WASHINGTON // The possibility of al Qa'eda or other extremist groups acquiring a nuclear weapon is "one of the greatest threats to global security", Barack Obama told world leaders and representatives from 46 countries at an unprecedented nuclear summit yesterday. "Two decades after the end of the Cold War, we face a cruel irony of history - the risk of a nuclear confrontation between nations has gone down, but the risk of nuclear attack has gone up," the US president said.
"Nuclear materials that could be sold or stolen and fashioned into a nuclear weapon exist in dozens of nations," he said. "Just the smallest amount of plutonium - about the size of an apple - could kill and injure hundreds of thousands of innocent people." The UAE delegation to the summit is headed by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. In closed-door meetings after Mr Obama's speech, the UAE stressed the importance of maintaining vigilance in nuclear security through co-operative actions taken by all states, and reinforced the UAE's strong commitment to such efforts.
The delegation said combating the threat of nuclear terrorism is high on its security agenda, and that the UAE supports international efforts to prevent nuclear material and technology from falling into the hands of terrorist organisations. During a full day of meetings, leaders were to focus on "specific and concrete" steps to secure the world's vulnerable nuclear materials. Mexico announced that it would work with the United States and Canada to convert its research reactor from using highly enriched uranium to low enriched uranium fuel. On the first day of the summit, Ukraine and Canada said they would rid themselves of stockpiles of highly enriched uranium.
Ukraine has an estimated 90kg, enough for "the construction of several nuclear weapons", said the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs. Canada said it would transfer its highly enriched uranium back to the United States. The announcements boosted Mr Obama's call to have all "loose" nuclear material locked down within four years. Much of the summit's first day, however, was focused on a country that was not invited to attend: Iran.
Mr Obama used a series of bilateral meetings on Monday to build momentum for a new round of United Nations sanctions against the Islamic republic, which the United States and its allies believe is developing nuclear weapons. White House officials said they were optimistic that Mr Obama had secured a new level of co-operation from China after a 90-minute meeting with the Chinese president Hu Jintao. "They're prepared to work with us," Jeffrey Bader, Mr Obama's top adviser for Asian affairs on the National Security Council said. He added that he expects a resolution in a matter of weeks.
But China cooled expectations of a breakthrough. Jiang Yu, the Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, said yesterday that China "always believes that dialogue and negotiation are the best way out for the issue. Pressure and sanctions cannot fundamentally solve it", she said. Iran, which maintains that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes, has called a rival summit in Tehran on Saturday and Sunday, entitled Nuclear Energy for Everyone, Nuclear Arms for No One. Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, said yesterday the summit would be attended by 15 foreign ministers, and "200 foreign guests", but did not name any.
Mr Mehmanparast cast doubt on the possibility of China going along with UN sanctions and dismissed the Washington summit as political theatre. "Our people doubt such theatrical meetings as some nations have nuclear weapons, have used them, want to retain their arsenal and have impudently threatened to use them against other nations," he said, referring to Mr Obama's newly unveiled US nuclear policy, which maintains the right to use nuclear weapons against rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea.
In Washington, Mr Obama said the nuclear summit provided an "unprecedented" opportunity for co-operation among nations that could one day lead to a world without nuclear weapons. Another opportunity will come next month when leaders from nearly 200 countries meet in New York to consider strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has limited the spread of nuclear weapons since it entered into force in 1970.
"I believe strongly that the problems of the 21st century cannot be solved by any one nation acting in isolation. They must be solved by all of us coming together," Mr Obama said. "For the sake of our common security, for the sake of our survival, we cannot drift. We need a new manner of thinking - and action." Leaders yesterday were also expected to discuss ways to strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency and sign a communique recognising nuclear terrorism as a serious threat and outlining steps to secure nuclear materials.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, and Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, were set yesterday to sign an amendment to the US-Russia Plutonium Disposition Agreement, allowing it to come into force a decade after it was signed. Under the agreement, both sides agreed to destroy 34 metric tonnes each of weapons-grade plutonium. "This signing represents a major and essential step toward enabling full implementation of our two countries' obligation to safely and transparently dispose of such excess weapon-grade plutonium, enough material for several thousand nuclear weapons," the state department said.
"The signing also signifies our commitment to making arms reductions irreversible and to reducing the danger of this material ever falling into the hands of terrorists." firstname.lastname@example.org