WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama will outline in a major speech on Sunday a blueprint for ridding the world of nuclear weapons that calls for the United States to reduce its reliance on history’s deadliest arms and lead a new international effort to prevent terrorists from acquiring them.

The plan would reverse the previous administration’s policy that made nuclear weapons a central pillar of U.S. security policy by preserving an arsenal of thousands of warheads, expanding the targets against which they could be used and embracing the development of new weapons.

Under Obama’s proposals, the United States also would return to its earlier policy of negotiating complex international arms agreements, an approach that the George W. Bush administration viewed as being too cumbersome and restricting of U.S power.

Obama’s plan reflects the idea that the dangers posed by the spread of nuclear arms can be curbed only if the United States leads in bolstering the global non-proliferation system, which experts say was badly eroded by the Bush policy, and by the Iranian, North Korean, Israeli, Indian and Pakistani nuclear programs.

There are growing concerns that the system faces further weakening, increasing the threat terrorists could obtain a bomb or bomb-making materials, as more countries invest in nuclear energy.

“With the Cold War now over, the spread of nuclear weapons or the theft of nuclear material could lead to the extermination of any city on the planet,” Obama said Friday in France. “This weekend in Prague, I will lay out an agenda to seek the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Thousands are expected to attend Obama’s speech in picturesque Hradcany Square in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic.

The location is highly symbolic. The Czech Republic – as part of Czechoslovakia – was on the front lines of the Cold War as a satellite of the former Soviet Union. It is now a member of NATO and the European Union, and its last government fell after losing a no-confidence vote over its support for hosting a U.S. missile defense site.

Obama’s speech will build on a joint statement he issued Wednesday in London with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in which they agreed to pursue deeper cuts in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, beginning with a new treaty that would replace a key nuclear weapons accord that expires in December.

A senior administration official said that in Prague, Obama will argue that the United States and other nuclear powers “need to move away from reliance” on nuclear weapons and turn their attention to the threat of nuclear terrorism.

“He is going to focus on the growing and urgent danger of loose nukes,” said the senior official, who requested anonymity to preview parts of the speech.

Obama will be treading a fine line, however, espousing the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, but acknowledging that as long as such weapons exist, the United States will have to retain warheads.

Asked how Obama plans to get to the goal of “global zero” – a world free of nuclear weapons – senior adviser Denis McDonough said, “He gets to it very carefully.”

“The challenge here is to maintain an effective deterrent as long as there’s any threat in the world,” McDonough told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Prague.

Obama, he said, wants to reinforce the original bargain contained in the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the keystone of the international system to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty commits nuclear powers, including the United States, to work to eliminate their weapons, while non-nuclear powers pledge not to acquire nuclear arms in return for access to civilian nuclear technology.

Another senior administration official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, called inaccurate European press reports that Obama would pledge to remove remaining U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, which number less than 300.

“Those weapons have an important symbolic value” and express “an American commitment to the Europeans,” the senior official said.

In his speech, Obama will pledge concrete steps to strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty, during a major conference of its signatories to be held next year, the official said. Those steps include increased nuclear inspections and other measures to ensure compliance.

He also will pledge to seek Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which bans underground nuclear testing but which former President George W. Bush withdrew from consideration.

In his briefing, McDonough noted that the speech will reflect proposals for curbing proliferation that Obama frequently outlined as a senator.

Obama promoted those steps in a bill he introduced in 2007 with former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a leading member of an international campaign for a nuclear weapon-free world, and in several key campaign speeches on national security last year.

In addition to seeking deeper cuts in the U.S. and Russian arsenals, Obama pledged that he would not authorize the development of new U.S. weapons and would make the eventual elimination of such arms a “central element of U.S. nuclear policy.”

He said he would take hundreds of U.S. nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert.

Obama also said he would launch initiatives to phase out civilian uses of highly enriched uranium, the fuel used in nuclear bombs; strengthen global programs to prevent nuclear smuggling; and secure all nuclear materials at vulnerable sites around the world by the end of his first four years in office.

Obama promised to strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, by seeking to double its budget and increase its power to inspect nuclear facilities to ensure they are not secretly being used to develop weapons.

He also pledged to work with other countries to create an “international energy architecture” designed to promote an expansion of civilian nuclear power without increasing the production of nuclear weapons materials.

The plan would include establishing an IAEA-run “bank” from which countries would buy fuel for power reactors, relieving them of the need to build enrichment facilities that could be used for weapons programs.

(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau on the World Wide Web at www.mcclatchydc.com.

AP-NY-04-04-09 1833EDT

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