On the Loose: The Market for Nuclear Weapons
Ferguson, Charles D., Harvard International Review
Addressing the National Defense University in Washington, on February 11, 2004, US President George W. Bush warned about an underground market that has grave consequences for global security: "In recent years, another path of [nuclear] proliferation has become clear, as well. America and other nations are learning about black-market operatives who deal in equipment and expertise related to weapons of mass destruction. These dealers are motivated by greed, or fanaticism, or both. They find eager customers in outlaw regimes, which pay millions for the parts and plans they need to speed up their weapons programs. And with deadly technology and expertise going on the market, there's the terrible possibility that terrorist groups could obtain the ultimate weapons they desire most."
Bush rightly underscored the two major risks of the nuclear underground market. First, nations can exploit this market to acquire the capability to make nuclear weapons. Second, terrorists can try to take advantage of this market's trafficking in technology and expertise to seize intact nuclear weapons or the fissile material, highly enriched uranium or plutonium, needed to build nuclear bombs.
Nukes for Sale: The Khan Network
Bush was particularly referring to the AQ Khan network, which emanated from Pakistan but established connections to more than a dozen countries throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe. This network began in the 1970s when Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani metallurgist, stole technological secrets from URENCO, a British-Dutch-German uranium enrichment consortium. Becoming fluent in Dutch and living in the Netherlands in the early 1970s, Khan used his charm and business acumen to spawn his branch of the nuclear underground market. Ordered back to Pakistan in 1975, he exploited loose international export controls by using his stolen industrial knowledge to obtain the technologies needed to build Pakistan's uranium enrichment capability. This capability can either provide fuel for peaceful nuclear reactors or make nuclear weapons material. Pakistan's successful nuclear bomb tests in 1998 proved that Khan's efforts paid off.
Long before 1998, Khan extended his ambition beyond Pakistan to become a wealthy and influential man. In the 1980s, Khan and his associates started advertising their nuclear wares in glossy fliers at conferences. These ads attracted the attention of Iranian scientists seeking to develop their country's nuclear infrastructure. During the past few years, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigations have uncovered the almost 20-year-long Iranian effort to clandestinely acquire the technologies necessary to build an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle.
From the Khan network, Iran purchased uranium centrifuge equipment. Highly enriched uranium contamination found on some of this equipment during IAEA inspections initially sparked concerns that Iran had already begun making nuclear bomb-usable material. In August 2005, IAEA analysis appeared to confirm Iranian assertions that this contamination was present when the equipment was originally bought. While clear evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program has not emerged, the US Government remains adamant that Iran has such a program. The United States believes that the strongest piece of circumstantial evidence is Iran's exploitation of a secretive underground market. Iran retorts that it has no choice but to use this means because it is under sanctions by the nuclear export control rules of the United States and other major suppliers. With Khan's assistance, Iran is known to have built about 1,300 uranium centrifuges for a pilot scale enrichment plant. Assuming that Iran does not have a clandestine enrichment facility, it is still five to ten years away from having sufficient centrifuges to be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb.
Iran is not the only known buyer in Khan's underground market. In December 2003, Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi confessed to buying nuclear goods from the Khan network. He cut a deal with Britain and the United States to dismantle Libya's weapons of mass destruction programs in exchange for normalizing relations and obtaining economic assistance. Although Libya did not build a fully functioning uranium enrichment facility, it disturbingly received blueprints for a nuclear bomb design from the Khan network. US Government weapon analysts believe that this design originally derived from a Chinese weapon. Pakistan has benefited significantly from Chinese nuclear assistance.
While North Korea has not been as forthcoming as Libya, or even Iran, that it was a customer of Khan's underground market, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf recently acknowledged that North Korea was one of Khan's clients. In October 2002, the US Government confronted North Korea with evidence that it has a clandestine uranium enrichment program. According to the US State Department officials who were at the meeting, North Korean officials admitted to having such a program. However, since that October 2002 meeting, North Korea has denied having a uranium enrichment program. Despite this denial, a breakthrough may have occurred at the September 2005 six-party talks in Beijing. The six parties include North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia. They have agreed on a set of principles for the elimination of nuclear weapons capabilities from North Korea while working to ensure North Korea receives security assurances, economic assistance, and energy supplies.
For the time being, the parties have finessed the issue of the North Korean uranium enrichment program by not explicitly mentioning it in the agreed statement of principles. Nonetheless, the statement implicitly includes it by referring to "nuclear weapons programs." While much is known about the North Korean plutonium program, very little is known about the uranium program. Successful dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear weapon capabilities hinges on Pyongyang's openness to providing complete access to both programs.
Nuclear Transfers to Terrorists
Having accessed an underground market to obtain nuclear technologies, North Korea could serve as a conduit for clandestine transfers of nuclear weapons material to terrorists. North Korea's dire economic condition provides an incentive for such transactions. Moreover, North Korea has used terrorist actions to strike South Korea. In addition, Pyongyang's extensive trade in drug smuggling and money counterfeiting demonstrates its ability to exploit underground markets.
Nevertheless, certain disincentives tend to work against North Korea actively assisting nuclear terrorists. No convincing evidence has surfaced that indicates North Korean connections with Islamic extremist terror groups, such as Al Qaeda, that covet nuclear arms. Pyongyang stopped sponsoring terror attacks more than 15 years ago. Furthermore, the North Korean leadership knows that if the United States detected North Korea providing nuclear weapons or materials to terrorist groups, North Korea would likely suffer severe retribution. North Korea's latest demonstrated willingness to negotiate away its nuclear weapons programs indicates that it values regime survival.
Unlike North Korea, Iran continues to sponsor terrorist organizations. Thus, the threat of Iranian nuclear transfers to terrorists appears greater than North Korean transfers. However, like North Korea's leaders, Iran's leaders want their regime to thrive and would most likely not risk being caught making such transactions. Moreover, any country would be averse to losing control of its nuclear weapons or materials especially to terrorist groups that could unleash those capabilities back on their sponsors.
Even with relatively rich technical and financial resources, some countries struggle for years to develop indigenous nuclear capacities. Enriching uranium or producing plutonium is the hardest step in making a nuclear bomb. Terrorists desiring nuclear arms would need to seize ready-made supplies of highly enriched uranium or plutonium. While clear evidence of such seizures has not emerged, illicit global nuclear trafficking points to a pathway for terrorist acquisition of intact nuclear weapons or weapons-usable fissile material.
The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 led quickly to concerns about loose nuclear materials and weapons. Increasing economic deprivation and loosening of tight authoritarian controls drove opportunistic thieves and some workers inside nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union to steal nuclear goods. However, finding buyers for these goods was often difficult. Many nuclear thieves fell victim to sting operations or to petty criminals.
Encouragingly, the amount of known nuclear material that has been trafficked does not add up to enough to make a nuclear weapon, according to the IAEA's most recently reported trafficking data from January 1993 to the end of 2003. This database lists 205 confirmed incidents involving nuclear material. Of those incidents, less than 10 percent, or 17 incidents, included the bomb-usable materials of highly enriched uranium or plutonium. The IAEA also reported that no confirmed theft or seizure "has involved more than 1 percent or 2 percent of what would be needed for constructing a nuclear bomb." The IAEA's report warned, however, that "these small quantities are not grounds for complacency." As in illicit drug smuggling, detected nuclear trafficking probably represents a small fraction of the actual extent of the underground market. Because governments are often reluctant to report nuclear trafficking incidents, the IAEA database remains incomplete.
A Stanford University database, which extensively combs through open source reporting instead of compiling government reports, disagrees significantly with the IAEA's database. The Stanford database indicates that more than 40 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and plutonium have been stolen and recovered, whereas the IAEA database notes only about nine kilograms of these materials have been knowingly trafficked. According to the IAEA, 25 kilograms of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium or eight kilograms of plutonium are needed to make a bomb.
Because uranium and plutonium do not emit strong radiation signals, governments cannot rely on radiation detection equipment at ports and border crossings to sound an alarm. In contrast, non-nuclear-weapons usable radioactive material such as cesium-137 and cobalt-60 emit relatively strong radiation signals. Far more of this material has been detected than uranium or plutonium. Another reason for the increased trafficking in radioactive cesium and cobalt as well as similar radioisotopes is that they are far more prevalently used in commercial applications than highly enriched uranium or plutonium.
Insiders, Organized Crime, and Terrorist Groups
While evidence does not point to an extensive terrorist or criminal network seeking weapons-usable nuclear materials or intact nuclear weapons, some important incidents have increased fears that terrorists or criminals will eventually acquire nuclear arms. Since the early 1990s, Al Qaeda operatives have searched for such weapons. In 1998 Osama bin Laden made obtaining weapons of mass destruction a "religious duty" for Al Qaeda. During the early to mid-1990s, Aum Shinrikyo, an apocalyptic cult headquartered in Japan but which had tentacles in several countries, sought to purchase Russian nuclear arms. Aum recruited cult members among Russian scientists. While such contacts within Russia did not result in Aum obtaining nuclear arms, these connections may have increased this cult's opportunities to enlist insiders at Russian nuclear facilities.
The US Department of Energy considers insiders working with terrorists or criminals the top threat to nuclear facilities. While there have been few documented cases of insiders exploiting security loopholes, an outstanding example reportedly occurred in 1998 when the Russian Federal Security Service blocked insiders at a Chelyabinsk nuclear facility from stealing 18.5 kilograms of highly enriched uranium. The potential buyers are unknown, but Rensselaer Lee, a nuclear smuggling analyst, has reasoned that a planned theft of this magnitude suggests "prior arrangement with a prospective buyer."
Concomitant with renewed concerns about nuclear terrorism following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, both governmental and nongovernmental experts have raised the alarm about terrorists' interest in acquiring nuclear weapons through targeting nuclear facilities or collaborating with criminal organizations. In a December 2004 report to the US Congress, the US National Intelligence Council reported that Russian authorities detected Chechen rebels casing nuclear weapon facilities and nuclear weapon transportation hubs. Analysts at the nongovernmental Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies have pointed out criminal activity in seizing radioactive materials in Ecuador and Southeast Asia and have identified opium trafficking routes in Central Asia as potential conduits for smuggling of nuclear materials.
Some criminal groups may have decided to profit from post-9/11 fears of nuclear and radiological terrorism by exploiting or creating underground markets to engage in extortion or to sell nuclear or radioactive materials to terrorists. Such extortion was recently illustrated in December 2002 when a criminal gang in Ecuador stole commercial radioactive sources and held them for ransom. However, no credible evidence of organized crime transferring nuclear materials to terrorist groups has appeared.
Shutting Down the Nuclear Underground Market
During the first US presidential campaign debate in September 2004, President Bush and Senator John Kerry reached a rare point of agreement. They both concurred that nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists was the number one security threat to the United States. Aside from mobilizing rhetoric, the Bush administration has been leveraging international resources to stop this threat and shut down nuclear underground markets that could foster nuclear terrorism and proliferation. At the June 2002 Group of Eight (G8) major industrialized countries summit, the US Government launched the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. While this partnership is aimed at raising US$20 billion over 10 years to help secure and eliminate weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the former Soviet Union, it has served to focus subsequent annual G8 summits on security issues related to nuclear proliferation. For instance, these summits have issued statements in support of stronger export controls on nuclear and radioactive materials.
In May 2003, the Bush administration began the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which is designed to strengthen international capabilities in interdicting trafficking in WMD materials transported by land, sea, or air. Although about 60 countries have expressed some interest in PSI, only about two-dozen form the core group by taking an active role in interdiction exercises. Unlike most international organizations, PSI is not comprised of an official membership. The Bush administration purposefully wanted to maintain flexibility in PSI by letting individual countries decide whether they want to participate in meetings or activities.
While PSI can help fill some gaps in global measures to stop trafficking in WMD materials, it is not a panacea. In its current form, which works to interdict transfers of such materials between and among countries, PSI appears better suited to shutting down Khan-like nuclear underground markets than to stopping terrorists or sophisticated criminal organizations from smuggling nuclear weapons or weapons-usable fissile materials.
The United States has also tried to leverage support at the United Nations to outlaw activities that could fuel nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction programs. In particular in April 2004, through US leadership, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1540, which requires all nations to criminalize trafficking in weapons of mass destruction materials. This resolution concentrates on denying such materials to non-state actors, such as terrorists or those who would form underground networks to sell nuclear technologies. While the resolution calls for nations to "adopt and enforce appropriate effective laws" and "measures," it fails to define what are appropriate effective laws and measures. Having spent considerable diplomatic effort to obtain unanimous enactment of this resolution, the United States and its allies need to take the extra effort to work toward rigorous international security standards on securing nuclear and other materials of mass destruction.
While these endeavors are laudable, global trafficking in nuclear materials will continue unless the world community develops a strategic plan that works to eliminate the demand for nuclear weapons while ensuring that those countries that need nuclear energy for peaceful purposes obtain access to the appropriate technologies with rigorous safeguards in place. Regional security imbalances can drive certain countries to devote national resources to clandestine nuclear weapons programs. Thus, an effective nuclear anti-proliferation strategy must strive to meet the security needs of countries facing existential threats.
Even if those countries do not actually build nuclear bombs, they could still decide to develop latent nuclear weapon capabilities as a type of insurance policy. This is not a new realization. For instance, the Baruch Plan, which was brought before the United Nations in 1946, attempted to place controls on fissile material and dual-use nuclear technologies. While that plan was stillborn, recent years have seen renewed efforts to control the spread of these technologies. In his February 2004 National Defense University speech, for example, President Bush proposed for the world to "create a safe, orderly system to field civilian nuclear plants without adding to the danger of weapons proliferation. The world's leading nuclear exporters should ensure that states have reliable access at reasonable cost to fuel for civilian reactors, so long as those states renounce enrichment and reprocessing." This proposal has faced resistance by Iran, which states that it cannot trust the suppliers to guarantee nuclear fuel. Unless the global community can work out an equitable system of fuel supply, certain countries in the future would likely continue to mine underground nuclear networks.
Stopping the spread of nuclear weapon capabilities to other countries and reducing the demand for these capabilities will also decrease the probability of nuclear terrorism. In addition, preventing terrorists from seizing nuclear weapons or weapons-usable materials requires a different strategy. Because terrorist groups cannot enrich uranium or produce plutonium, an effective nuclear terrorism prevention strategy is to secure, reduce, and as much as possible eliminate existing nuclear weapons and weapons-usable materials.
CHARLES D. FERGUSON is a Science and Technology Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and is a co-author of The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism (Routledge, 2005).
RELATED ARTICLE: AQ KHAN'S NUCLEAR EFFORTS
Within one week of starting work with URENCO, Khan visits the advanced UCN enrichment facility in Almelo, Netherlands.
Dutch intelligence begins to monitor Khan soon after he begins work at FDO.
India conducts its first nuclear test, a "peaceful nuclear explosion."
Khan is assigned by UCN to translate designs of advanced G-1 and G-2 centrifuges from German to Dutch, thereby leaving him alone with the centrifuges for 16 days.
Pakistan is cut off from economic and military assistance by the United States after US intelligence learns of the recently commissioned enrichment facility at Kahuta.
Khan is reportedly approached by an unknown Arab country (possibly Saudi Arabia or Syria) requesting nuclear assistance.
Khan and his network of international suppliers reportedly begin nuclear transfers to Iran. The period of cooperation continues through 1995 when P-2 centrifuge components are transferred.
Khan is convicted, in absentia, in a Dutch court for conducting nuclear espionage and sentenced to four years in prison.
Iranian scientists are suspected of having received nuclear training in Pakistan
Iran is suspected of receiving its first centrifuge assemblies and components. The shipped components are likely older P-1 centrifuge components for which Khan no longer has a use.
An Iraqi memo indicates that Khan offered to sell Iraq a nuclear bomb design and guaranteed material support from Western Europe for an uranium enrichment program.
Pakistan begins missile cooperation with North Korea. Within Pakistan, KRL is one of the laboratories responsible for missile research.
Khan starts travel to North Korea where he receives technical assistance for the development of the Ghauri missile, an adaptation of the North Korean No Dong design.
Khan begins to transfer centrifuges and centrifuge components to Libya. He is also suspected of beginning nuclear transfers to North Korea around this time.
Alleged secret visit to Pyongyang by Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Jehangir Karamat, who denies making the visit.
May 11 & 13: India detonates a total of five devices in nuclear tests.
May 28 & 30: Pakistan responds with six nuclear tests.
Libya receives blueprints for nuclear weapons plans. The plans are reported to be of Chinese origin with Chinese notes in the margins.
February 4: Khan makes a public confession on Pakistani television (in English) of his illegal nuclear dealings. Khan claims that he initiated the transfers and cites an "error of judgment."
Michael Laufer, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: On the Loose: The Market for Nuclear Weapons. Contributors: Ferguson, Charles D. - Author. Journal title: Harvard International Review. Volume: 27. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 2006. Page number: 52+. © 1999 Harvard International Relations Council, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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