Analysis & Opinions - The Guardian
Nuclear Smuggling: The Expert View
Insider thieves are the new nuclear threat. Protect the materials and prevent the terrorism
The dark netherworlds of nuclear smuggling still pose a terrible danger to us all. Terrorists are seeking nuclear weapons and the materials to make them. Unfortunately, it doesn't take a Manhattan Project to make a crude nuclear bomb — numerous government studies have warned that a sophisticated terrorist group might pull it off, if they could get enough nuclear material. And with bits of highly enriched uranium (HEU) continuing to show up in the hands of hustlers and smugglers, the obvious question is: of which iceberg are we seeing the tip?
Fortunately, controlling the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons — plutonium and HEU, neither of which occur in nature — offers a choke point on the pathway to the bomb. If we can keep terrorists from getting these materials, we can prevent nuclear terrorism.
Already, years of co-operative efforts under the US Nunn-Lugar programme and related efforts have dramatically improved security for nuclear weapons and materials at scores of sites. Potential nuclear bomb material has been removed from dozens more, cutting out the risk of nuclear theft at those sites. These successes represent, in a real sense, bombs that will never go off.
In Washington in April, leaders from 47 countries agreed to secure all vulnerable nuclear stockpiles in four years. Now the time has come to flesh out the specifics and move from words to deeds.
The world needs to forge agreement that all nuclear warheads, plutonium, and HEU must have at least a common baseline of nuclear security measures in place — for example, protection against a couple of small teams of well-armed, well-trained outsiders, or a well-placed insider thief. Countries where terrorists and thieves can pose more substantial threats need still higher levels of security.
New measures to protect against insider thieves — who have perpetrated nearly every known nuclear material theft to date — must be put in place. Every country that has these materials needs an urgent review of each site where they exist, to assess whether the continuing use of these materials at that site is worth the costs and risks, and whether security there can provide effective protection.
Over time, the world should phase out the civilian use of HEU, which is still used to fuel more than 100 research reactors around the world, many with minimal security measures in place. Overcoming complacency is the key to success.
Many policymakers and nuclear managers around the world wrongly dismiss the danger, arguing that since they have never had an incident at their facility there is no need to upgrade security, and that in any case terrorists could not possibly make a nuclear bomb. They are wrong. Al-Qaida's nuclear bomb programme was in earnest, and progressed as far as carrying out explosive tests in the desert in Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks. Nuclear security measures around the world are demonstrably insufficient to cope with the capabilities and tactics terrorists and thieves have already used in non-nuclear attacks.
We need a broad range of steps to counter this deadly complacency, from detailed briefings on the real threat to "red team" exercises, in which well-trained teams test security at nuclear sites.
Another nuclear security summit is slated for 2012 in Seoul. The world needs intensive diplomacy and action on the ground between now and then, so that the leaders there will be able to say that the steps already taken and the further steps agreed to at that summit will be enough to keep the essential ingredients of nuclear bombs out of terrorist hands.
Matthew Bunn is an associate professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and a former adviser in the White House science office. He is the author of Securing the Bomb 2010: Securing All Nuclear Material in Four Years
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