White House Correspondent
WASHINGTON – Ukraine agreed today to remove its entire highly enriched uranium stockpile by the time of the next Nuclear Security Summit in 2012. The announcement came early on the first day of an unprecedented gathering of world leaders to discuss means of securing vulnerable nuclear materials. This year’s Nuclear Security Summit includes 47 nations and is being held Monday and Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
Ukraine’s announcement came as a relief to the Obama administration, which has been pressuring participating nations to announce concrete measures to improve the security of weapons-grade nuclear materials. Ukraine currently has enough highly enriched uranium to make several nuclear bombs.
The announcement came immediately after a bilateral meeting this afternoon between Obama and President Victor Yanukovich of the Ukraine. White House officials hailed it as “a landmark decision” and praised the Ukraine’s “leadership” in securing nuclear materials.
“This is something that the United States has tried to make happen for more than ten years,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.
In order to remove the highly enriched uranium, the Ukraine will convert its civil nuclear research facilities to using low enriched uranium, which cannot be used for weapons. Plans for what to do with the removed uranium have not been finalized, but a likely outcome is that the United States will accept custody of the material. Ukraine announced that it plans to begin removing “a substantial part of those stocks” by years end.
Princeton University Professor and long-time nuclear security expert Dr. Frank von Hippel called the announcement “very good news.” ”The Ukrainians have been very ambivalent about letting go of this highly enriched uranium,” he said. ”[This is] just the kind of fall-out from the Summit that was hoped for, but uncertain.”
Chile made a similar decision to remove its significantly smaller stockpile of highly enriched uranium earlier this year. Last month it was successfully transferred in secret to the United States for secure storage.
Ukraine has a long history of pursuing nuclear non-proliferation. The former Soviet republic, along with Kazakhstan and Belarus, agreed in 1994 to remove all the left over Soviet nuclear munitions from its territory.
“Ukraine has been an international leader on disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation and a valued partner in the implementation of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) since its historic 1994 decision,” a White House statement said.
Obama hopes for other nations to make similar announcements about steps they plan to take to secure vulnerable nuclear weapons. Yesterday, the President called nuclear terrorism the single greatest threat to national security.
“If there was ever a detonation in New York City, or London, or Johannesburg, the ramifications economically, politically, and from a security perspective would be devastating,” he said. ”We know that organizations like al Qaeda are in the process of trying to secure a nuclear weapon — a weapon of mass destruction that they have no compunction at using.”
Administration officials have stressed for the past week the need for an international consensus on the threat of nuclear terrorism. Relatively small amounts of fissile material could allow terrorists to create either a dirty bomb — a device that could contaminate an area with radioactivity — or an outright nuclear bomb. According to US intelligence sources, many terrorist organizations have been actively seeking these materials for years.
“The threat of nuclear terrorism is real, it is serious, [and] it is growing,” said John Brennan, the Assistant to the President for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security. ”Over the past there has been indisputable evidence that dozens of terrorist groups have actively sought some type of weapon of mass effect.”
Whether other nations will listen to and take action to prevent this threat, however, remains to be seen. Obama appeared Monday afternoon, however, to remain hopeful.
“I think it (the Summit) is an impressive indication of how deeply concerned everybody should be with the possibilities of nuclear traffic,” he said. ”I think and the end of this we’re going to see some very specific, concrete actions that each nation is taking that will make the world a little bit safer.”