With fears rising that the Islamic State is trying to obtain nuclear weapons, President Obama will convene a global summit in Washington Thursday hampered by no-show Russia, a key target in the U.S. effort to lock down vulnerable atomic materials.
The two-day conference is aimed at persuading leaders from about 50 countries to secure or eliminate their bomb-making ingredients, although analysts say much of the world’s plutonium is still at risk of falling into the wrong hands due to its widespread commercial use in power plants. Enriched uranium, a particular concern in the Iranian nuclear deal, is also used to make bombs.
But Russia, which has an enormous nuclear arsenal and an increasing emphasis on nuclear weapons in its defense strategy, won’t attend the summit. Mr. Obama’s relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin are rocky at best; White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Moscow’s avoidance of the summit is “yet another consequence” of Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine.
Pakistan, another nuclear power causing major proliferation concerns for the U.S., is sending a lower-level representative after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif canceled his attendance to grapple with a horrific terrorist attack targeting Christians on Easter Sunday. Iran, which has challenged the U.S. with a string of missile tests in recent months despite inking last year’s deal designed to curb its nuclear programs, also will not particpate in Mr. Obama’s summit.
The issue of nuclear proliferation has flared up on the U.S. campaign trail in recent days, following comments last Friday from Republican front-runner Donald Trump that the U.S. should consider allowing South Korea and Japan to obtain nuclear weapons, in part to defend themselves better and ease the burden and expense for the U.S. military.
Although the White House said Wednesday the proposal would be “incredibly destabilizing,” Mr. Trump argued it was inevitable that states such as South Korea, Japan and even Saudi Arabia would soon join the nuclear club.
“It’s going to happen anyway,” Mr. Trump said at a town hall in Milwaukee Tuesday night. “It’s only a question of time. They’re going to start having them or we have to get rid of them entirely.”
Although the U.S. and its allies still worry about North Korea, the White House believes the threat posed by Iran has subsided due to the nuclear deal, leaving extremist groups as a major concern.
“We know that terrorist organizations have the desire to get access to these raw materials and their desire to have a nuclear device,” said White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. “It’s important that we have a discussion that addresses the most lethal threat from terrorist organizations.”
U.S. officials say they don’t know of any imminent terrorist plots involving nuclear weapons or a “dirty bomb,” a device made of radiological material.
Two of the Islamic State suicide bombers in last week’s attacks in Brussels had secretly filmed the daily routine of the head of Belgium’s nuclear research and development program, and were considering an attack on a nuclear site in the country, Belgian media has reported. The video was found in the extremists’ apartment after the Paris terrorist attacks last November.
The havoc such an attack could wreak in an urban area like New York or London is concerning enough that leaders scheduled a special session on the threat during the two-day summit. U.S. officials said the leaders would discuss a hypothetical scenario about a chain of events that could lead to nuclear terrorism.