Nuclear Terrorism: Myth and Reality

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 Air Commodore(R) Khalid Iqbal TI(M)[1]

 

Abstract

(Nuclear terrorism denotes the detonation of a yield-producing nuclear bomb containing fissile material by terrorists, popularly named as “dirty bomb. Dirty bomb is however not to be confused with a nuclear explosion, such as a fission bomb, which releases nuclear energy and produces blast effects, millions of times more than a typical dirty bomb. As early as December 1945, politicians worried about the possibility of smuggling nuclear weapons into the United States. Discussions about non-state nuclear terrorism amongst experts go back at least to the 1970s. After 9/11, there is intense international attention to the risks of nuclear terrorism. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has acknowledged an urgent need to improve protection of civilian and military nuclear materials at plant sites as well as in transit. The two words “nuclear” and “terrorism” radiate chill waves down the spine when they are used individually. In unison their psychological impact is much lower than their linear sum total. The underlying reason is that the term has been hijacked for some other motives. It has in fact become a vehicle advancing some of the nuclear objectives that encroach upon the nuclear rights granted to Non-nuclear Weapon States (NNWS). Formulations coming out of the structures professing counter nuclear terrorism as their objective are indirectly advancing arrangements; whereby legitimate R&D space is being squeezed for the NNWS. Nuclear terrorism is a reality and a global concern; however, robust solutions can be found to mitigate the severity of the threat to a great extent. There is a need to strike a balance between confidentiality and openness; and steer away from both alarmism and complacency. – Author) 

 

Background

In legal terms, nuclear terrorism is an offense committed if a person unlawfully and intentionally “uses in any way radioactive material … with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury; or with the intent to cause substantial damage to property or to the environment; or with the intent to compel a natural or legal person, an international organization or a State to do or refrain from doing an act”[i]. In the broader sense, nuclear terrorism denotes the detonation of a yield-producing nuclear bomb containing fissile material by terrorists, popularly named as “dirty bomb”.

 

Possibility of terrorist organizations using nuclear weapons, especially very small ones, such as suitcase nukes, has been a threat in American rhetoric and culture since WWII. Ever since, numerous congressional hearings have taken place. As early as December 1945, politicians worried about the possibility of smuggling nuclear weapons into the United States, though this was still in the context of a battle between the superpowers of the Cold War. Congressmen quizzed the father of the American atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, about the possibility of detecting a smuggled atomic bomb—excerpts: Senator Millikin: “We… have mine-detecting devices, which are rather effective… I was wondering if anything of that kind might be available to use as a defence against that particular type of use of atomic bombs.” Dr. Oppenheimer: “If you hired me to walk through the cellars of Washington to see whether there were atomic bombs, I think my most important tool would be a screwdriver to open the crates and look. I think that just walking by, swinging a little gadget would not give me the information.”[ii] This sparked further work on the question of smuggled atomic devices during the 1950s.

 

Discussions of non-state nuclear terrorism amongst experts go back to at least the 1970s. In 1975 The Economist warned, “You can make a bomb with a few pounds of Plutonium. By the mid-1980s the power stations may easily be turning out 200,000 lb of the stuff each year. And each year, unless present methods are drastically changed, many thousands of pounds of it will be transferred from one plant to another as it proceeds through the fuel cycle. The dangers of robbery in transit are evident…. Vigorous co-operation between governments and the International Atomic Energy Agency could, even at this late stage, make the looming perils loom a good deal smaller[iii].” One of the Indian nuclear explosions in 1998 was based on power plant grade Plutonium. A discussion took on a larger public character in the 1980s after NBC aired ‘Special Bulletin,’ a television dramatization of a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States[iv]. In 1986 a private panel of experts known as the International Task Force on the Prevention of Terrorism released a report urging all nuclear-armed states to beware of the dangers of terrorism and work on equipping their nuclear arsenals with permissive action links. “The probability of nuclear terrorism,” the experts warned, “is increasing and the consequences for urban and industrial societies could be catastrophic[v].” The New York Times commented in 1981 that The Nuclear Emergency Search Team’s “origins go back to the aftershocks of the Munich Olympic massacre in mid-1972. Until that time, no one in the United States Government had thought seriously about the menace of organized, international terrorism, much less nuclear terrorism. There was a perception in Washington that the value of what is called ‘special nuclear material’ – plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU) – was so enormous that the strict financial accountability of the private contractors who dealt with it would be enough to protect it from falling into the wrong hands. But it has since been revealed that the physical safeguarding of bomb-grade material against theft was almost scandalously neglected.”[vi]

 

Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, published a report in 2011 identifying three pathways through which nuclear terrorism can be executed: use of a crude explosive device built by terrorists or by nuclear scientists whom the terrorist organizations could recruit; use of an explosive device constructed by terrorists and their accomplices using their own fissile material; acquisition of fissile material from a nation-state.

 

Threat Assessment

In 1986, the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI), in cooperation with the Institute for Studies in International Terrorism of the State University of New York, convened an “International Task Force on Prevention of Nuclear Terrorism”, consisting of 26 nuclear scientists, industrialists, current and former government officials, and experts on terrorism from nine countries. The report issued by this Task Force, along with more than 20 commissioned studies, remains the most definitive examination of nuclear terrorism in the unclassified literature. The Task Force warned that the “probability of nuclear terrorism is increasing” because of a number of factors including “the growing incidence, sophistication and lethality of conventional forms of terrorism,” as well as the vulnerability of nuclear power and research reactors to sabotage and of weapons-usable nuclear materials to theft.

 

After 9/11, there is intense international attention to the risks of nuclear terrorism. The possibilities that al Qaeda might acquire the materials and the knowledge for building nuclear weapons or “dirty bombs” or might attack commercial nuclear-power facilities to trigger a nuclear meltdown are contemporary buzzwords. A number of think tanks have been sounding alarms to the public and policymakers of these risks, seeking emergency measures to reduce the vulnerabilities, and monitoring and assessing the responses of industry, governments and international agencies[vii].

 

A study prepared for NCI by five former US nuclear weapons designers concluded that a sophisticated terrorist group would be capable of designing and building a workable nuclear bomb from stolen Plutonium or highly enriched Uranium, with potential yields in the kiloton range[viii]. Less than 18 pounds of Plutonium or 55 pounds of highly enriched Uranium are sufficient to make a nuclear bomb, whereas these materials circulate in civilian nuclear commerce by the ton. A crucial defence against nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation is to end civilian commerce in Plutonium and highly enriched Uranium and to convert military stocks of these nuclear explosives into non-weapon-usable forms as soon as possible. Even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a staunch promoter of nuclear power, has acknowledged an urgent need to improve protection of civilian and military nuclear materials at plant sites as well as in transit.

 

For over two decades, experts had been urging the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to upgrade security at nuclear power plants[ix]. In 1994, NCI alongside the California-based Committee to Bridge the Gap was able to convince the NRC to require nuclear-power plant operators to install defenses against truck bombs[x], although adopted protective measures are inadequate for the larger bombs. Even under these weak standards, the armed guards at nearly half of the American nuclear plants tested in NRC-supervised security exercises failed to repel mock terrorist attacks or prevent simulated destruction of redundant safety systems that in real attacks could cause severe core damage, meltdown, and catastrophic radioactive releases. This outcome was envisaged as alarming. It is worrisome because the NRCs mock terrorist exercises severely limit the tactics, weapons and explosives used by the adversary, do not test plant defences against attacks from the air or from the water, and do not test whether guards could repel an attack on the spent-fuel pools at plant sites that contain many times more deadly radioactivity than the reactor cores[xi].

 

There are critics of the of IAEA inspections’ capacity and other “safeguards” measures to detect large process related losses of Plutonium and highly enriched Uranium or to ensure adequate protection against thefts of these materials in transit and in storage[xii]. IAEA physical-security standards now only apply to international shipments of nuclear materials, not to the facilities where these materials are processed, stored and used. Because of these shortcomings, one may not even know if materials that could be used in nuclear weapons were missing. The vulnerabilities of Russian nuclear installations have been well documented, but protection of many Western facilities is also inadequate. Shortcomings in security of materials and warheads have even been documented in the US nuclear-weapons complex as well. The situation in some other nuclear-weapon states may even be more troubling. In the United States, the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST) is a highly secretive federal inter-agency group that has had the responsibility for more than 20 years for locating and deactivating terrorist nuclear weapons, but its technical ability to fulfill this daunting mission if the need so arose remains uncertain[xiii].

 

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the uncertain status of nuclear weapons, fissile materials and nuclear scientists in Russia and other former Soviet republics were widely regarded as posing perhaps the most immediate threat of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. Ever since, there has been continued speculation that some number of Soviet nuclear bombs (small portable nuclear weapons) may be unaccounted for. Despite significant assistance from the United States over the last ten years, many Russian nuclear facilities are perceived as poorly secured, and without a comprehensive and verifiable system of nuclear materials accountancy. No one even knows for certain how much nuclear weapons material the Soviet Union had produced. With confirmed incidents of Russian-origin fissile materials turning up for sale on the black market, this danger is more than hypothetical. In 2004, Graham Allison, US Assistant Secretary of Defence during the Clinton administration, wrote that “on the current path, a nuclear terrorist attack on America in the decade ahead is more likely than not”. In the same year, Bruce Blair, president of the Centre for Defence Information stated: “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if nuclear weapons are used over the next 15 or 20 years, first and foremost by a terrorist group that gets its hands on a Russian nuclear weapon…”.

 

In 2006, Robert Galluccii, Dean of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, estimated that, “it is more likely than not that al-Qaeda or one of its affiliates will detonate a nuclear weapon in a US city within the next five to ten years.” Despite a number of claims, there is no credible evidence that any terrorist group has yet succeeded in obtaining a nuclear bomb or the materials needed to make one[xiv]. For terrorists, one way could be to obtain enough weapons-grade material to assemble a RDD themselves. Another way could be to clandestinely buy or steal an assembled nuclear weapon without the supplying nuclear state’s official knowledge. Most experts agree that any nation would take an enormous risk in knowingly providing a nuclear weapon or nuclear materials to a terrorist organization because of the unpredictable consequences of cooperating with a renegade group. If a state-supplied nuclear weapon were ever used against a nuclear-armed state by terrorists, the resultant retaliation against the supplying state would be swift and massive.

 

Anatomy of a Dirty Bomb

Dirty bombs, also known as radiation dispersal devices (RDDs), are weapons that use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive materials, thereby augmenting the injury and property damage caused by the explosion. The capability of an RDD to cause significant harm is dependent on the type of radioactive material used and the means used to disperse it. Other important variables include location of the device and prevailing weather conditions. Radioactive materials that could be employed in RDDs range from radiation sources used in medicine or industry to spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants. In general, the physical protection requirements for radioactive sources widely used in commerce are quite lax; however, the largest radiotherapy sources typically contain no more than a few hundred curies of gamma-emitters like Cesium-137 or Cobalt-60. Sources of this size, if removed from their shielded containers, could present an acute hazard to individuals within the vicinity (tens of meters) of the source. However, an effective dispersal of the material would tend to dilute the concentration downwind of the site of detonation to relatively low levels quickly. Acute radiation hazard would probably be confined to an area of a few hundred meters radius around the site for a ground-level release. However, the occurrence of localized areas of contamination further downwind would be a possibility, depending on the meteorology.

 

The most concentrated sources of large quantities of radioactive isotopes are contained in spent nuclear fuel from power plants, but these sources are relatively inaccessible due to their size (several meters in height), weight (half a metric ton) and radiation barrier (thousands to tens of thousands of rem per hour surface dose).

 

Efforts to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism include programmes such as Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) , commonly known as Nunn-Lugar, aimed at securing and dismantling vulnerable nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union; Global Threat Reduction Initiative, directed at securing and eliminating global high-risk nuclear and radiological materials and equipment; and the International Nuclear Materials Protection and Cooperation programme, geared towards improving security and accounting for highly enriched uranium (HEU) in Russia and the former Soviet Union. While these programs have demonstrated substantial progress in reducing the threat, current estimates conclude that as of January 2012 there are still approximately 1440 tons of HEU and around 500 tons of separated plutonium stockpiled globally. Terrorists exploit gaps in security. The current global regime for protecting the nuclear materials that terrorists desire for their ultimate weapon is far from seamless. It is based largely on unaccountable, voluntary arrangements that are inconsistent across borders. Its weak links make it dangerous and inadequate to prevent nuclear terrorism[xv].

 

Effects of a Dirty Bomb Explosion

Standard modeling of these events in the midst of densely populated urban areas indicates no acute fatalities from radiation exposure and few cancer deaths[xvi]. However, these models do not take into account the additional consequences that might occur from radioactive contamination of wounds suffered by people injured during the blast, which could cause additional internal contamination, or direct radiation exposure, which could impair the immune systems of burn victims and thwart their recovery. Capability of an RDD to cause significant harm is strongly dependent on the type of radioactive material used and the means used to disperse it. Occurrence of localized areas of contamination further downwind would be a possibility, depending on the meteorology.[xvii] A single spent fuel assembly form a nuclear power plant can typically be transported only in a shielded shipping cask weighing many tons. However, if such a package, usually containing radioactive inventories hundreds or thousands of times greater than those of medical sources, could be acquired by terrorists or sabotaged during transport in an urban area, severe consequences could result, including thousands of latent cancer fatalities. Dirty bomb’s most significant damage will be in the socio-economic domain, in terms of sense of personal insecurity and lost economic activity/opportunity over a long period.

 

Incidents involving nuclear material

Information reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) shows “a persistent problem with the illicit trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive materials, thefts, losses and other unauthorized activities”. The IAEA’s “Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB) has noted 1,266 incidents[xviii] reported by 99 countries over the last 12 years, including 18 incidents involving HEU or Plutonium trafficking.[xix] None of these has ever been attributed or traced back to Pakistan.

 

In November 2007, burglars with unknown intentions infiltrated the Pelindaba nuclear research facility near Pretoria, South Africa. The burglars escaped without acquiring any of the Uranium held at the facility[xx]. In June 2007, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released to the press the name of Adnan Gulshair el Shukrijumah, allegedly the operations leader for developing tactical plans for detonating nuclear bombs in several American cities simultaneously[xxi].In November 2006, MI5 warned that al-Qaida were planning on using nuclear weapons against cities in the United Kingdom by obtaining the bombs via clandestine means. In February 2006, Oleg Khinsagov of Russia was arrested in Georgia, along with three Georgian accomplices, with 79.5 grams of 89 percent HEU. In June 2002, US citizen José Padilla was arrested for allegedly planning a radiological attack on the city of Chicago; however, he was never charged with such conduct. He was instead convicted of charges that he conspired to “murder, kidnap and maim” people overseas.

 

Arguments by the Pro Dirty Bomb Lobby

There is a consensus among international leaders that the threat of nuclear terrorism is real, not a Hollywood confection. President Obama, a number of leaders of  other nations, the heads of the IAEA and the United Nations, and numerous experts have called nuclear terrorism one of the most serious threats to global security and stability. At the same time, there is a silver lining too:  it is preventable through proactive actions.

 

A radiological weapon may be very appealing to terrorist groups as it is highly successful in instilling fear and panic amongst a population and would contaminate the immediate area for some period of time, disrupting attempts to repair the damage and subsequently inflicting significant economic losses.

 

At least four terrorist groups have demonstrated interest in using a nuclear device. These groups operate in or near states with histories of questionable nuclear security practices. Terrorists do not need to steal a nuclear weapon. It is quite possible to make an improvised nuclear device from highly enriched uranium or plutonium being used for civilian purposes. According to leaked diplomatic documents, al-Qaeda can produce radiological weapons, after sourcing nuclear material and recruiting rogue scientists to build dirty bombs.[xxii]

 

Al-Qaeda, and some North Caucasus terrorist groups had consistently stated that they seek nuclear weapons and had even tried to acquire them[xxiii]. Al-Qaeda has sought nuclear weapons for almost two decades by attempting to purchase stolen nuclear material and weapons and has also sought nuclear expertise on numerous occasions. Osama bin Laden had also stated that the acquisition of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction is a “religious duty.” While pressure from a wide range of counter-terrorist activity has hampered Al-Qaeda’s ability to manage such a complex project, there is no sign that it has jettisoned its goals of acquiring fissile material. Statements made as recently as 2008 indicate that Al-Qaeda’s nuclear ambitions are still very strong[xxiv].

 

North Caucasus terrorists had attempted to seize a nuclear submarine armed with nuclear weapons. They have also engaged in reconnaissance activities on nuclear storage facilities and had repeatedly threatened to sabotage nuclear facilities. These groups’ activities have also been hampered by counter-terrorism efforts; nevertheless they remain committed to launching such a devastating attack within Russia.

 

Likewise, the Japanese terror cult Aum Shinrikyo, which used nerve gas to attack a Tokyo subway in 1995, has also tried to acquire nuclear weapons. However, according to nuclear terrorism researchers at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, there is no evidence that they continue to do so[xxv].

 

Moreover, there is a black market of such materials. Nuclear weapons materials in the black market are a global concern; and there is a lingering fear about the possible detonation of a small, crude nuclear weapon by a militant group in a major city, with significant loss of life and property.[xxvi]

 

There have been 18 confirmed thefts or loss of weapons-usable nuclear material[xxvii]. In 2011, the Moldovan police broke up part of a smuggling ring attempting to sell highly enriched uranium.[xxviii] Security specialist Shaun Gregory argued in an article that terrorists have attacked Pakistani nuclear facilities three times in the recent past; twice in 2007 and once in 2008[xxix]; however this is contrary to facts; Gregory has erroneously equated attacks on air bases to attacks on nuclear facilities; no Pakistani nuclear facility civilian or military has ever come under any sort of attack.

 

A terrorist nuclear explosion could kill hundreds of thousands, create billions of dollars in damages and undermine the global economy. Former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, had said that an act of nuclear terrorism “would thrust tens of millions of people into dire poverty” and create “a second death toll throughout the developing world.” Surely after such an event, global leaders would produce a strong global system to ensure nuclear security. There is no reason to wait for a catastrophe to build such a system.

 

Terrorists exploit gaps in security. The IAEA’s ITDB indicates existence of sufficient gaps. The NCI opines that: “World cannot afford to wait for the patchwork of nuclear security arrangements to fail before they are strengthened. Because we may not even know if materials that could be used in nuclear weapons are missing”[xxx].

 

If terrorist groups could sufficiently damage safety systems to cause a core meltdown at a nuclear power plant, and/or sufficiently damage spent fuel pools, then such an attack could lead to widespread radioactive contamination.

 

The pro dirty bomb scenario lobby also argues that actions produced by the Nuclear Security Summits(NSS) are voluntary actions that are useful, but not sufficient to create an effective global nuclear security regime.

 

Arguments by Skeptics

Despite a number of claims, there is no credible evidence that any terrorist group has yet succeeded in obtaining a nuclear bomb or the materials needed to make one. The nuclear intent and capability of terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda has been “fundamentally exaggerated.”

 

Almost all of the stolen HEU and plutonium that has been seized over the years had not been missed before it was seized. The likelihood that a terrorist group will come up with an atomic bomb seems to be vanishingly small;” and Policymakers are guilty of an “atomic obsession” that has led to “substantively counterproductive” policies premised on “worst case fantasies”.

 

Anxieties about terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons are essentially baseless: a host of practical and organizational difficulties make their likelihood of success almost vanishingly small”[xxxi]. John Mueller, a scholar of international relations at the Ohio State University, is a prominent nuclear skeptic. He makes three claims: (1) the nuclear intent and capability of terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda has been “fundamentally exaggerated;” (2) “the likelihood a terrorist group will come up with an atomic bomb seems to be vanishingly small;” and (3) policymakers are guilty of an “atomic obsession” that has led to “substantively counterproductive” policies premised on “worst case fantasies.”[xxxii] In his book, “Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda” he argues that, “anxieties about terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons are essentially baseless”.[xxxiii]

 

Decades after Cheney’s forecast, how many nuclear weapons from the former Soviet arsenal have proliferated to rogue states or terrorists? Not the 250 Cheney predicted. Not 25. Miracle of miracles, not a single nuclear weapon has been discovered outside the control of Russia’s nuclear custodians[xxxiv].

 

After 9/11, it would seem prudent for nuclear power plants to be prepared for an attack by a large, well-armed terrorist group. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in revising its security rules, decided not to require that plants be able to defend themselves against groups carrying sophisticated weapons. According to a study by the Government Accountability Office, the NRC appeared to have based its revised rules “on what the industry considered reasonable and feasible to defend against rather than on an assessment of the terrorist threat itself”. The Federation of American Scientists have said that if nuclear power use is to expand significantly, nuclear facilities will have to be made extremely safe from attacks that could release massive quantities of radioactivity into the community. New reactor designs have features of passive safety, which may help. In the United States, the NRC carries out “Force on Force” (FOF) exercises at all Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) sites at least once every three year[xxxv].

 

Conventional wisdom suggests that domestic regulations, UN Security Council resolutions, G-8, NSS initiatives , IAEA look out and other voluntary efforts will prevent nuclear terrorism.

 

International Institutions to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism

  • UNSC 1540 (2004) under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter affirms that the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and their means of delivery constitutes a threat to international peace and security. The resolution obliges States, inter alia, to refrain from supporting by any means non-State actors from developing, acquiring, manufacturing, possessing, transporting, transferring or using nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and their delivery systems[xxxvi].

 

  • The World Institute for Nuclear Security is an organization which seeks to prevent nuclear terrorism and improve world nuclear security. It works alongside the International Atomic Energy Agency.
  • The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) is an international partnership of 83 nations and 4 official observers working to improve capacity on a national and international level for prevention, detection, and response to a nuclear terrorist event. The GICNT is a voluntary initiative; its participants work to unite experience and expertise from the non-proliferation, counter-proliferation, and counter-terrorism fields; strengthen global activities and institutions to share information and expertise in a legally non-binding capacity.
  • The Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR), which is also known as the Nunn–Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction, is a 1992 law sponsored by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar. According to Graham Allison, director of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, this law is a major reason why not a single nuclear weapon has been discovered outside the control of Russia’s nuclear custodians[xxxvii]. Soviet Union had deployed 14,000 tactical nuclear weapons across these 15 states, many of a small size well-suited for terrorists. Over the years all of these weapons were also zeroed out. Today none of these states have any nuclear weapons[xxxviii].

 

  • In a related program, “Megatons to Megawatts,” most of Ex Soviet warheads have now been dismantled, their nuclear cores extracted, and the highly enriched uranium blended down to make fuel rods for civilian nuclear power plants. In the US, half of all the electricity generated by nuclear energy plants till the end of 2013 was fuelled by rods imported from the former Soviet nuclear weapons programme. An equivalent of 20,000 nuclear warheads has been burned up in American nuclear reactors[xxxix].

 

  • In August 2002, the United States launched a programme to track and secure enriched uranium from 24 Soviet-style reactors in 16 countries, in order to reduce the risk of the materials falling into the hands of terrorists or “rogue states”. The first such operation was Project Vinca, “a multinational, public-private effort to remove nuclear material from a poorly-secured Yugoslav research institute[xl].”

 

  • In 2004, the U.S. Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) was established in order to consolidate nuclear stockpiles of highly enriched uranium (HEU), plutonium, and assemble nuclear weapons at fewer locations. Additionally, the GTRI converted HEU fuels to low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuels, which has prevented their use in making a nuclear bomb[xli].

 

 Nuclear Security Summits

The first summit held in Washington in 2010, produced over four-dozen specific actions embodied in commitments by individual countries, and the Joint Work Plan[xlii]. The objectives of the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, in 2012, were to continue to, “assess the progress made since the Washington Summit and propose additional cooperation measures to: combat the threat of nuclear terrorism; protect nuclear materials and related facilities; and prevent illicit trafficking in nuclear materials.” The 2014 Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, on March 24 and 25, 2014 was the third edition of the conferences. The 2014 summit was attended by 58 world leaders, of these 5 represented observer international organizations. In addition, over 5,000 delegates and some 3,000 journalists also attended the event. The representatives attending the summit included US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. In all three summits Pakistan was represented by the Prime Minister. During the first NSS Pakistan was the first country to draw the attention of the international community towards nuclear terrorism.

 

The main goal of the third conference was to improve international cooperation and more specifically to assess which of the objectives that were set at the previous summits in Washington and Seoul had not been accomplished in the previous four years and propose ways of achieving them. All three Nuclear Security Summits have aimed to prevent nuclear terrorism by[xliii]:-

  • Reducing the amount of dangerous nuclear material in the world – especially Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU);
  • Improving the security of all nuclear material and radioactive sources; improving international cooperation;
  • Some of the participating countries offered a ‘gift basket’, which is an extra initiative that can function as a role model for a specific security aspect (provided that it is supported by other countries). The Netherlands, for example, has been developing a gift basket that improves expertise and (international) cooperation regarding nuclear forensics with the help of the Netherlands Forensic Institute;
  • Nuclear and other radioactive materials are used extensively in hospitals, industry and universities. Better securing these materials is one of the main objectives of the Nuclear Security Summits;
  • Installing radiation detection equipment;
  • 26 of the 28 NSS countries that had at least 1 kg of HEU at the time of the Washington Summit indicated that they have taken action to reduce the amount of dangerous nuclear material;
  • Since the Seoul Summit, at least 15 metric tons of HEU had been down-blended to Low Enriched Uranium (LEU); which will be used as fuel for nuclear power plants. This would be the equivalent to approximately 500 nuclear weapons;
  • Since 2009, 12 NSS countries worldwide (Austria, Chile, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Libya, Mexico, Romania, Serbia, Taiwan, Turkey, Ukraine and Vietnam) have removed all HEU from their territory;
  • 15 NSS countries have repatriated HEU or Plutonium or are in the process of doing so. Some NSS countries are also assisting other countries in efforts to repatriate HEU or Plutonium;
  • 13 NSS countries have subscribed to the HEU-free Joint Statement. They underlined the importance of HEU minimization and called upon all countries in a position to do so to eliminate all HEU from their territories before the 2016 NSS;
  • 17 NSS countries have converted or are in the process of converting at least 32 of their own research reactors of medical isotope production facilities;
  • 9 NSS countries reported that they were researching and developing techniques that use LEU instead of HEU;
  • Almost all NSS countries have either updated or are currently reviewing, updating or revising nuclear security-related legislations; and
  • 30 NSS countries have supported development of a National Legislation Implementation Kit on Nuclear Security; countries could use this as building blocks to incorporate the various guidelines into binding national regulations.

 

Options for Preventing /Mitigating Nuclear Terrorism

 

Preventive strategies. These strategies aim at elimination of an enemy before it is able to mount an attack. Mostly these strategies are intrusive, risky and controversial, therefore difficult to implement.

 

Expanded Deterrence.      Gallucci believes that “the United States should instead consider a policy of expanded deterrence, which focuses not on the would-be nuclear terrorists but on those states that may deliberately transfer or inadvertently lead nuclear weapons and materials to them. By threatening retaliation against those states, the United States may be able to deter that which it cannot physically prevent[xliv].” Graham Allison also makes a similar case, arguing that the key to expanded deterrence is to come up with ways of tracing nuclear material to the country that forged the fissile material. “After a nuclear bomb detonates, nuclear forensic cops would collect debris samples and send them to a laboratory for radiological analysis. By identifying unique attributes of the fissile material, including its impurities and contaminants, one could trace the path back to its origin[xlv].” The process is analogous to identifying a criminal by fingerprints. “The goal would be twofold: first, to deter leaders of nuclear states from selling weapons to terrorists by holding them accountable for any use of their own weapons; second, to give leader every incentive to tightly secure their nuclear weapons and materials[xlvi].”

 

Political Dimension

The two words “nuclear” and “terrorism” radiate chill waves down the spine when they are used individually. In unison their psychological impact is much lower than their linear sum total. The underlying reason is that the term has been hijacked for some other motives. It has in fact become a vehicle for advancing some of the nuclear objectives that encroach upon the nuclear rights granted to Non-nuclear Weapon States (NNWS). Formulations coming out of the structures professing counter nuclear terrorism as their objective are indirectly advancing arrangements whereby legitimate R&D space is being squeezed for the NNWS. Efforts are being made to bring in new regimes to indirectly augment and strengthen the apartheid context of the NPT. The term is also pressed into service to induce indecent haste in FMT/FMCT negotiations to direct the process for achieving a premeditated outcome.

 

Pakistan’s Perspective

Nuclear terrorism is a reality and a global concern; however, robust solutions can be found to mitigate the severity of the threat to a great extent. In this context, Pakistan’s perspective was articulated by the Prime Minister of Pakistan during the Hague Summit on March 24-25, 2014; few excerpts explain Pakistan’s view point[xlvii]:-

 

  • Looking back, we can say with confidence that our decisions and commitments have spurred national action, promoted international cooperation and fostered nuclear security culture. Pakistan has constructively contributed to this process.
  • We all want nuclear security…We should all continue to take measures to secure all nuclear facilities and materials and prevent any perceived nuclear terrorist threat. We all need radioactive sources for hospitals, industry and research; but we should be vigilant about radiological threats.
  • Pakistan’s nuclear security is supported by five pillars – a strong command and control system led by the National Command Authority (NCA); an integrated intelligence system; a rigorous regulatory regime; a comprehensive export control regime; and active international cooperation.
  • Our security regime covers physical protection, material control and accounting, border controls and radiological emergencies. Pakistan’s nuclear security regime is anchored in the principle of multi-layered defense for the entire spectrum – insider, outsider or cyber threat.
  • We have established a Centre of Excellence that conducts intense specialized courses in nuclear security, physical protection and personnel reliability. Pakistan is ready to share its best practices and training facilities with other interested states in the region and beyond.
  • We have also deployed radiation detection mechanisms at several exit and entry points to prevent illicit trafficking of radioactive and nuclear materials.
  • Pakistan is a party to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM). We work closely with the IAEA to deal with safety and security of radioactive sources and to implement its Nuclear Security Action Plan (NSAP). We are considering ratification of the 2005 Amendment to the CPPNM.
  • I call for Pakistan’s inclusion in all international export control regimes, especially the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
  • We regularly submit reports to the UN Security Council 1540 Committee on the measure we take to exercise control over transfer of sensitive materials and technologies.
  • In close consultation with the IAEA membership, we should dispel the impression that the NSS process is imposing new mandates on the Agency; and that we are not creating parallel mechanisms or a new treaty regime.
  • Focus should be on synergy and coordination among various components of the nuclear security architecture. We have to strike a balance between confidentiality and openness; and steer away from both alarmism and complacency.

 

Summary of Conclusions and Recommendations

 

  • There are two methods for marshaling the international community’s commitment to prevent nuclear terrorism: multilateral treaties and bilateral agreements.

 

  • Protecting nuclear weapons and fissile material at their source is the first line of defense against terrorists seeking “loose nukes.” One place to start would be to strengthen UN Security Council Resolution 1540 that addresses the risk of non-state groups obtaining WMDs. By strengthening the language, setting specific guidelines for states’ obligations (including strict measures for securing fissile material), and creating an enforcement mechanism, some of Resolution 1540’s vagaries could be eliminated.

 

  • Strengthening bilateral and multilateral agreements on the prevention of nuclear terrorism.

 

  • The nature and threat of nuclear terrorism is international; thus, initiatives which seek to prevent nuclear-capable terrorist groups must be international in format and character; and should draw strength from the combined resources/legitimacy of the global community.

 

  • The United States and Russia together account for nearly 80% of the world’s nuclear weapons-usable materials. Thus it is imperative that these two countries realign on nonproliferation and counter-nuclear terrorism measures.

 

  • Engage emerging nuclear states on equitable basis, such as Pakistan and India, on securing fissile material and other nonproliferation initiatives. The United States needs to tread carefully during implementation of the US-India nuclear deal (Agreement 123), which presents a tremendous challenge to global nonproliferation efforts.

 

  • Revitalize the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Making it all inclusive by inducting declared nuclear weapon capable states as NWS. And then invest in technical and analytic tools to detect proliferation activities, networks, and materials.

 

  • Institute more stringent standards for security on the borders; improving intelligence networks that can identify terrorist networks working to acquire nuclear weapons.

 

  • Obstructions in the way of universalization of Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) should be removed. The United States and India could demonstrate their seriousness about reducing nuclear dangers by ratifying CTBT.

 

  • Entry to international strategic trade regimes should be criteria based. Country specific waivers and exemptions should be avoided.

 

  • India should respond to Pakistan’s initiative of Strategic Restraint Regime, proposals which contain meaningful measures for arms control and arms reduction in South Asia.

 

No matter how safeguarded a nuclear weapons programme is, and no matter how secure weapons-grade fissile material may be, the fact remains that so long as nuclear weapons

[1] The author is a consultant to IPRI on Policy and Strategic Response. He is a former assistant chief of air staff, Pakistan Air Force.  An abridged version of this article was read in a seminar organized by Strategic Vision Institute Islamabad, on June 26, 2014.

 

References:

[i] Excerpted from: UN International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, 2005.

[ii] Nuclear terrorism, Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_terrorism (accessed on August 12, 2014)

[iii] “Nuclear Terrorism,” The Economist (January 25, 1975) p. 38.

[iv] Larry Collins, “Combating Nuclear Terrorism,” New York Times (December 14, 1980) Sec. 6 pg. 37.

[v] D. Costello, “Experts Warn on Nuclear Terror,” Courier-Mail (June 26, 1986).

[vi] Larry Collins, “Combating Nuclear Terrorism,” New York Times (December 14, 1980) Sec. 6 pg. 37.

[vii] http://www.nci.org/index.htm (accessed on August 12, 2014).

[viii] “Severe Accidents and Terrorist Threats at Nuclear Reactors”, Gerald L. Pollack. Paper Prepared for the International Task Force on the Prevention of Nuclear Terrorism, 1986. Report of the NCI/SUNY  International Task Force on “Prevention of Nuclear Terrorism” (June 25, 1986)

[ix] “Nuclear Power Reactors are Inadequately Protected Against Terrorist Attack”. (Testimony of Paul Leventhal, NCI President, on behalf of Nuclear Control Institute and Committee to Bridge the Gap before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, December 5, 2001)

[x] “Petition to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission”, NCI/Hudson River keeper Press Rel. (NCI, Environmentalists and Elected Officials Call for Shutdown of Indian Point Plant, November 8, 2001), “Press Conference on the Vulnerability of Nuclear  Reactors to Terrorist Attack” (NCI and Committee to Bridge the Gap, National Press Club, Washington, DC, September 25, 2001)

[xi] “Radiological Sabotage at Nuclear Power Plants: A Moving Target Set”, (Dr. Edwin Lyman, NCI Scientific Director, and Paul Leventhal, NCI President, Presented to the 41st Annual Meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management (INMM), New Orleans, LA, July 2000)

[xii] “Are IAEA Safeguards on Plutonium Bulk-Handling Facilities Effective?” (Marvin Miller, MIT, Paper Prepared for NCI, August 1990).

[xiii] www.nci.org/nci-wpu.htm

[xiv] Ajay Singh. Nuclear terrorism — Is it real or the stuff of 9/11 nightmares? UCLA Today, February 11, 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_terrorism#cite_note-55  (accessed on August 12, 2014).

[xv] Kenneth C. Brill and Kenneth N. Luongo, “Nuclear Terrorism: A Clear Danger”, “IHT Global Opinion”.  March 15, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/16/opinion/nuclear-terrorism-a-clear-danger.html?_r=0 (accessed on August 12, 2014). Kenneth C. Brill is a former U.S. ambassador to the I.A.E.A.Kenneth N. Luongo is president of the Partnership for Global Security. Both are members of the Fissile Material Working Group, a nonpartisan nongovernmental organization.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii]  IAEA Illicit Trafficking Database (ITDB) p. 3.

[xix] Bunn, Matthew. “Securing the Bomb 2010: Securing All Nuclear Materials in Four Years”. President and Fellows of Harvard College. Retrieved 28 January 2013.

[xx] Washington Post, December 20, 2007, Op-Ed by Micah Zenko, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_terrorism#cite_note-55 (accessed on August 12, 2014).

[xxi] “Feds Hoped to Snag Bin Laden Nuke Expert in JFK Bomb Plot”. Fox News. June 4, 2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_terrorism#cite_note-55 (accessed on August 12, 2014).

[xxii] “al-Qaeda moving world towards ‘nuclear 9/11′”. The Age (Melbourne). February 3, 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_terrorism#cite_note-55 ( accessed on August 12, 2014)

[xxiii] Bunn, Matthew, Colonel Yuri Morozov, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, Simon Saradzhyan, William Tobey, Colonel General (ret.) Viktor I. Yesin, and Major General (ret.) Pavel S. Zolotarev (2011). “The U.S.-Russia Joint Threat Assessment on Nuclear Terrorism”. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University. Retrieved July 26, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_terrorism#cite_note-55 (accessed on August 12, 2014)

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Orde Kittrie. Averting Catastrophe: Why the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty is Losing its Deterrence Capacity and How to Restore It May 22, 2007, p. 338.

[xxvii] Kenneth C. Brill and Kenneth N. Luongo, “Nuclear Terrorism: A Clear Danger”, “IHT Global Opinion”.  March 15, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/16/opinion/nuclear-terrorism-a-clear-danger.html?_r=0 (acessed on Aygust 12, 2014)

[xxviii] Bunn, Matthew and Col-Gen. E.P. Maslin (2010). “All Stocks of Weapons-Usable Nuclear Materials Worldwide Must be Protected Against Global Terrorist Threats”. Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University. Retrieved July 26, 2012.

[xxix] Rhys Blakeley, “Terrorists ‘have attacked Pakistan nuclear sites three times’,” Times Online (August 11, 2009).

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Allison, Graham (December 29, 2011). “Washington Can Work: Celebrating Twenty Years With Zero Nuclear Terrorism”. The Huffington Post. http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/21644/washington_can_work.html

( accesses on August 12, 2014).

[xxxii] Mueller, John (15 January 2008). The Atomic Terrorist: Assessing the Likelihood, prepared for presentation at the Program on International Security Policy. University of Chicago.

[xxxiii] Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda: Oxford University Press, http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/HistoryWorld/?view=usa&ci=9780195381368, http://global.oup.com/academic/product/atomic-obsession-9780195381368;jsessionid=AC5D38BD16104D2E54B83BEC8BC98FF6?cc=pk&lang=en& (accessed on August 14, 2014).

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Charles D. Ferguson and Frank A. Settle (2012). “The Future of Nuclear Power in the United States”, Federation of American Scientists.

[xxxvi] Head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that the ruthlessness of the 11 September attacks has alerted the world to the potential of nuclear terrorism – making it “far more likely” that terrorists could target nuclear facilities, nuclear material and radioactive sources worldwide. “We are not just dealing with the possibility of governments diverting nuclear materials into clandestine weapons programs. Now we have been alerted to the potential of terrorists targeting nuclear facilities or using radioactive sources to incite panic, contaminate property, and even cause injury or death among civilian populations…An unconventional threat requires an unconventional response, and…Because radiation knows no frontiers, States need to recognise that safety and security of nuclear material is a legitimate concern of all States. Countries must demonstrate, not only to their own populations, but to their neighbours and the world that strong security systems are in place. The willingness of terrorists to commit suicide to achieve their evil aims makes the nuclear terrorism threat far more likely than it was before September 11.”

“At a minimum national assessments of security infrastructure for all types of nuclear and radioactive material should be required. Countries will have something to gain from allowing international assessments to demonstrate to the world that they are keeping their nuclear material secure.”  Mr. El-Baradei added.

In the short term, the IAEA estimates that at least $30-$50 million annually will be needed to strengthen and expand its programs to meet this terrorist threat.

[xxxvii] Allison, Graham (December 29, 2011). “Washington Can Work: Celebrating Twenty Years With Zero Nuclear Terrorism”The Huffington Post. Retrieved July 26, 2012.

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Philipp C. Bleek, “Project Vinca: Lessons for Securing Civil Nuclear Material Stockpiles,” The Nonproliferation Review (Fall-Winter 2003) p. 1.

[xli] Wier, Anthony and Matthew Bunn (November 19, 2006). “Bombs That Won’t Go Off”. The Washington Post. Retrieved July 26, 2012.

[xlii] Tobey, William (2011). “Planning for Success at the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit”. The Stanley Foundation. Retrieved July 26, 2012.

[xliii] “2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit Q&A with Professor Graham Allison”. Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, 2012. ( accessed on July 26, 2012).

[xliv] Gallucci, Robert (September 2006). “Averting Nuclear Catastrophe: Contemplating Extreme Responses to U.S. Vulnerability”. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 607: pp. 51–58. doi:10.1177/0002716206290457. Retrieved 28 January 2013.

[xlv] Allison, Graham (13 March 2009). “How to Keep the Bomb From Terrorists”. Newsweek. Retrieved 28 January 2013.

[xlvi] Ibid.

[xlvii] Statement by the Prime Minister of Pakistan  at the Nuclear Security Summit at The Hague March 24, 2014, http://www.pmo.gov.pk/pm_speech_details.php?speech_id=31 (accessed on August 12, 2014). Text: “We congratulate you for hosting this Summit; and thank your Government and the people of the Netherlands for their gracious hospitality. Your leadership takes us one step further to strengthen nuclear security. I also pay a tribute to President Barack Obama for launching the nuclear security summit process four years ago. xLooking back, we can say with confidence that our decisions and commitments have spurred national action, promoted international cooperation and fostered nuclear security culture. Pakistan has constructively contributed to this process. We all want nuclear security, which is a national responsibility and a global priority. We should all continue to take measures to secure all nuclear facilities and materials and prevent any perceived nuclear terrorist threat. We all need radioactive sources for hospitals, industry and research; but we should be vigilant about radiological threats.

Pakistan attaches highest importance to nuclear security because it is directly linked to our national security. Pakistan is a responsible nuclear weapons state. We pursue a policy of nuclear restraint, as well as credible minimum deterrence. Our region needs peace and stability for economic development that benefits its people. That is why, I strongly advocate nuclear restraint, balance in conventional forces and ways to resolve conflicts. Pakistan’s nuclear security is supported by five pillars – a strong command and control system led by the National Command Authority (NCA); an integrated intelligence system; a rigorous regulatory regime; a comprehensive export control regime; and active international cooperation. Our security regime covers physical protection, material control and accounting, border controls and radiological emergencies.Our nuclear materials, facilities and assets are safe and secure. Pakistan’s nuclear security regime is anchored in the principle of multi-layered defense for the entire spectrum – insider, outsider or cyber threat. We have established a Centre of Excellence that conducts intense specialized courses in nuclear security, physical protection and personnel reliability. Pakistan is ready to share its best practices and training facilities with other interested states in the region and beyond.We have also deployed radiation detection mechanisms at several exit and entry points to prevent illicit trafficking of radioactive and nuclear materials.In the realm of international cooperation on nuclear security, IAEA has an essential responsibility and a central role to play. Pakistan has been working productively with the IAEA to implement its Nuclear Security Action Plan (NSAP).We have been running a safe, secure and safeguarded civil nuclear programme for more than forty years. We have the expertise, manpower and infrastructure to produce civil nuclear energy. As Prime Minister, I feel that energy deficit is one of the most serious crises facing Pakistan. As we revive our economy, we look forward to international cooperation and assistance for nuclear energy under IAEA safeguards.I call for Pakistan’s inclusion in all international export control regimes, especially the Nuclear Suppliers Group. International treaties and forums should supplement national actions to fortify nuclear security. Pakistan is a party to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM). We work closely with the IAEA to deal with safety and security of radioactive sources and illicit trafficking of nuclear materials. We regularly submit reports to the UN Security Council 1540 Committee on the measure we take to exercise control over transfer of sensitive materials and technologies. I would like to announce at this Summit that we are considering ratification of the 2005 Amendment to the CPPNM and are actively conducting a review to meet its various requirements. As we look towards the future, we should consolidate progress made so far on nuclear security. We must also maintain our political will, avoid duplication of effort and broaden our membership to gain more acceptances for our decisions. —I thank you”.