Preventing nuclear terrorism requires bold action

Nuclear terrorism is one of the most serious threats of the 21st century. Fortunately, the threat is a preventable one: consolidate and lock down weapons-usable materials and you dramatically reduce the risks. At the Nuclear Security Summit this week, President Obama and more than 50 world leaders will gather in The Hague with an opportunity to take a major step forward in doing just that. But taking the next step in this process will require strong leadership and skillful diplomacy.

Though they rarely make the headlines, cases of smuggling, theft or loss of nuclear and radiological materials are alarmingly frequent. Over the past few years we’ve seen incidents from Moldova to India, South Africa to Japan. Just a few months ago in Mexico, carjackers unwittingly heisted radiological materials that, in the wrong hands, could have done significant harm. In fact, more than one hundred thefts and other incidents are reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) each year. In many of these instances we still do not know where the material came from, who stole it, or where it was headed.

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Nuclear technology is widespread, used not only in power production but in medicine, mining, and other industries. As a result, dozens of countries possesses radiological materials that could be used in a “dirty bomb.” Beyond that, over 25 countries have highly-enriched uranium or plutonium—enough to build more than 20,000 new weapons like the one that destroyed Hiroshima and almost 80,000 like the one that destroyed Nagasaki. In the wrong hands, it wouldn’t take much plutonium or highly enriched uranium to fashion a nuclear device. You could fit a bombs-worth of this material into a lunch box.  

Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups around the globe have expressed intent to acquire weapons-usable materials. If they succeed there is little doubt they would use such a device. Thus the spread of these materials is a grave threat—not only to the United States but to any country that relies upon the global economy, which would be severely disrupted if an attack ever succeeded.  Robert Gates, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, noted that, “Every senior leader, when you’re asked what keeps you awake at night, it’s the thought of a terrorist ending up with a weapon of mass destruction, especially nuclear.”

Obama came into office promising to eliminate the threat of vulnerable nuclear materials. Through his leadership and initiative, significant progress has been made: 12 countries have removed all or most of their weapons usable materials and, through the high-level political attention of the Nuclear Security Summits, dozens of countries have updated and strengthened their nuclear security regulations.

The past four years have been a major step forward. Unfortunately, the current approach has not gotten to the root of the problem. We still rely primarily on a patchwork of voluntary commitments, which countries are free to accept or reject at will. There is no international legal standard for securing nuclear and radiological material, no requirement to follow IAEA recommendations, and no common benchmarks for performance.

At the upcoming Summit, Obama should lead a shift in the conversation away from short-term fixes and toward a more comprehensive approach that emphasizes the shared responsibilities of all states. The long-term goal should be to codify the current web of voluntary initiatives and agreements, while establishing legally binding requirements for unaddressed vulnerabilities. This won’t be easy, since many states resist any steps that are seen as compromising their sovereignty. Nevertheless, an effective nuclear security system must secure dangerous nuclear materials, assess how well states meet those standards, and provide assistance through the IAEA to states that need it.

Nuclear security is far too important to rely on an ad-hoc approach that focuses on a select few countries of concern. With persistent effort to address the problems at hand and vigorous investment toward a new framework, Obama can turn the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War into the most powerful legacy of his presidency. Doing so will take continued leadership and bold action in the days ahead.

Robichaud is a specialist in nuclear policy at Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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