Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

A Call for German Leadership in Combating Nuclear Terrorism

| April 12, 2010


A German translation of this op-ed follows the English version.

As U.S. President Obama underscored in his speech in Prague on April 5, 2009, a single terrorist nuclear bomb that destroys any city in the world would impact on us all. The risks posed by nuclear terrorism demand that all states take the threat seriously and endeavor to cooperate in new and unprecedented ways in order to exclude any prospect of a nuclear catastrophe.

In an effort to translate the U.S. President's words into global action, leaders from forty-seven states will assemble for a nuclear security summit next week in Washington. The most important goal of this unprecedented, high-level focus on nuclear security is to stimulate a global quest to lock up all nuclear weapons and weapons-usable materials to the highest standards within the next four years. This challenge is elusively simple: if all nuclear weapons and materials can be fully secured, there is no risk of a terrorist bomb.

It is apt that the U.S. President has lent his own prestige to the importance of reinforcing global efforts to secure nuclear materials. No significant progress is possible without broad leadership acceptance that the threat of nuclear terrorism is real. While the United States bears a heavy share of the responsibility in this regard, the global defense against acts of nuclear terrorism will only be as strong as its weakest links. Thus, coordinated action is not only desirable, but necessary in order to prevent potential terrorist nuclear attacks.

The success of the nuclear security summit will ultimately depend less on specific agreements made in Washington, than on the leadership resolve of participating states to take action in order to prevent something from happening that has never happened before — something that many people think will never happen, because they believe "men in caves" could never achieve something so complex that it has eluded the grasp of even the most technologically developed states.

This line of thinking is misleading, however. The biggest technical obstacle that states have faced in their military nuclear programs has been the production of the fissile material. Producing plutonium requires a nuclear reactor, and producing highly-enriched uranium requires a uranium enrichment plant. It is unlikely that terrorists would be able to acquire fissile materials this way. Instead, they would seek different pathways to the bomb. They would either try to obtain a weapon from a state's arsenal or enough pre-produced fissile materials that they could improvise their own bomb. Both pathways have been attempted by terrorist groups in the past — fortunately so far without success.

Despite these warning shots, there still exist large amounts of insufficiently secured weapons-usable materials, distributed over dozens of countries. And the political elites in many of the world's capitals remain in a state of denial.

In Germany, the official assessment was summed up by then Federal Minister of the Interior, Wolfgang Schäuble, during a press conference in 2008, when he flatly stated that "Al Qaeda cannot build a nuclear bomb."

Coming from a veteran German Minister, however, this view is rather ironic, given the country's prominent role and contributions in taking aggressive intelligence and law enforcement action in the 1990's in response to the surge of nuclear-trafficking incidents which followed the break-up of the Soviet Union.  Since that same period, scientists at the Institute for Transuranium Elements in Karlsruhe have played a prominent role in advancing the use of nuclear forensics in analyzing (and cataloging) materials seized from black market smuggling to find clues about the nuclear facility in which the loose materials had been produced. Refining the use of nuclear forensics is crucial in the fight against nuclear terrorism because it may help compromise possible terrorist pathways to the materials needed to construct a bomb.

As a matter of fact, German authorities today do acknowledge potential threats posed by terrorists utilizing "non-conventional" means of attack. It is laudable that German efforts in this field have been strengthened in recent years, especially in the run-up to the Soccer World Cup 2006.  In particular, notable measures have been undertaken in Germany to prevent and respond to future terrorist attacks with radiological dispersal devices (RDD), commonly known as "dirty bombs." This makes sense: dirty bombs number among the non-conventional weapons that are most technically feasible for terrorist groups. Depending on the scenario, a dirty bomb attack could potentially cause significant economic damage. However, not even the worst dirty bomb scenario would come anywhere close to the grave consequences a nuclear bomb would have. The consequences would be life changing — not only for those in the immediate vicinity of the attack, but for the whole world.

The total disregard of any potential terrorist nuclear threat is striking. One possible reason for its prevalence may be that to many observers, nuclear terrorism is reminiscent of the U.S. intelligence misjudgment that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Not least since that episode, many people are justifiably suspicious that WMD terrorism has been hyped by the Americans, perhaps for the sake of justifying more unpopular policies of the kinds that were implemented after the 9/11 attacks.

Any such suspicions should be set aside in making a clear-eyed assessment of the threat that nuclear terrorism poses to the world.  A noted U.S. nuclear weapons expert has said that those who claim it is easy for terrorists to build a nuclear bomb are wrong, but those who believe it is impossible for terrorists to build a nuclear bomb are dead wrong. If this is true, even if there is a very low probability that terrorists will succeed in acquiring a nuclear bomb, it must be treated as a top priority in terms of the response.

In this context, Germany has an opportunity at the Washington summit — and thereafter — to step up and lend non-American leadership to the problem. Recognizing that in many of the world's capitals the threat of nuclear terrorism is not yet being taken seriously, and when in some of them the very notion is even considered an American pretext for an entirely different, potentially hostile political agenda, non-American leadership is most urgently needed.

As a global power which has renounced nuclear weapons, Germany has credibility to play a key leadership role in the global effort to combat nuclear terrorism. Germany's technical competence in the civilian nuclear realm, combined with her close political and commercial relationships with key states, are her most helpful assets in this position. However, a prerequisite for Germany to play a more constructive and assertive role is for the country's security policy community to reassess the world's vulnerability to the asymmetric threats of the 21st century, notably the threat posed by nuclear terrorism.

It will be a big step forward if participating states leave Washington with a better understanding of the character of this new nuclear genie that has been unleashed upon the world, one that will likely not go away even when today's terrorist groups are history. This genie will be with us from now on, along with the shared responsibility to defeat it.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Mowatt-Larssen, Rolf and Tom Bielefeld.“A Call for German Leadership in Combating Nuclear Terrorism.” , April 12, 2010.

The Authors