Diplomats, bureaucrats and nuclear experts are meeting in Japan to discuss how to strengthen nuclear security in Asian countries. The International Atomic Energy Agency has called the group together amid continuing fears that terrorists have designs on obtaining or building nuclear weapons.
The two-day meeting, which began Wednesday in Tokyo, comes amid growing concerns about nuclear proliferation. Iran faces possible sanctions for continuing to enrich uranium, which could be used to build an atomic bomb. North Korea tested its first nuclear weapons device last month, prompting punitive United Nations sanctions. As a result of North Korea's test, some leading conservative politicians in Japan say that Tokyo should discuss the building of its own nuclear arsenal.
This meeting is focusing on how Asia can keep nuclear materials and weapons out of the hands of terrorist groups, says the head of the IAEA's Office of Nuclear Security, Anita Birgitta Nilsson.
"We are building a sustainable way of hindering these acts from happening in the first place. And then, of course, if something happens to be able to take care of the results in the most effective and efficient manner," said Nilsson.
Concerns about terrorists using nuclear weapons were heightened by the September 2001 attacks by Al Qaeda in the United States. The threat persists, says Matthew Bunn of Harvard University's Managing the Atom Project. He says Osama bin Laden and others remain active in trying to obtain nuclear materials and weapons.
"We have seen in Russia terrorist teams actually casing nuclear weapons storage facilities. We have seen repeated attempts by Bin Laden to purchase the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons [and] to recruit nuclear weapons scientists to help him with a nuclear bomb," noted Bunn.
The IAEA is facing skepticism that it can do much, if anything, to hinder the quest for weapons of mass destruction. Critics say the agency has failed to prevent North Korea and Iran from pursuing their nuclear weapons programs. But Harvard University's Matthew Bunn defends the agency, saying recent developments demonstrate the effectiveness of the agency's safeguards. Bunn recalls that North Korea first threatened to pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty when they were caught cheating by the agency's inspectors.
"You can't blame the IAEA for what's happened since [in North Korea] because the IAEA has been kicked out," continued Bunn. "In the Iran case, I think that the IAEA has done a very professional job of peeling back one layer of the onion after another of the, frankly, lies Iran was telling."
Washington and Moscow on Wednesday are expected to push for wider enforcement of a U.N. resolution intended to stop the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons. The call is to come at a meeting in Vienna of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The IAEA says that between 1993 and 2004 there were 18 confirmed cases of trafficking of plutonium or highly enriched uranium in Europe alone.
At the Vienna meeting, efforts will be made to push nations in Africa and the Pacific region, where export controls are weak, to rely on assistance from other countries to prevent the spread of nuclear materials.