Nuclear Security Summit begins in Washington as ISIS threat looms

Canada will take a prominent seat at the table today at the international Nuclear Security Summit in Washington and join 52 other nations to discuss nuclear terrorism in a world threatened by ISIS.

Leaders of 53 nations gather in D.C. to discuss how to prevent nuclear material from getting into wrong hands

A Pakistani-made Shaheen-III missile, capable of carrying nuclear warheads, on display during a military parade in Islamabad. World leaders meeting today in Washington fear that some countries' nuclear installations and weapons arsenals are vulnerable to theft by extremists and militants. Leaders of 53 nations will discuss the threat and how to tackle it over the two-day Nuclear Security Summit. Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was scheduled to attend but cancelled because of the Easter Sunday bombing in Lahore that killed 72 people. (Anjum Naveed/Associated Press)

Against a backdrop of global concern over the smuggling of nuclear materials, Canada will take a prominent seat at the table today at the international Nuclear Security Summit in Washington as 53 nations gather to discuss nuclear terrorism in a world threatened by ISIS.

The goal of the two-day event is to come up with strategies for preventing would-be attackers against nation states from obtaining or building nuclear weapons capable of inflicting mass casualties.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, on his way to attend the Nuclear Security Summit meetings in Washington, which begin Thursday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

This year, fears about ISIS will reframe the agenda from general nuclear security to discussions about the dangers posed by extremists intent on fashioning their own nuclear weapons or dirty bombs, weapons that mix conventional explosives with radioactive materials.

Canada will be represented at the summit by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who will put forward a so-called gift-basket initiative, or joint commitment, that will urge participants to recommit to honouring the 2004 United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540. The resolution binds UN member states to take action to prevent the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, collectively known as weapons of mass destruction.

Canada's initiative calls on fellow nations to pledge to do a better job of tracking nuclear material within their own borders and keeping it out of the hands of non-state actors.

No standards or oversight

Canada's pledge will be one of 17 joint statements presented at the summit.

Some of the others will focus in more detail on nuclear forensics — the technical aspects of tracking nuclear material — and nuclear trafficking.

"It's fair to say Canada's been very supportive of this endeavour (the summit) since 2009," said Paul Meyer, Canada's former UN ambassador and permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament. "[Non-proliferation] is an area where Canada was a traditional leader."

There are no standards for security, and there's no oversight mechanism or review process to ensure states have actually implemented sound security.- Joan  Rohlfing , president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative

The Nuclear Threat Initiative's Nuclear Security Index ranks Canada favourably — third overall, behind Switzerland and then Australia — when it comes to the extent of its security measures to protect stockpiles of weapons-grade nuclear materials and prevent them from being stolen and trafficked.

But Joan Rohlfing, president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a D.C.-based organization that works with governments on issues of nuclear materials security, believes a lot of work remains to be done to ensure that materials needed to make a dirty bomb stay out of the reach of criminal and terrorist organizations.

"There's no agreement on a system of security," she said. "There are no standards for security, and there's no oversight mechanism or review process to ensure states have actually implemented sound security."

'A real threat'

Today's nuclear summit will be the fourth and final one of its kind. The event was the brainchild of U.S. President Barack Obama and stemmed from a speech envisioning a world free of nuclear weapons that he made in Prague in 2009 at a meeting with EU leaders.

A member of a counter-radiation team uses a Geiger counter to search for missing radioactive material in Basra, Iraq, in February that many feared had been acquired by ISIS militants. That case turned out to be a false alarm, but some fear it is only a matter of time before the group fashions its own nuclear weapon or dirty bomb. (Essam Al-Sudani/Reuters)

This year, however, the summit opens under uneasy circumstances, a little over a week after the attacks in Brussels that killed more than 30 people.

Nuclear smuggling is a very real threat. The International Atomic Energy Agency has documented about 400 cases of attempted nuclear smuggling since the 1990s and another 700 cases of theft of radioactive material.

There's growing awareness by countries that this is a real threat, that this affects them.- Carl Robichaud, nuclear expert

Belgian authorities acknowledged in February that they had seized 10 hours of surveillance footage that showed a Belgian official from a nuclear facility. The video was retrieved from the home of a suspect linked to the deadly Paris attacks carried out by ISIS last November.

British jihadist Hamayun Tariq, an ISIS militant, also claimed in December 2014 that the group was in possession of a dirty bomb and was weighing where to detonate it.

"Has the rise of international terrorism changed what's on the agenda of the summit? Yes, it has," said Carl Robichaud, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Corporation of New York think tank. "There's growing awareness by countries that this is a real threat, that this affects them."

Canada supports non-proliferation but also nuclear deterrence

Canada brings strong non-proliferation credentials to the table, although they are complicated by Canada's membership in NATO, whose deterrence strategy relies in part on the presence of nuclear weapons in some member states, said Ernie Regehr, a research fellow and nuclear expert at Conrad Grebel University College, which is affiliated with the University of Waterloo.

"[We] endorse and support NATO's nuclear deterrent policy, including the presence of nuclear weapons in Europe, which I think has no security function," he said. "On the other hand, there's been strong support of multilateral nuclear disarmament and efforts and negotiations."

In past summits, Canada has committed to repatriating the enriched uranium that it imports from the U.S. for use in medical isotopes or nuclear reactors so that it could be disposed of safely. In 2014, it also committed to spending $28 million to help other nations improve their nuclear security.

About the Author

Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

With files from Susan Lunn