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Experts urge Biden to restore U.S. leadership in global nuclear security

U.S. President Joe Biden removes his mask to address NIH staff during a visit to NIH in Bethesda, Maryland, U.S., February 11, 2021. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nearly 30 experts on global nuclear security urged President Joe Biden’s administration on Thursday to restore U.S. leadership on fissile materials to reduce the threat that militants will use them to create weapons.

Global security of materials like plutonium and highly enriched uranium received “limited high-level attention” by former President Donald Trump’s administration, the experts said in a letter to about six officials at the State Department, the Department of Energy and the National Security Council.

“U.S. leadership on this issue has weakened and international progress has slowed,” wrote the experts, including Sharon Squassoni of George Washington University and William Tobey of Harvard University, according to a copy of the letter seen by Reuters.

It recommended launching a comprehensive plan to achieve security of global stocks of nuclear weapons, fissile materials and nuclear facilities where sabotage could cause a catastrophe.

The administration should boost funding for the issue, which the letter called “an investment in national security against threats of nuclear and radiological terrorism.” Washington should also increase financial and political support for the International Atomic Energy Agency and improve diplomacy on the issue.

Last week Russia and Washington extended the New START arms control treaty for five years, preserving the last pact limiting deployments of the world’s two largest strategic nuclear arsenals.

But international work has slowed in recent years on securing fissile materials at research reactors and in bulk form at sites after nuclear weapons were dismantled in Russia and some Former Soviet Union countries, said Miles Pomper, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

Washington doesn’t “have much of a window into what they are doing and they seem to have slowed down on a lot of things like minimizing their highly enriched uranium stocks,” Pomper said.

Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by David Gregorio