Misunderstandings abound over the summit agenda.

Conceived with theatrical flourish by President Barack Obama last April, the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) which gets under way here on Monday combines the pursuit of a serious agenda — how to physically secure sensitive nuclear materials around the world so that terrorists don't get hold of them —with an element of smoke and mirrors.

After all, many countries whose nuclear programmes, resources or ambitions should have led to an invite are not here, including Iran and North Korea. And many of those who say the world should do more for the physical protection of nuclear and radiological material – including the U.S. – have themselves not acceded to basic international agreements dealing with these issues such as the 2005 Amendment to the International Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material or the International Convention on the Suppression of Nuclear Terrorism.

Welcome though the heightened international focus on nuclear terrorism is, the high-profile nature of the summit — 37 of the participating 47 countries are represented at the level of President or Prime Minister — also helps draw the spotlight away from the threat posed to the world by the arsenals and doctrines of nuclear weapon states such as the U.S.

One year after publicly declaring himself in favour of a nuclear weapon-free world, for example, Mr. Obama unveiled a Nuclear Posture Review which continues to advocate their pre-emptive use.

Against this contradictory backdrop, it is hardly surprising that misunderstandings abound over what the summit is actually about. A leading British newspaper is calling it a summit on nuclear weapons and an Indian official suggested the summit might be a good occasion for India to roll out an updated version of the Rajiv Gandhi plan for global disarmament.

A summit-eve statement prepared for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who arrived here on Saturday night, initially had him saying the NSS would focus on nuclear terrorism and the “proliferation of sensitive nuclear materials and technologies.”

The P word was later replaced with ‘security,' but its initial use betrayed a certain unfamiliarity within the government of what the Washington meeting is supposed to be about.

The truth is the NSS is not about high-octane subjects like nuclear weapons, non-proliferation, arms control or disarmament. Instead, it concerns something much more prosaic: the physical security of nuclear and radiological materials around the world. Materials which, if they fall into the hands of terrorists or criminals, could allow them to make or acquire a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb.

Attempts resisted

Ironically, Indian officials who had taken part in the preparatory work for the summit had successfully warded off suggestions early on in the process that it deal not just with physical protection of nuclear material but also proliferation and interdiction-related issues.

Early attempts to bring in links to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, to which India is not a signatory, were resisted.

At other times, India joined together with the other nuclear weapon states to keep nuclear weapons out of the purview of the summit declaration. The consensus document – which will be released on Tuesday — speaks instead of keeping all nuclear material physically secure, regardless of how the state which owns it intends to use it.