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The world's five leading nuclear powers and eight other countries kicked off a new program Monday aimed at keeping nuclear weapons beyond the reach of terrorists.
Amid global concerns over North Korea's test of an atomic bomb and suspicions Iran is trying to develop such weapons, delegations from the United States and the other states said it was paramount for the world to guard against terrorist groups joining the hunt.
"The concern is fundamental - we must stop terrorists from acquiring (nuclear weapons)," said Robert Joseph, US undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.
The world's five leading nuclear powers - the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France - form the core of the new Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism.
Those five plus Italy, Japan, Canada, China, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Australia and host Morocco signed two agreements on common principles and "terms of reference" that were not immediately made public after the start of the two-day meeting in Rabat.
The initiative aims to provide guidelines for keeping track of nuclear substances, ensuring the safety of nuclear facilities, and combating trafficking that could deliver nuclear materials into the hands of terrorists.
But one nuclear proliferation expert said the project offered little new, warning that porous Russian military bases, insufficient security at US nuclear sites, and the absence of nuclear powers like Pakistan and India from the coalition were gaping holes.
Laura Holgate, an analyst for Nuclear Threat Initiative, a non-governmental organization in the United States, said the ideas were similar to those discussed over the last five years.
If nuclear materials were safely stored, she said, problems of their trafficking and possible acquisition by terrorists would never arise.
"The security issue has got to be front and center," she said by phone from Washington, D.C. Cooperation on oversight entailed in the new efforts does not include military facilities, where most nuclear material lies, she said.
Holgate rejected categorial assurances by Russia in the past that its nuclear and military facilities were secure, saying its army bases are porous: "There's petty pilfering all the time."
With the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs topping the international diplomatic agenda, the project's US and Russian leaders want to better secure the world's nuclear materials and knowledge.
"It's about galvanizing the elements in the world to protect ... people from one of the most dangerous threats we face," Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak.
"We do agree on some things. We have disagreements and nuances on others," he added.
"I think we will work together, but we might disagree on the technique," he said.
A senior Western diplomat said Monday that the meeting was an important sign of cooperation between Americans and Russians in an area where they haven't always seen eye-to-eye, particularly over whether to impose sanctions against Iran.
The United States and allies have sought to force the Iranians to halt uranium enrichment, a key step to produce either peaceful nuclear power or an atomic bomb. Russia and China, which have economic links to Iran, have shied away from imposing punitive measures.
Tehran insists its nuclear efforts are solely aimed at producing electricity, but the US and its allies fear Iran wants to build atomic weapons.
The Western diplomat, who was speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said Russia was involved in the talks because regardless of its reservations about sanctions, "the Russians have everything to fear from proliferation."
The diplomat said the international community is seeking "supplementary instruments" to prevent nuclear terrorism such as better stemming of terrorist financing and better safeguards for the world's sources of radioactive material, from naturally occurring sources to hospital equipment.
Western nations were taking "very seriously" interest expressed by countries like Morocco and Tunisia in civil nuclear energy programs, the diplomat said.
The conference was considering new norms for nuclear plants to better prevent proliferation, though he insisted that modern controls make it extremely difficult for countries to apply the technology from nuclear plants to nuclear weapons.
US President George W. Bush and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin announced the arms control initiative on July 15 at the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.
In a statement, the two leaders urged like-minded countries to expand joint efforts to "combat nuclear terrorism on a determined and systematic basis."
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