Nuclear Weapons - A Growing Security Threat

Since the events of 9/11, the U.S. government has been concerned about whether al-Qaida has acquired the materials needed to construct a nuclear device. In a press conference in Prague, Czech Republic, on 5 April 2009, President Barack Obama called nuclear terrorism “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security.” A year later, on 11 April 2010, Obama stated at a meeting in South Africa, “We know that organizations like al-Qaida are in the process of trying to secure a nuclear weapon – a weapon of mass destruction that they have no compunction at using.”

International Agreements & Disagreements 

On 24-25 March 2014, the Netherlands hosted the third Nuclear Security Summit since 2010. At the summit, 58 world leaders discussed the vital efforts needed to reduce the looming risks of nuclear terrorism and reached an agreement to prevent terrorists from acquiring material that could be used to make a nuclear weapon. Other actions called for minimizing the civilian use of highly enriched nuclear fuel in an effort to prevent al-Qaida – or similar terrorist organizations – from obtaining nuclear or radiological capabilities. Although the international effort of the summit cannot eliminate the danger, it will diminish the threat of a nuclear attack.

The utmost risk to the world is when countries do not recognize the threat of nuclear terrorism and simply do not take preventive action. World leaders at the summit acknowledged that many challenges remain and stressed the need for increased international cooperation to ensure that highly enriched uranium (HEU), plutonium, and other radioactive substances do not end up in the hands of terrorist organizations.

The United States and Russia agreed on nuclear terrorism – to a point – and set aside their differences over Ukraine to support the summit’s final declaration designed to improve nuclear security around the world, as did other nations – including China, France, Germany, and Britain. In a press release following the summit, Obama stated that, “Russia’s actions are a problem. They don’t pose the number-one national security threat to the United States. I continue to be much more concerned when it comes to our security with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”

Although the government of the Netherlands hailed the summit as “a major step towards a safer world,” Russia, China, and 16 other countries disapproved of some proposals set forth by the United States, Netherlands, and South Korea to integrate United Nations nuclear agency security guidelines into their countries’ national rules. Regardless of guidelines and initiatives sought at the summit, terrorist organizations could hypothetically construct a rudimentary – albeit devastating – nuclear bomb if they had the fissile resources required and the technical knowledge.

Fissile Materials & Dire Warnings 

Keeping material safe at both civilian and military sites remains a concern, but not a priority, to all nations. More than 120 research and isotope production reactors that exist around the world still use HEU for fuel or targets – many of them with very modest security measures. According to a Nuclear Threat Initiative report conducted in 2013, negligence was the chief cause in 73 incidents in which radioactive substances reportedly went missing. The report suggested that a lot of effort on a global scale is necessary to improve security surrounding radiological material.

According to the Fissile Materials Working Group, an estimated 2,204 tons of highly radioactive materials exist at hundreds of locations in 25 countries. Although military agencies have secured much of the material, a considerable amount is stored in less-secure civilian locations – factories, hospitals, and other places that have much less security than military installations provide. In an inexpensive and crudely constructed device, terrorists could use conventional explosives to disperse radiation from these radioactive sources and contaminate densely populated areas.

As of December 2012, according to a 2013 report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials, 33 countries had at least 1 kg of HEU in their civilian stockpiles, including several Western states and others such as Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. About 27 nations use HEU for different types of research and other reactors, with Russia having the majority. In 2013, a senior United Nations (U.N.) official advised Reuters that nuclear and radioactive materials were commonly misplaced and “the information the U.N. atomic agency receives about such incidents may be just the tip of the iceberg.” Lack of security coupled with a lack of reporting equals negligence.

Lessons Learned 

In December 2013, Mexican authorities reported the theft of a truck transporting an extremely dangerous radioactive material – cobalt-60, typically used in radiotherapy, sterilization, and industrial tools such as leveling devices – from a hospital in Tijuana to a radioactive material storage facility near Mexico City. Although large sources of cobalt-60 can sanitize foods – gamma rays kill bacteria but do not damage the product – according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the radioactive matter prove detrimental to the population if released into the environment. According to a 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service, bombs prepared with cobalt-60 “pose a threat mainly because even a fraction of a gram emits a huge number of high-energy gamma rays, which are harmful whether outside or inside the body.”

During the Nuclear Security Summit in 2012, Yukiya Amano, the International Atomic Energy Agency director general, stated that materials like cobalt-60 could be used with conventional explosives to create dirty bombs, which could cause massive damage, panic, and serious environmental and economic consequences. According to the 2013 Nuclear Threat Initiative report, which tracked publicly reported incidents involving nuclear and other radioactive materials, increased policy emphasis is necessary for improving the security of radioactive materials in transit.

National regulatory policies differ. Training, best practice applications, and simple improvements to end-user training and awareness could significantly decrease the number of incidents – including terrorists acquiring material – occurring in transit. In 2013, nearly one-third (29 percent) of all documented missing radiological material (153 incidents), involved material in transit.

Denis Flory, deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in an interview with Reuters that, “Even if [small quantities of radioactive material] can’t be used for making a nuclear weapon, they can be used in radioactive dispersal devices, which is a concern.” Detonating a nuclear device that contains just an apple-sized amount of plutonium in a highly populated area could instantly kill or wound hundreds of thousands of people, according to the Nuclear Security Governance Experts Group.

Over the past decade, countries around the world have taken considerable actions to improve their nuclear security. However, according to a March 2014 Harvard Kennedy School report, entitled “Threat Perceptions and Drivers of Change in Nuclear Security Around the World,” there is room for improvement. To diminish the risk of nuclear theft, all countries with nuclear weapons, HEU, or separated plutonium should:

  • Require facilities and transporters with nuclear weapons, HEU, or separated plutonium to protect these items against three scenarios: (a) a modest group of well-armed and well-trained outsiders; (b) a well-placed insider; and (c) both outsiders and an insider working together, using a broad range of possible tactics;
  • Require these facilities and transporters to have well-equipped, well-trained professional armed-guard forces onsite that are capable of defeating the design basis threat, which is a main factor when designing physical protection systems for nuclear facilities and is formalized through the threat assessment process;
  • Put in place a comprehensive suite of measures to protect against insider threats;
  • Implement material control and accounting systems adequate to detect and localize any theft of weapons-usable nuclear material;
  • Put in place effective nuclear security and accounting rules, and give regulators the authority, independence, expertise, and resources to implement them effectively;
  • Carry out regular, realistic tests of the performance of nuclear security systems, including force-on-force exercises;
  • Ensure that all operators have the resources and plans to sustain effective nuclear security and accounting;
  • Review each site where nuclear weapons, HEU, or separated plutonium exist and remove these items from any site where the costs and risks of their presence outweigh the continuing benefits; and
  • Institute programs to assess and improve the security culture, and to exchange and learn from best practices.

Key Findings From the Nuclear Security Summit 

The 2014 Nuclear Security Summit established new agreements among nations by pulling together results from the earlier summits and combining them with the most recent to set the following guidelines:

  • The smaller the amount of nuclear material, the smaller the risk. The countries represented at the Nuclear Security Summit have agreed to keep the quantities of nuclear material as low as possible, and to reduce them wherever possible. Countries that use highly enriched uranium or plutonium as fuel for power generation will limit the quantity involved as much as they can.
  • The agreements cover not only material that can be used for making nuclear weapons (HEU and plutonium), but also other radioactive materials, such as low-enriched uranium, cobalt-60, strontium-90, and caesium-137. Many of these materials have useful applications in hospitals, industry, and research, but should have the same security because they also can be used with ordinary explosives to make a dirty bomb.
  • Participating countries will implement the guidelines of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In addition to the agreements in the final communiqué, 35 countries have agreed to incorporate the IAEA guidelines into their national legislation. The guidelines will be binding on these countries, which also will engage IAEA teams to assess the security of nuclear materials.
  • Nuclear forensics is an important tool for tackling criminal misuse of nuclear materials and forentifying the origin of nuclear material and the route it has taken.
  • The participants have laid the basis for efficient and sustainable nuclear security architecture, consisting of treaties, guidelines, and international organizations. The IAEA plays a pivotal role in this regard. An important new element is the agreements on the steps that countries can take to enhance confidence in each country’s nuclear security measures. Greater mutual trust will allow cooperation that is even more efficient and make it easier to assess the level of security of the world’s nuclear material.
  • With regard to industrial uses of nuclear materials, government and business must work together. Law, without businesses and institutions being hampered by unnecessary rules, must govern the security of nuclear material.

Countries have granted teams of international experts to evaluate security procedures for nuclear material – both in storage and in transit. These actions will ensure that security assessments will be based on international standards and further ensures the value of the measures taken.

Traditionally, the emphasis has been on safety in transport, but now there is a recognized need to address security as a priority. Groups such as al-Qaida may have relatively poor capabilities in such techniques, but their intention to develop these capabilities has been clear from the beginning; and the consequences potentially could be devastating.

Protection of material is important both in transit and in storage – whether considering the truck stolen in Mexico containing cobalt-60 or another embarrassing incident, on 28 July 2012, when an elderly nun and two peace activists broke into a defense facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where uranium for atomic bombs is stored. The reality is that major incidents like these remain the principal reason or driving force for nuclear security enhancements. In fact, many countries will continue taking a reactive approach, naively waiting for an incident to occur before making any improvements to nuclear security measures.

Countries now need to pursue more proactive measures and actively look to find and fix impending security vulnerabilities, as opposed to learning from a looming potential disaster. As stated by former Director William H. Webster of the Federal Bureau of Investigation during a debate at the University of California on 3 March 2002, “Security is always seen as too much until the day it’s not enough.”

Richard Schoeberl

Richard Schoeberl, Ph.D., has over 30 years of law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served in a variety of positions throughout his career, ranging from a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, human trafficking, international terrorism, and organized crime. He was also assigned numerous collateral duties during his FBI tour – including as a certified instructor and member of the agency’s SWAT program. In addition to the FBI and NCTC, he is an author and has served as a media contributor for Fox News, CNN, PBS, NPR, Al-Jazeera Television, Al Arabiva Television, Al Hurra, and Sky News in Europe. Additionally, he has authored numerous scholarly articles, serves as a peer mentor with the Police Executive Research Forum, is currently a professor of Criminology and Homeland Security at the University of Tennessee-Southern, and works with Hope for Justice – a global nonprofit combatting human trafficking.

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