Proposal targets nuclear terrorism

The leaders of more than 40 nations agreed Tuesday to a voluntary but far-reaching program to prevent thousands of tons of weapons-grade nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists.

World leaders, called to Washington by President Obama to take action on one of his signature issues, also agreed to step up the sharing of nuclear information and help develop common standards and procedures for the security of fissile materials.

Obama said the agreement recognized a “cruel irony of history”: After surviving a Cold War arms race and the threat of nuclear war, the world now must confront the even larger danger of nuclear terrorism.

“Terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda have tried to acquire the material for a nuclear weapon, and if they ever succeed, they would surely use it,” Obama said. “Were they to do so, it would be a catastrophe for the world.”

The four-year plan spelled out in a statement at the end of the two-day conference would require action at thousands of civilian nuclear installations and military and university sites at a likely cost of billions of dollars.

Although regional cooperation is important to halt nuclear smuggling, countries in the Middle East and South Asia may be reluctant to work with neighbors who also are rivals. Some are wary of sharing information about their sites with other world powers or even world organizations such as the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The final statement acknowledges the right of countries to pursue peaceful uses of nuclear power, a principle important to many developing countries. Many may consider international pressure to safeguard nuclear materials an infringement on their right to develop nuclear power, a view taken by Iran, for example.

Participating countries were urged to ratify two treaties on the handling of nuclear materials. They also were asked to convert research reactors that use highly enriched uranium, which can be used in nuclear weapons, to ones that use low-enriched uranium.

Wealthier nations will help defray the cost of the effort for poorer ones. The United States has budgeted $3 billion in the current fiscal year for better securing nuclear material.

Obama acknowledged that there is no way to enforce the agreement except through the good intentions of world leaders who, he said, share his view of the urgency of the program.

“We’re relying on goodwill on the part of those who are signatories,” Obama said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “I believe they take their commitments very seriously.”

Gary Samore, a senior White House official, told reporters that enforcement mechanisms for national security policies are “not attainable.” “The effort to try to create such a regime would distract our efforts from the near-term need to secure these materials,” Samore said.

There are 1,600 tons of highly enriched uranium and 500 tons of plutonium at risk in sites around the world, experts say, enough to build 100,000 to 120,000 nuclear warheads.

U.S. officials briefed participants during the conference on efforts by Al Qaeda to obtain nuclear materials. The terrorist network has approached other groups to try to get fissile material and often has been swindled by criminals, they said.

U.S. officials said the next nuclear security summit will be in 2012 in South Korea.

The meeting will take place in proximity to North Korea, a country with a worrisome nuclear infrastructure. The United States and its allies believe the government in Pyongyang is capable of spreading both nuclear know-how and material.

Obama and other U.S. officials pressed countries on the sidelines of the conference to cooperate in preparing a new round of United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran. The U.S. and its allies suspect that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons; Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes only.

The Washington summit sidestepped many disagreements. Some leaders believe their money should be spent on what they consider more likely dangers, such as that of a low-grade radiological weapon, or “dirty bomb.”

In hopes of building momentum, a number of countries announced steps to reduce or eliminate their nuclear stockpiles.

The United States and Russia, which last week signed a treaty to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons, announced an agreement for each side to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium by burning it in nuclear reactors.

Ukraine, once the world’s No. 3 nuclear power, said it would ship all of its highly enriched uranium out of the country by 2012, with the United States picking up part of the tab.

Canada said it would send its spent nuclear fuel to the United States. Canada, Mexico and the United States announced a deal to process fuel from a Mexican research reactor into a less dangerous form.

And French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed that officials who provide nuclear materials to terrorists face punishment by an international tribunal.

In his afternoon news conference, Obama addressed efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Obama played down the possibility that Washington would push its own peace plan, saying that the United States “can’t impose solutions unless the participants in these conflicts are willing to break out of the old patterns of antagonism.”

But he emphasized that the United States pays the price for such conflicts.

“When these conflicts break out, one way or another, we get pulled into them,” he said. “And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure.”