‘Terrorism threat’ main focus of Obama’s final nuclear security summit

© Reuters
While President Barack Obama’s final nuclear security summit focuses on the threat of atomic terror in a major western city by non-state actors, activists argue that aging nuclear power plants and weapons proliferation are issues of greater concern.

In a special session at the two-day global summit, which begins Thursday in Washington DC, leaders from 50 countries will discuss a hypothetical scenario in which a chain of events could lead to nuclear terrorism.

Concerns about a “nuclear terrorism” threat by extremist groups have increased after it was revealed that the two brothers linked to earlier Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) terrorist attacks in Paris had secretly filmed the daily routine of the head of Belgium’s nuclear research and development program, and considered an attack on a nuclear site in the country, according to Belgian media. The two brothers were part of an ISIS cell that went on to strike the Brussels airport and Metro, and both died in the attacks.

READ MORE: Brussels terrorists planned nuclear plants attack, changed target after accomplice’s arrest – report

“We know that terrorist organizations have the desire to get access to these raw materials and to have a nuclear device,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, according to AP.

Experts envision four potential scenarios for a nuclear-related attack by an extremist group. The most improbable involves a group stealing a fully functional bomb from a nuclear-armed country. Other scenarios include obtaining fissile material – such as highly enriched uranium – and turning it into a crude nuclear device delivered by truck or ship; bombing a nuclear facility; or obtaining radioactive material for a “dirty bomb.”

In the last scenario, terrorists could raid a relatively undefended facility that carries radioactive material such as a hospital, according to Tim Judson, Executive Director at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. NIRS serves citizens concerned about nuclear power, radioactive waste, radiation, and sustainable energy issues.

“Most smoke detectors used in American buildings have Americium 241 sources in them, which if you combined them together would be a pretty significant [crude radiological] device just from the stand point of contaminating an area, and causing harm,” Judson told RT.

It is hard to see how the government could prevent such a dirty bomb, Judson said, adding that a greater threat is the vulnerability of nuclear power and waste facilities. He said the US media is still in the habit of pretending that a nuclear accident couldn’t really happen at a power plant.

“The Fukushima accident demonstrated the falsity of that pretty conclusively,” said Judson.

According to him, in the last year, officials at nuclear plants in Belgium have said the vessels that contain the reactor cores – which are the basic safety mechanism to prevent a meltdown – have shown to be incredibly brittle.

“The Belgian government isn't sure those reactors are safe to operate anymore,” said Judson, “never mind that a terrorist might attack the facility and cause a meltdown intentionally.”

An equally dangerous decision was made by US the Federal Energy Commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the last year, when they issued permits for a massive natural gas pipeline to be built adjacent to the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, just 25 miles north of New York City.

“Within a 100 feet of critical safety systems at the plant,” said Judson.

“The NRC seems to think, without any analysis as far as we can tell, that an explosion of the pipeline wouldn’t cause a meltdown at the reactors. The placement of a massive explosive source that close to a reactor could easily be used by a terrorist as a diversion to attack the facility directly,” he added.

Judson said these decisions are being made without any seeming concern for security implications.

Obama inaugurated the first nuclear summit in 2009, to pursue “a world without nuclear weapons,” and pioneer new US policies on nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, security and energy.

With the president’s second term expiring at the end of the year, the White House is keen to claim the initiative has been a success, especially with the Iran nuclear deal taking one issue off the table.

According to NIRS’s Nuclear Security Index, which tracks the safety of weapons-usable nuclear materials, the past two years saw no improvement in a range of measures including on-site physical protection, security during transport, and the ability to recover lost radioactive materials.

On the summit’s sidelines, Obama is expected to meet with the leaders of China, South Korea and Japan, who all share concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program. Judson of NIRS says that another worrying development is the US support for the Japanese government building a nuclear fuel reprocessing facility.

“[It] is nothing else but a facility to separate plutonium from used reactor fuel,” said Judson. “That presents both a proliferation concern, but also raises concerns about an escalation of an arms race in East Asia – because the Chinese government does not take lightly the Japanese government separating plutonium, nor does the North Korean government, and by extension the South Korean government.”

Russia has sent delegates to three previous summits, but announced that no officials would be coming to Washington this time. Moscow will be represented by its ambassador to the US, Sergey Sergei Kislyak.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in January that the summits interfered with international organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, and imposed on them the "opinions of a limited group of states."

Protesting the summit on Friday will be a group called Global Zero. They plan to erect a life-size inflatable nuclear missile at a noontime rally in downtown Washington’s McPherson Square, to draw attention to the 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Organizers with Global Zero, an international movement to eliminate nuclear weapons, argue there can be no such thing as “nuclear security” as long as atomic weapons exist.