Getting to No

Why ensuring nuclear material doesn't end up in terrorists' hands should still be at the very top of President Obama's agenda.

Photo: Freek van den Bergh/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Freek van den Bergh/AFP/Getty Images

With Ukraine melting down and the confrontation between Russia and the West heating up, both partisan critics and impartial observers can be excused for asking why U.S. President Barack Obama is going to The Hague this Sunday, March 23, for the third Nuclear Security Summit. Given all the other urgent demands, should nuclear security be at the top of the agenda at this time, and even if it should be, can this gathering do anything about it?

The answer to both questions is yes. To understand why, consider the sequence: 52, 38, 25, X. (And no, it has nothing to do with your March Madness bracket.) If you can identify the question to which this series is the answer, you’ll know how the Nuclear Security Summit will actually allow the rest of us to sleep more soundly in our beds.

But more on that later. For now, consider three questions: What is the challenge for the leaders who will assemble in The Hague? What is the response that they are seeking to motivate? And what specifically can be accomplished at this meeting to make the rest of us safer?

The challenge is nuclear terrorism: to put it bluntly, 9/11 with the Bomb. Many observers find incredible the notion that with President Bashar al-Assad gaining ground in Syria and with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army invading Crimea, Obama and his counterparts would devote so much time to a threat that seems so distant. The possibility that terrorists would explode a nuclear bomb devastating the heart of one of our great cities, some say, is unimaginable.

Analysts of international security, however, understand that farsighted leaders act in advance of catastrophes — to prevent them from happening. (Would that they had the foresight to address what might come of the protests in Ukraine before the situation became a crisis.) These analysts know that when we say something is inconceivable, this is a statement not about what is possible in the world — only about what our limited minds can conceive. Before the 9/11 attacks, who could have imagined terrorists hijacking airliners, converting them into guided cruise missiles, and toppling the World Trade Center? As the commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks concluded, the single greatest failure of governments prior to 9/11 was a "failure of imagination."

An appropriate response to a threat of such magnitude must obviously be complex and multilayered. At the core of the strategy, however, are three no’s: no fissile material, no mushroom cloud, no nuclear terrorism. If the international community can deny terrorists the means to achieve their deadliest ambitions, it can prevent a nuclear 9/11.

To that end, the Nuclear Security Summit is part of a global effort that seeks to eliminate nuclear weapons–usable material, namely highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium, wherever possible. Where material cannot be eliminated, this effort seeks to ensure that it is locked up to a gold standard — beyond the reach of thieves or terrorists. Were all nuclear weapons–usable material secured as good as gold in Fort Knox, there could be no nuclear terrorism.

By focusing the minds of leaders on this threat and the steps they can take to address it, the Nuclear Security Summit creates an action-forcing process: The agenda, the meeting, the deadlines, and the necessity to stand up and speak up move governments to act. The success of this process has largely gone unnoticed — but it is truly remarkable and worthy of reflection. The fact that we have been spared a successful nuclear terrorist attack is in no small part thanks to this effort.

That brings us back to the math problem up top. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, 52 states had nuclear weapons–usable material. By 2009, that number had shrunk to 38. In just the past five years since Obama came to office, 13 additional states — including Ukraine — have eliminated all nuclear weapons–usable material, leaving only 25 states today with material that could be used in a terrorist’s nuclear bomb. And at next week’s meeting, we can expect that the leaders of several additional countries will be able to stand up and assure others that if a nuclear terrorist attack occurred, their nation could not have been the source of the material that fueled the bomb.

And getting more members to join this club is something that’s surely worth a trip to The Hague.

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