We know that when Barack Obama was a student at Columbia University, he was vocal about the issue of a nuclear threat.
In the depths of the cold war, in 1983, a senior at Columbia University wrote in a campus newsmagazine, Sundial, about the vision of “a nuclear free world.” He railed against discussions of “first- versus second-strike capabilities” that “suit the military-industrial interests” with their “billion-dollar erector sets,” and agitated for the elimination of global arsenals holding tens of thousands of deadly warheads.
The student was Barack Obama, and he was clearly trying to sort out his thoughts. In the conclusion, he denounced “the twisted logic of which we are a part today” and praised student efforts to realize “the possibility of a decent world.” But his article, “Breaking the War Mentality,” which only recently has been rediscovered, said little about how to achieve the utopian dream.
Less than two months after he was inaugurated as President of the United States, Obama gave a speech in Prague that focused on his plans for advancing that “utopian dream.” Many of us have forgotten that, in that speech, the President laid out an ambitious agenda for limiting the threat of nuclear weapons that went far beyond the much-touted new START Treaty with Russia that was signed in February 2011 and the successful negotiations with Iran to stop their nuclear weapons program. Here is one of the goals Obama set out at the time.
…we must ensure that terrorists never acquire a nuclear weapon. This is the most immediate and extreme threat to global security. One terrorist with one nuclear weapon could unleash massive destruction. Al Qaeda has said it seeks a bomb and that it would have no problem with using it. And we know that there is unsecured nuclear material across the globe. To protect our people, we must act with a sense of purpose without delay.
So today I am announcing a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years. We will set new standards, expand our cooperation with Russia, pursue new partnerships to lock down these sensitive materials.
We must also build on our efforts to break up black markets, detect and intercept materials in transit, and use financial tools to disrupt this dangerous trade. Because this threat will be lasting, we should come together to turn efforts such as the Proliferation Security Initiative and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism into durable international institutions. And we should start by having a Global Summit on Nuclear Security that the United States will host within the next year.
Since that time, President Obama has organized three Global Summits on Nuclear Security in 2010 (U.S), 2012 (Seoul) and 2014 (The Hague). The final summit of his administration will take place next week in Washington, DC. While the administration hasn’t reached the ambitious goal set out by the President in 2009, there has been significant progress.
* Removal and/or disposition of over 3.2 metric tons of vulnerable highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium material.
* Completely removing HEU from 12 countries – Austria, Chile, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Libya, Mexico, Republic of Korea, Romania, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine, and Vietnam.
* Verified shutdown or successful conversion to low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel use of 24 HEU research reactors and isotope production facilities in 15 countries, including Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, the Czech Republic, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
*Completion of physical security upgrades at 32 buildings storing weapons-usable fissile materials.
* Installation of radiation detection equipment at 328 international border crossings, airports, and seaports to combat illicit trafficking in nuclear materials.
In the lead-up to next week’s summit, the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard released a report titled, Preventing Nuclear Terrorism: Continuous Improvement or Dangerous Decline? Here is part of their summary:
In recent years, significant progress has been made securing vulnerable nuclear weapons-usable material—reducing the number of countries with these materials by more than half, securing scores of sites around the world, and much more. But the work is not done…
Since the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit, there has only been modest progress securing vulnerable nuclear-weapons usable material around the globe, and some efforts have lost ground.
A major contributor to the slow-down in progress was the fact that – with the re-emergence of President Putin – Russia pulled out of participation in these activities. And they have made it clear that they will not be attending the summit next week.
However, news following the recent ISIS attack in Brussels highlights the importance of these efforts. Apparently those involved had been stalking a nuclear power plant as a potential target. As that report indicates: “The current theory is that the terrorists eventually chose “softer” targets than the security-tight nuclear power plants.” That is exactly the kind of thing next week’s summit will focus on.
In other words, thanks Obama!