Washington: With terror outfits like al Qaeda aiming to grab nuclear weapons, the US has warned that the risk of an atomic attack has increased and sought efforts to lock down the world's vulnerable nuclear materials within four years and prevent them from falling into hands of terrorists.
"The nature of the threat has changed. We no longer live in constant fear of a global nuclear war where we're in a standoff against the Russians with all of our nuclear arsenal on the ready, on a hair-trigger alert," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday.
"But, as (the US) President (Barack) Obama has said, the risk of a nuclear attack has actually increased. And the potential consequences of mishandling this challenge are deadly," she said in her speech on nuclear non-proliferation at the University of Louisville, Kentucky.
Obama has convened a Nuclear Security Summit on April 12-13, which is being attended by leaders from more than 40 countries including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to discuss the crucial issue.
Observing that a nuclear attack anywhere could destroy the foundations of global order, Hillary said while the US and old Soviet Union are no longer locked in an atomic standoff, nuclear proliferation is a leading source of insecurity in the world today.
She claimed that nuclear proliferation by countries like North Korea and Iran endangers US forces, its allies and its broader global interests. "To the extent it pushes other countries to develop nuclear weapons in response, it can threaten the entire international order," Hillary said.
Nuclear terrorism, she said, presents a different challenge, but the consequences would still be devastating. A 10-kilotonne nuclear bomb detonated in Times Square in New York City could kill a million people.
Many more would suffer from the haemorrhaging and weakness that comes from radiation sickness. And beyond the human cost, a nuclear terrorist attack would also touch off a tsunami of social and economic consequences across the country, Hillary said.
She said there are three main elements of the US strategy to safeguard the country and allies against a nuclear attack.
"First, we begin with our support for the basic framework of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. The global nuclear non-proliferation regime is based on a three-sided bargain: countries without nuclear weapons agree not to acquire them; countries with nuclear weapons work toward disarmament; and every nation is afforded the right to access peaceful nuclear energy under appropriate safeguards," she said.
"Unfortunately, this bargain has been under assault. North Korea began developing nuclear weapons as an NPT party before announcing its withdrawal from the treaty. And Iran is flouting the rules, seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability under the guise of a peaceful enrichment programme," Hillary said.
The US had "an urgent interest" in bolstering the world's nuclear non-proliferation framework and enforcement and verification mechanism. "And the new START treaty signed by President Obama and (Russian) President (Dmitry) Medvedev in
Prague helps us advance that goal," Hillary said.
"I'm not suggesting that a move by the United States and Russia to reduce our nuclear stockpiles will convince Iran or North Korea to change their behaviour. But ask yourselves, can our efforts help to bring not only the new START treaty into force, but by doing so help persuade other nations to support serious sanctions against Iran?" she said.
The Secretary of State said the second major element of US' strategy is a global effort to secure vulnerable nuclear material and enhance nuclear security.
"This, unfortunately, is not a theoretical issue. When the United States first started working to secure nuclear materials overseas - principally in the former Soviet Union - our teams of experts found highly radioactive materials stored in open fields without any security," she said.
"They discovered fissile materials - the ingredients for nuclear bombs - warehoused in facilities without electricity, telephones, or armed guards. The International Atomic Energy Agency has released the details of 15 cases of smuggling involving weapons-grade nuclear materials since 1993.
"But we have no idea how many other smuggling operations have gone undetected. Nuclear terrorism has been called the world's most preventable catastrophe. But to prevent it, the world needs to act," Hillary argued.
Referring to next week's Nuclear Security Summit, she said it is the largest conference since the one that came together around the founding of the United Nations in 1945.
"Many of the countries who will be there have already taken concrete steps to strengthen nuclear security. And we expect announcements of further progress on this issue during our talks. But we will also hear from other countries that are helping us keep a very close watch on anyone we think could be part of a network that could lead to the sale or transfer of nuclear material to al Qaeda or other terrorist organisations," she said.
"We are trying to make this Summit the beginning of sustained international effort to lock down the world's vulnerable nuclear materials within four years and reduce the possibility that these materials will find their way into the hands of terrorists," Hillary said.
First Published: Saturday, April 10, 2010, 12:44