namely, separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium -- and of facilities under their control, including if necessary, strengthening national laws and policies.
Leaders also agreed to increase their cooperation with the UN and the UN's nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and perhap more significantly, to cooperate with each other to safeguard nuclear technology and materials.
Before the ink was dry on the final document, analysts were questioning whether countries as antagonist toward each other as India and Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia and Israel, would cooperate "to advance nuclear security, requesting and providing assistance as necessary" as the agreement suggests they will.
Obama said the summit had been about "taking tangible steps to protect" the world's citizens and to ensure continued progress, he said a detailed work plan had been produced and agreed upon.
"This has been a day of great progress but, as I said this morning, this can't be a fleeting moment," he said. "Securing nuclear materials must be a serious and sustained global effort. We agreed to have our experts meet on a regular basis to measure progress, to insure that we're meeting our commitments and to plan our next steps."
Coming into today's session, the White House had already won a victory with the April 12 announcement by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych that he will dispose of his country's entire stockpile of weapons-grade uranium. The decision was hailed as critical in a region where considerable amounts of Soviet-era enriched uranium still exist.
Ukraine wasn't alone in using the summit to announce new steps on nuclear security. Obama praised Canada for agreeing to "give up a significant quantity of highly enriched uranium," Chile and Mexico for dumping their entire stockpiles, and Argentina and Pakistan for stepping up efforts to prevent nuclear smuggling.
He also had high praise for Russia, which has recently become something of an unexpected partner on Obama's nonproliferation agenda. He called Russia's decision to shutter its last weapons-grade plutonium production reactor "a major and welcome development."
The White House said President Dmitry Medvedev told U.S. officials that he plans to close the ADE-2 reactor, in the far northern city of Zheleznogorsk.
On the sidelines of the summit today, the United States and Russia also agreed to eliminate 68 tons of plutonium -- what the White House says is enough for 17,000 nuclear weapons -- from their defense programs. U.S. Secretary Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov signed an agreement that will consign the plutonium to civilian energy purposes.
Suport For Sanctions
In addition to seeking concrete commitments to safeguard loose nuclear material, the White House took advantage of this extraordinary gathering to press its allies to back a new round of tough sanctions against Iran. Washington believes the time has come to punish Tehran for defying international demands to prove that its nuclear program is not aimed at developing weapons.
On April 12, Obama secured a critical pledge from Chinese President Hu Jintao that his government would work with the United Nations on a sanctions package. Separately, Hu told the summit that China "firmly" opposes atomic weapons proliferation, while backing civilian uses.
But there were mixed signals from Beijing. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said that while China supports a "dual-track strategy" that combines diplomacy with the possibility of international sanctions against Iran, she said China prefers dialogue and negotiation, adding, "pressure and sanctions cannot fundamentally solve" the problem.
At the final press conference, Obama was asked specifically about his conversation with President Hu -- what the Chinese leader had agreed to and what Obama may have said to him about the strong trade relationship China has with Iran, which supplies much of its oil.
Obama replied that many countries, like China, have strong trade relationships with Iran and said the White House "is mindful" of that fact.
He added, "What I said to President Hu, and what I've said to every world leader that I talked to, is that words have to mean something, there has to be some consequences. And if we're saying that the [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] is important, if we're saying that nonproliferation is important, then when those obligations are repeatedly flouted, then it's important for the international community to come together."
That answer didn't clear up the murkiness surrounding the question of what China actually committed to, but Obama said the fact that China and Russia -- both of which hold veto power on the Security Council and are reluctant to punish Tehran -- are having "a serious discussion around a sanctions regime" is a sign of progress.
He also said he doesn't want a "long, drawn out (sanctions) process" but rather, "bold and quick" action that might prompt Iran to change its course. Obama signaled that a change of course is still very much an option for Iran.
In noting that it had refused an offer by the international community to provide fuel for its civilian nuclear energy and research program, he said Iran had not accepted it "yet."
He said, "Sanctions aren't a magic wand" but they can "change the calculus" governments make.
As for the world's other nuclear pariah state, North Korea -- which wasn't invited to the summit because it has pulled out of the NPT -- summit leaders have decided to hold their next meeting in 2012 right next door, in South Korea.