Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 12, 2010

Threat of Nuclear Terrorism

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on April 12, 2010

Downtown Washington D.C. braced this morning for traffic and business disruptions resulting from this week’s Nuclear Security Summit, where leaders of 47 nations are gathering to discuss how to keep nukes away from terrorists.

The meeting comes less than a week after the United States and Russia, which currently hold 95% of existing nukes, signed a treaty that would reduce the two nations’ stockpile of weapons significantly.  The treaty would reduce the number of nuclear weapons each country would have to a maximum of 3100 (1,550 each) by 2017. *

* This number doesn’t include exceptions- including the tactical/battlefield nukes, “reserve” weapons, and those waiting for dismantling, which account for approximately 12,000 more warheads.  That said, the number is significantly lower than the 60,000 nuclear weapons that were floating around during the height of the Cold War.

The treaty, which gained a significant amount of attention last week, left untouched a more frightening issue  that is the subject of this week’s summit- what to do about terrorists and rogue actors who might be intent on gaining access to and using nuclear weapons.  The summit will specifically focus on two areas of concern:

  • How to secure nuclear materials (i.e. the “loose nukes” problem)
  • How to prevent nuclear smuggling

Both of these threats potentially can allow terrorists to gain access to separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium, both of which are critical to nuclear bombmaking.  Unfortunately, achieving success against these threats is easier said than done, especially since each country had different regimes for handling the materials and, in many cases,  the materials reside with private individuals instead of government agencies.

In some instances, the materials and the scientific skills to use them are for sale on various black markets, awaiting the highest bidder.  According to a recent Christian Science Monitor report, between 1993 and 2008, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) clocked 336 confirmed reports of criminal activity involving nuclear material, including 421 incidents of stolen or lost nuclear material.*

* Lost materials have been a significant concern since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, a situation that only worsened after economic turmoil hit the nation.  Much of the Soviet’s stockpile was stored in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, where large amounts of uranium and plutonium may still exist.  The U.S. made earlier strides to secure those materials through the Nunn-Lugar program, but much remains to be done.

The Summit this week could be important in addressing the non-state actor threat and for setting the stage  for the 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), scheduled for May 3-28, 2010 at the United Nations headquarters in New York.  That review will address a number of key issues including:

  • universality of the Treaty;
  • nuclear disarmament, including specific practical measures;
  • nuclear non-proliferation, including the promoting and strengthening of safeguards;
  • measures to advance the peaceful use of nuclear energy, safety and security;
  • regional disarmament and non-proliferation;
  • implementation of the 1995 resolution on the Middle East;
  • measures to address withdrawal from the Treaty;
  • measures to further strengthen the review process; and
  • ways to promote engagement with civil society in strengthening NPT norms and in promoting disarmament education.

As for the summit this week, success can be found if the participating nations reaffirm their commitment to secure nuclear materials within their jurisdiction and agree to help other nations who cannot afford or do not have the capability to secure their materials.   It would also be useful to come away with an agreement to take strong legal stances against smugglers and rogue nuclear scientists willing to sell their bombmaking expertise to the highest bidders.  Also, a commitment to develop uniform security standards for non-weaponized nuclear materials, including medical and energy uses, to assure that those materials cannot be used for wrongdoing, would be a big success.

Of course, even if 47 nations agree this week to do all of the above there are nations not at the table whose efforts will be critical to any attempts to achieve global nuclear security.  Neither Iran and North Korea were invited to the conference, as they have violated the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.  In any event, Iran has already said that it will not be bound by any agreements made this week.  Among the meetings scheduled for this week, is a bilateral meeting between President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao, where President Obama is expected to press his counterpart to support the United Nations Security Council’s efforts to impose tougher sanctions on Iran.

Also worth noting is that Israel is not participating in the Summit. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu withdrew last week as he believed that a number of nations – including Turkey and Egypt – planned to raises questions about Israel’s nuclear arsenal and its refusal to sign the NPT.

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1 Comment »

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 12, 2010 @ 8:09 pm

Great discussion and topic!
There are technical metrics that would help each nation-state or any nation-state with its safety and surety and safeguards issues. Many in the “nuclear priesthood” accused JFK when President of the US of treason for requiring the PAL [Permissive Action Link} technology to be given to the Soviets. It would be interesting to know how many of the attendees at this conference know of this vital surety/safeguard technology? A march of 1000 miles begins with a single step. IMO the administration took a tiny step in the right direction with its recent review and adoption of some minor changes to US nuclear weapon employment and use doctrine. What I find of interest is how little the MSM understood of the importance of the changes and also how little the past doctrine was actually changed. Again MAD is the US strategic doctrine and the Russian. At least those two nation-states understand that with respect to each other and thereby deterrance is advanced. What other nation--states often fail to understand is that failure to release publically their doctrine at least in outline promotes profliferation. The other factor of course driving proliferation and what was NOT understood at the creation of cold war doctrine and policy and systems is that each operating nuclear power plant was in fact a step in the directon of proliferation. These power reactors are not bombs but they can easily lead to bombs in the future. And of course they make wonderful targets. The ultimate excellent RDD [radiological dispersal device] is a nuclear reactor with its highly vulerable support systems including back up generators.

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