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Corralling loose nukes

Last month's attacks on an airport and train station in Brussels and the bombing of a city park in Lahore, Pakistan, were cruel reminders of the indifference with which terrorists regard human life. That is why President Barack Obama was right to keep up the pressure on world leaders meeting in Washington last week to do everything possible to prevent a nuclear weapon from falling into terrorists' hands. "It would change our world," he said in addressing the fourth such gathering he has attended since 2010. Yet the difficulty Mr. Obama faces was underscored by the necessity of his response to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's loose talk about encouraging the spread of nuclear weapons to Japan and South Korea or a potential willingness to use them in an armed conflict. It's that much harder for Mr. Obama to convince other nations to help reduce the nuclear threat when a leading candidate to replace him casually turns his back on decades of disarmament policy.

The U.S. and its allies have long pursued a strategy aimed at blocking the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials to rogue nations such as Syria, North Korea and Iran. But over the last decade the threat of a devastating attack increasingly has come from shadowy, non-state actors like al-Qaeda and Islamic State, against whom traditional deterrence doesn't work. In Syria, Islamic State has already shown a willingness to use chemical weapons, and there is little doubt that if such groups had a nuclear weapon, or even a primitive "dirty bomb," which combines radioactive material with conventional explosives, they wouldn't hesitate to use it.

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The goal of the Nuclear Security Summit was to encourage governments to secure all the nuclear materials on their territory that could be used to build a nuclear or radiological weapon. That includes not only highly enriched uranium and plutonium used to make bombs but also radioactive isotopes of cesium, cobalt and other elements produced for medical and scientific purposes, which can also have a devastating impact if deliberately released into the environment.

Police in Brussels, for example, recently uncovered a plot by ISIS terrorists to kidnap a Belgian scientist and force him to give them access to nuclear materials at his workplace. Presumably the scheme was aimed at stealing materials the group could use to construct a dirty bomb. Such devices, though they don't have the intrinsic explosive power of a nuclear weapon, blast tiny particles of radioactive debris into the air that can poison an area for years, effectively rendering huge swaths of a city — or an airport or subway system — uninhabitable.

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Since Mr. Obama inaugurated the first Nuclear Security Summit six years ago, 14 countries and Taiwan have voluntarily given up their weapons-grade plutonium and uranium. Twelve others, including France, Russia and the United States, have reduced their stockpiles of nuclear materials. Other measures Mr. Obama has called "concrete, tangible steps" taken by countries to reduce the threat from terrorists include beefed up security around nuclear installations and a crackdown on nuclear smuggling. At hundreds of international airports, seaports and border crossings, countries have installed new equipment to detect concealed nuclear materials.

Despite such measures, however, Mr. Obama says the prospect of a terrorist group getting a weapon of mass destruction remains "one of the greatest threats to global security" today. That will probably remain true for the foreseeable future, and though the president had praise for countries like Japan, which has promised to give up highly enriched uranium from one of its research reactors, and for Latin American and Caribbean nations that rid themselves of all their highly enriched uranium, more needs to be done and constant vigilance will be required to keep the world safe from terrorists bent on attacking innocents with nuclear weapons. This is a job that won't be over by the time Mr. Obama leaves office, and whoever succeeds him can't afford to drop the ball on the work he has begun.

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