WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama has secured promises from world leaders gathered at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington to make greater efforts to secure materials that terrorists could use to make crude nuclear weapons.
A draft communique seen by the Reuters news agency and set to be issued at tonight's close of the 47-country summit promises greater efforts to block "nonstate actors" like Al-Qaeda from obtaining the building blocks for nuclear weapons for "malicious purposes."
In remarks opening a plenary session this morning, Obama warned that if Al-Qaeda acquired enough loose nuclear material for a weapon it would be a "catastrophe for the world."
"Nuclear material that could be sold or stolen and fashioned into a nuclear weapon exists in dozens of nations. Just the smallest amount of plutonium, about the size of an apple, could kill and injure hundreds of thousands of innocent people," Obama said.
"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."
The U.S. leader, who is pursuing an aggressive nonproliferation strategy, called it "a cruel irony of history" that as the risk of nuclear confrontation between states has gone down, the risk of nuclear attack has increased.
The White House-hosted conference is aimed at securing agreement among the world's leaders that keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists is an urgent priority.
Obama said that "today is an opportunity not simply to talk, but to act."
"We have the opportunity as an international community to deepen our cooperation and to strengthen the institutions and partnerships that help prevent nuclear materials from ever falling into the hands of terrorists," he added
The threat of nuclear-armed terrorists is real and growing, according to John Brennan, the White House's top antiterrorism adviser, who briefed reporters on April 12. Brennan warned that obtaining a nuclear weapon and using it "is the ultimate and most prized goal of terrorist groups," including Al-Qaeda.
Cracking Down On Iran
Coming into today's sessions, Obama had already won a summit 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 White House hailed the decision as critical in a region where it said that "a lot of enriched uranium exists."
In addition to seeking concrete commitments to safeguard loose nuclear material, the White House is also pressing summit attendees to support 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 Beijing would work with the United States on a sanctions package that makes it clear to Iran that there will be penalties for its continued defiance.
Today, Hu told the summit that Beijing "firmly" opposes nuclear 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. "Pressure and sanctions cannot fundamentally solve" the problem, she added.
In Tehran, there was doubt that China had changed its mind and will now support the United States' sanctions push. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said he did not consider Hu's pledge to work with Obama an "approval of the U.S. stance."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton kept up the pressure in a late April 12 meeting with representatives of the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany.
Plutonium Agreement With Russia
Today, Clinton also took part in a signing ceremony with her Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, on an agreement to reduce both country's stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium.
The two diplomats signed the 2000 Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, which the State Department said, "marks a further major step in U.S. and Russian efforts to eliminate nuclear-weapon-grade materials, thereby making nuclear-arms reductions irreversible and reducing nuclear dangers."
Clinton said the agreement comes "at an historic time" in U.S.-Russian relations, just days after President Dmitry Medvedev and Obama signed a new START treaty.
"Under the agreement we are about to sign, the United States and Russia will each irreversibly and transparently dispose of no less than 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium," Clinton said.
"Together that is enough material for nearly 17,000 nuclear weapons. And we will put in place the framework and infrastructure needed to dispose of even more plutonium from defense programs in the future."
Lavrov said the agreement was of "significant importance," and described it as "certainly a step in the direction of our shared goal of nuclear disarmament because, apart from actual limitations and reductions in nuclear strategic offensive arms, you need to do something about the plutonium which is released because of that process."
He said Russia would spend "up to $2.5 billion to eliminate our 34 tons of plutonium."
The nuclear security summit ends tonight with a press conference by Obama.