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The Nuclear Genie

Richard Weitz

The processes associated with globalisation—the spread of sensitive nuclear technologies throughout the world, improved means of communication and transportation, and the worldwide diffusion of knowledge through the internet—have exacerbated nuclear terrorist threats. Consider the following examples:

Last November two Armenian men pleaded guilty during a secret trial to smuggling highly enriched uranium into Georgia—fresh proof of the continuing dangers of nuclear-materials smuggling in the former Soviet Union. In March, the pair was arrested in a sting operation for trying to sell the material to Islamic militants. Although a small amount, the uranium was potentially usable in a nuclear warhead or dirty bomb. Similar smuggling incidents were detected in Georgia in 2006 and 2003, suggesting that the former Soviet bloc remains the soft underbelly of nuclear security while world focus is on North Korea and Iran.

Another newly revealed nuclear smuggling incident, this time in the Congo, dates from 2008, when a group of Rwandan rebels in the east of the country attempted to sell six containers of purported uranium that dated back to the days of Belgian colonial rule. Uranium from Rwanda’s Shinkolobwe mine, which closed in 1960, was sold to the United States by Belgium in 1943.

Americans later used the uranium to make the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. Pakistan is another source of nuclear nightmares. The cables published by WikiLeaks reveal frantic American diplomats failing to make Pakistan’s nuclear assets more secure. One prominent cable records how, despite years of efforts, Washington has proved unable to induce Pakistani officials to fulfill their legal obligation to return US-supplied high-enriched uranium stored at a Pakistani civilian research reactor.

On Dec. 21, 2010, the United States and the Democratic Republic of Congo signed an agreement to prevent trafficking of nuclear and radioactive materials. The United States has completed similar pacts with Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine.

Whereas in public US officials have offered reassuring comments about Pakistani nuclear security, the cables warn that growth of Islamist extremism and Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons complex is raising the risk that both phenomena could fuse with Islamist terrorists detonating a Pakistani nuclear device—perhaps in Times Square, the target of a failed Pakistani car bomb earlier this year.

A conventional explosion in Times Square during theater hours could cause horrific casualties. But if such a weapon included radioactive materials smuggled from Pakistan, the United States would suffer the most devastating act of terrorism in world history. The resulting losses would be worse than those from the 9/11 attacks. People would avoid contaminated areas, those at risk would seek medical care, and global transportation networks would freeze.

In February 2009, the US ambassador wrote that “our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in GOP [government of Pakistan] facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon.”

Fortunately, globalisation has also provided defenders against nuclear terrorism with tools to counter it. The US government is erecting a multi-layered defense of self-reinforcing initiatives to counter these threats based on international coalitions of governments, some of which are longstanding security competitors. The first layer involves locking down dangerous nuclear materials; the second stratum seeks to interdict nuclear materials “on the move” through various international smuggling networks; the final layer consists in barriers erected at US border posts and other points of entry.

Prevention involves constraining the amount of unsecured nuclear material through various arms control, disarmament and threat reduction measures. In addition, prevention includes physical security measures such as consolidating nuclear materials at a limited number of protected and monitored sites, something the United States has done with its own nuclear complex in recent years.

The second layer of measures focusing on interdiction encompasses initiatives to intercept or retrieve nuclear material than has escaped secure control. In late December, the US Domestic Nuclear Detection Office delivered its long-awaited “strategic plan” to Congress for establishing a global nuclear-detection architecture. The idea is to create a worldwide network of sensors, communications, personnel and other elements to detect and report the potential movement of illicit nuclear and radioactive materials or weapons.

The final US line of defense aims to fortify US ports of entry as well as other unauthorised border crossings against nuclear smuggling. For instance, almost all container cargo now entering US seaports is screened for radioactive materials that can be used to make either a nuclear weapon or more likely a “dirty bomb,” a device that uses conventional explosives to spew radioactive material over a large area even in the absence of nuclear detonation.

The threat of nuclear terrorism has even had a benign impact on international politics. Despite their differences on many international security issues, Russia and the United States collaborate well against nuclear terrorist threats. In 2006, for example, then presidents Vladimir Putin and George Bush launched a new Global Initiative to Counter Nuclear Terrorism. Many other countries—including nuclear-armed China, India and Pakistan—have joined this initiative, which unlike many general nonproliferation initiatives focuses on reducing nuclear terrorist dangers by engaging a wide range of public and private actors. For example, local law-enforcement personnel exchange best practices with foreign counterparts under its rubric. They also work with private corporations to strengthen security at civilian nuclear plants.

Although China and the United States may disagree over how to respond to the nuclear activities of Iran, Pakistan and North Korea, they and other governments share an interest in fighting transnational nuclear terrorists that might attack any target on the globe, whether that’s Washington, London or Beijing.

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