It does not take much imagination to realize what a nuclear weapon can do in the wrong hands. The situation today is much worse: Terrorists do not require an assembled weapon; small quantities of plutonium or enriched uranium, the key ingredients of an N-weapon, will suffice. Water supplies to cities, long stretches of rivers and glaciers are today the new frontiers of terror.

So when US President Barack Obama invited 47 countries to participate in the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington from 12 to 14 April, a lot was expected. In the end, the outcome was disappointing.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

The problem is that today the nuclear safety is inextricably tied with divergent political goals and aims of different countries, that one conference cannot resolve the problem. The US did not, and could not, disentangle these many threads to achieve the overall goal of the summit.

Two examples of this are Iran and Pakistan. In the case of Iran, the US simply wants that country to forgo all its nuclear ambitions, peaceful or otherwise. The result is that Iran’s first instinct is to hide or not fully disclose all nuclear materials in its hands. This lack of accounting, prompted at the root by a fear of the US (strikes and sanctions being two scenarios that Tehran visualizes today), has heightened the danger of loss of such materials. This is a perfect situation for a heist or an accidental loss that could hold the world to ransom.

Then there is the problem of Pakistan. A study by Matthew Bunn of Harvard University (Securing the Bomb 2010) lists Pakistan at the top of three highest risks of a nuclear theft. Yet, the conference saw little voice on the subject. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did highlight this threat, but this is likely to be greatly discounted as the world feels Indo-Pak rivalry is behind Islamabad’s nuclear insecurities.

The truth is more complicated. Pakistan is also worried about a US snatch of its nukes. Then there is the question of the possible complicity of the Pakistani establishment in aiding terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda in getting an N-weapon or radioactive materials. No one raised this question. The US is least likely to do so as it has to extricate itself out of Afghanistan. It can’t do that without Pakistani help.

So it is hardly surprising that the Washington summit was nothing more than a jamboree for big boys. Nuclear security will have to wait for another, clearer day.

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