Analysis & Opinions - U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism, Belfer Center Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

The Armageddon Test: To Prevent Nuclear Terrorism, Follow the Uranium

| July 26, 2010

If you read a parachuting magazine, you might find at the back a section detailing mishaps. This brutal retelling of often tragic events is not to satisfy morbid interest, but to increase awareness among jumpers of potentially dangerous practices and to prevent them from recurring. Unfortunately, a largely overlooked incident reported last April revealed that our global community is far less rigorous in analyzing nuclear security failures than are sport parachutists, who seek to draw every possible lesson from mistakes because they understand the unacceptable consequences of even one fatal error.

Since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, in about two dozen cases, intelligence or law enforcement authorities have seized fissile material that could be used to build a nuclear weapon. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili reported the most recent incident at the Washington Nuclear Security Summit. It adds to seizures of highly enriched uranium by Georgia in 2003 and 2006.

While the total amount of material that has been recovered and publicly disclosed is not sufficient to make a nuclear weapon, the matter is deadly serious. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, none of the recovered nuclear material was reported missing by its owners. Incredibly, none of these cases has been sufficiently investigated to determine the origin, destination, and all those responsible for the theft of the material.

Moreover, seizures rarely result from proactive law enforcement or intelligence operations; most are serendipitous, seemingly random events. In some cases, the culprits advertised that the small amounts they carried were samples of larger quantities for sale. Critically, not all of the material reported to be on the market has been recovered. Consider too that some cases have not been publicly disclosed. Incidents of nuclear smuggling are being quietly and secretly pursued by intelligence and law enforcement services, sometimes alone, sometimes in partnership with other countries, but manifestly neither fast enough, nor with sufficient resources and determination.

What explains our failure to get to the bottom of nuclear smuggling cases? The causes are several-fold, having to do with the nature of international cooperation, the sensitive topic of nuclear security, and organizational failures within the U.S. government.

In pursuing these cases, governments have failed to share information quickly and thoroughly, for reasons good and bad. Hence, those charged with protecting us cannot connect the dots and chase all leads to their conclusion. This reluctance to share information is sometimes due to rivalries between countries. State secrets and sovereignty limit cooperation between intelligence and law enforcement services—sometimes even within a country. The bitter relationship between Russia and Georgia is perhaps the most extreme example of these difficulties.

Moreover, many states are reluctant to move aggressively to uncover new information that might reveal nuclear security lapses in their own country. There is also little interest in acknowledging that more material might be for sale on the black market, lest that admission be taken as evidence that law enforcement and intelligence entities are not doing their jobs.

Within the United States, there is no dedicated team of intelligence, policy, law enforcement, and technical experts working together full-time to resolve nuclear smuggling cases. Intelligence and policy officials track these incidents, but after a few weeks or months, they are regarded as old news, not worth sustained attention in the face of a dizzying barrage of information, most of it bad. Other priorities prevail.

The problem might also be worse than we imagine. Seven years of failing to block small shipments of nuclear material from Russia through Georgia and neighboring countries is bad enough. Suppose a more serious group managed to recruit an insider in a nuclear facility—someone who could divert material in small quantities over a long period of time. Such a scheme might go undetected for years. Today's analysts are not trained to see the indicators of a sophisticated plot that is spread over time and space in a non-linear way.

Is such a nuclear black market network unknown to the outside world plausible? An overwhelming number of seizures have involved the smuggling of sample-sized quantities of weapons-usable uranium in bulk form, i.e. powders, not countable objects. The evidence suggests that it is harder to protect such materials, which are subject to less strict inventory and accounting, but could still be manufactured into a bomb.

If terrorists have been unable until now to exploit opportunities to purchase materials on the black market, it is not for lack of intent. Al Qaeda declared in 2001 its determination to acquire and use a nuclear weapon. Osama bin Laden long ago recognized the history changing potential of a group that is able to wield a "Hiroshima bomb." In the early 1990’s, he set his group on the path to buying, stealing, or building a bomb. If the September 11th attacks were al Qaeda's Pearl Harbor, launching a global war against the United States, then an improvised nuclear device would be a means of winning it. The greatest obstacle preventing bin Laden and his accomplices from carrying out their plans is gaining access to plutonium or highly enriched uranium.

Contemplating the threat of nuclear terrorism is mind bending. Thankfully, it has never occurred, so we have no experience of it. Yet, some say it is almost inevitable because nuclear materials are pervasive and coveted by fanatics. Others argue that it is wildly improbable because many complex steps must be taken before terrorists could build and detonate a weapon. What we know for certain—in addition to the devastating potential consequences—is that on about two dozen occasions, governments have acknowledged recovering material that could be used to make a nuclear weapon. This is an ominous sign, and one that must instruct us. Former United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix once observed that mustard gas is not like marmalade, you are supposed to keep track of it—so too nuclear material that could be used to make bombs.

Nuclear terrorism skeptics argue that the negative cannot be proved, or that it has not happened, and therefore is not a threat. Some go so far as to assert confidently that terrorists cannot build a nuclear device, failing to give credence to the cohort of nuclear weapons designers who have made clear their belief that, while it is difficult to build a nuclear bomb, it is by no means impossible for a group to do so, if they were able to obtain sufficient fissile material. Consequently, the undeniable reports of weapons-grade nuclear material available for sale show such thinking to be misguided and even reckless. Indeed, since terrorist intent to steal, buy, or build a bomb is uncontested, the only reason we have not experienced nuclear catastrophe may be that thus far, insufficient material has found its way into terrorist hands.

On nuclear security, the news is not all bad. The world has made enormous progress in securing global stocks of fissile material. U.S. administrations of both parties have worked effectively with Russia, other states of the former Soviet Union, and elsewhere to improve nuclear security. Presidents Bush and Putin agreed to complete security upgrades in Russia by 2008. President Obama has build on this accomplishment with the Global Nuclear Lockdown. There is little doubt that by objective standards, our controls on weapons-usable material are far stronger—and consequently we are safer—than ten or fifteen years ago. Moreover, this work will continue, which is all to the good. But, it is not enough. No security system can be perfect, and we have empirical evidence that our control over nuclear material is not absolute.

What are the top priorities and key tasks that must be accomplished to defeat nuclear smuggling?

First, we need a common international understanding of the problem. No serious effort to eliminate the nuclear black market can be effective without such a consensus. Today, there is no broadly accepted definition of the nuclear black market among the world’s law enforcement and intelligence entities. There is no consensus on the kind of threat it represents. Indeed, there is no agreement that a black market exists, much less on what to do about it. Consequently, very little work has been done to develop an effective response. Developing such an understanding will require coordination with other nations through both diplomatic and intelligence channels.

The effort should include collecting and exchanging information on: the scope and nature of the problem; the motivation and behavior of sellers, buyers, insiders, facilitators, and middlemen; sources of materials and capabilities; and the role of networks, in particular elements of organized crime. Effective action is possible only once the international community is armed with a more precise perception of the threat.

Once there is such an appreciation, the intelligence world’s traditional approach of setting “rules of the road” can mobilize and coordinate effective international action. Such guidelines will be essential to broaden and deepen information sharing between states, avoid sting operations that might stimulate a market in nuclear materials that otherwise would not exist, and ensure efforts to uncover black marketers and nuclear materials are not perceived as provocations directed against another state. These thorny issues have long impaired international law enforcement and intelligence cooperation. They must be addressed directly, with as much transparency as sovereignty allows. Experience amply demonstrates that a black market-related investigation pursued by one state, involving only ad hoc and limited coordination with other affected states, invariably produces mistrust, finger pointing, and a diminished capacity to recover loose nuclear materials and neutralize trafficking networks.

As a part of the international effort, development of an internationally shared forensics catalogue, containing nuclear samples from all corners of the world, would buttress collaborative law enforcement and intelligence cases. Such a program would integrate the intelligence efforts to curtail smuggling networks with steps to implement air-tight global nuclear security. It could also facilitate strengthening legal penalties for trafficking of these materials to the extent that it might be effectively deterred.

Second, within the United States, we need to form a specialized team, dedicated to investigating and resolving cases of nuclear smuggling. The team must be charged with learning: what facilities leaked the material in question; who stole it and how; what networks were involved in trafficking it; whether and perhaps which factory officials, border guards, or police may have abetted the smuggling; and who is looking to buy weapons-grade material. It should be based in the National Clandestine Service of the Central Intelligence Agency, because the problem is deeply rooted in human intelligence. It must, however, include all skill sets necessary to accomplish the mission—diplomatic, legal, and scientific. Team members should be free from all other duties, have access to resources and information that already exist in the intelligence community, and receive a full mandate to pursue activities necessary to accomplish their mission at home and abroad. In general, the team should augment and help integrate, but not replace other activities conducted by individual agencies.

This team should systematically broaden and deepen intelligence liaison cooperation against nuclear smuggling. Strategic engagement with international intelligence and law enforcement organizations is lacking today, and closer coordination is essential. It is particularly important improve coordination among the Nonproliferation Treaty nuclear weapons states—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Third, the International Atomic Energy Agency should foster an ethic of disclosure and cooperation to advance the work of detecting and interdicting nuclear smuggling rings, as well as plugging security holes at nuclear facilities. More opprobrium must attach to stonewalling an investigation of recovered material than to admitting lapses in nuclear security. The agency must also continue to improve its analytical capabilities. Developing greater substantive expertise and analytical tradecraft will enable the agency play a more authoritative role. The Agency should also be given additional resources to strengthen its ability to collect overt information that may reveal nuclear networks.

These steps to improve our national and international capacities to defeat nuclear smuggling are vital. But, most of all, we need a change of mindset, greater focus, and a sense of urgency. Our collective inability to investigate thoroughly and resolve cases of nuclear smuggling amounts to criminal negligence. Unless we can be as ruthless in examining the causes of failures in nuclear security and preventing them in the future as are parachutists in assessing and correcting their errors, we will remain vulnerable to a fatal malfunction. This is intolerable, because when it comes to the threat posed by a nuclear black market, we are all hanging from the same parachute.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen and William H. Tobey are senior fellows at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Mowatt-Larssen served previously as director of intelligence and counterintelligence at the Department of Energy responsible for tracking al Qaeda’s efforts to secure nuclear weapons and was a CIA intelligence officer for 23 years. Tobey’s previous position was deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Tobey, William and Rolf Mowatt-Larssen.“The Armageddon Test: To Prevent Nuclear Terrorism, Follow the Uranium.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, July 26, 2010.

The Authors