Preview of the Global Summit on Nuclear Security

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President Obama hosts a major nuclear summit next week in Washington. It's aimed at preventing terrorist groups from getting a nuclear weapon. The World's Matthew Bell previews the summit.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. The U.S. capital is taking some extraordinary security measures for an extraordinary meeting. More than 40 heads of state and foreign ministers from around the world are coming to town for a summit on nuclear security. The big idea is to prevent terrorist groups from ever getting a hold of materials to build a nuclear weapon. The summit is the latest in a series of moves by the Obama administration on nuclear issues. The World's Matthew Bell reports.

MATTHEW BELL: Barack Obama is seen as the polar opposite of George W. Bush when it comes to national security. But the two men actually agree that the most dangerous of all threats facing the United States would be a terrorist group, especially Al Qaeda, getting hold of a nuclear weapon. Rolf Mowatt-Larson has spent his career thinking about nuclear terrorism. He was with CIA operations for more than 30 years. Mowatt-Larson says you don't need access to classified information to understand that Al Qaeda and its ilk has tried to get the bomb and would be willing to use it.

ROLF MOWATT-LARSON: That evidence is there, it's clear, it's compelling that not just that they were thinking about it, but that they were actively trying to obtain nuclear related materials. Hopefully we'll avoid the second part of that which is to have to actually respond to an event that's either in the process of occurring or has occurred.

BELL: During the Cold War the doctrine of mutually assured destruction kept the major powers and their massive nuclear arsenals in check. In a sense, Mowatt-Larson says things have become more complicated.

MOWATT-LARSON: Now we sit in a world where the U.S. President talks about nuclear terrorism as being the day when a single bomb is detonated that destroys any city in the world and that's a very high standard, to prevent that from happening.

BELL: And that's the goal for next week's nuclear summit in Washington. A lot has been done already to secure nuclear materials around the world. In recent years facilities have been modernized, security has been improved. Jacqueline Schire is an expert with the Institute for Science and International Security. Shire says securing nuclear materials in Russia and the former soviet states is a top priority for next week's summit. But beyond that, she says, nuclear rogue states like Iran and North Korea show that it takes a village to develop nuclear weapons. Shyer says cracking down on the international black market for nuclear know-how and components is also a multinational effort.

JACQUELINE SHIRE: By gathering everybody together or the key countries at least, you give everybody a stake in protecting this technology and in advancing the export controls, improving them, thinking about how they maintain their own nuclear materials. So it's all important and I think it's vital that as many countries as possible be a part of this discussion.

BELL: And there's a lot to discuss. For example, no inventory exists for the global supply of highly enriched uranium and plutonium which are used to make atomic bombs. The stockpile is growing, with at least 17 nations either building or planning to build dozens of new reactors. Experts say security precautions at too many nuclear sites around the world are still far from adequate and the black market for nuclear materials is still in business. Between 1993 and 2008 the International Atomic Agency counts 15 confirmed incidents of unauthorized possession of highly enriched uranium or plutonium. Still, there's plenty of skepticism about the threat of nuclear terrorism, especially when American politicians talk about it. That's in no small part because of missing Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Rolf Mowatt-Larson says it's up to President Obama to overcome that skepticism and make the case to world leaders that their cooperation is essential.

MOWATT-LARSON: Why nuclear terrorism matters to begin with is the magnitude of the event and the consequences it would create as opposed to where it will happen. So one can speculate it might be New York or Washington, but it might also be Moscow, it might also be Mumbai or it might be another city in Pakistan or elsewhere. So I think the recognition that this problem has the potential to change everything for everyone is really the starting point for taking it seriously.

BELL: The fact that the heads of state and high level diplomats from more than 40 countries are flying into Washington this weekend is one measure of seriousness. What they produce at the end of the two day conference could be another. For The World, I'm Matthew Bell.

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