Nuclear Smuggling: How Serious a Threat?

By Ford, James L. | Strategic Forum, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Smuggling: How Serious a Threat?


Ford, James L., Strategic Forum


Conclusions:

* The unprecedented leakage of nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union (FSU) in 1994 signaled a clear shift in the nature and significance of the nuclear smuggling problem.

* The apparent pause in leakage in 1995 does not provide much comfort since conditions in the FSU conducive to nuclear leakage remain relatively unchanged.

* The barrier once faced by a rogue state or a terrorist group to the acquisition of a sufficient amount of special nuclear material to construct a nuclear weapon (or some other nuclear device) has been breached and is no longer as formidable.

* The U.S. government has recognized that the current threat is very serious and that it could get a lot worse.

* Critics believe that the U.S. government has not responded adequately to the nature and seriousness of the threat.

Historical Aspects of Illicit Transactions Involving Nuclear Materials

Cases of illicit transactions in nuclear materials have occurred over the last 20 years virtually throughout the world, to include the United States. Of the 450 reported attempts of illegal trafficking recorded by the Department of Energy through 1994, most proved to be nothing more than profit-motivated scams involving bogus material, perpetrated by opportunists.

The unprecedented leakage of nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union (FSU) in 1994 signaled a clear shift in the nature and significance of the nuclear smuggling problem. While recognizing that the reporting was incomplete and of mixed reliability, there were increases observed in the numbers of attempted transactions including the number of participants and in the types and quantities of materials offered for sale. The apparent pause in the leakage of nuclear materials in 1995 is welcome, but does not provide much comfort because conditions in the FSU conducive to nuclear smuggling remain relatively unchanged and substantial leakage (still unrecovered) may have already occurred.

Understanding the Threat: Not Just a Bomb

Experts agree that obtaining a sufficient amount of special nuclear material (SNM) is the single most difficult challenge in the construction of a nuclear weapon. The technical difficulty and expense of acquiring such material provided the principal barrier against the proliferation of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Although still a significant challenge, that barrier has now been breached and is no longer as formidable.

But the possibility of a rogue state acquiring enough SNM to construct one or more rudimentary nuclear weapons is not the sole threat, nor perhaps the one that is the most likely or worrisome. Other possibilities include rogue states and even subnational groups using nuclear materials to construct an improvised nuclear device (IND), or a radiological dispersal device (RDD). An IND is designed to produce a nuclear explosion but has a lower yield than an actual weapon. An RDD produces a conventional explosion designed to scatter radioactive materials over an area to contaminate it and spread fear and insecurity among its inhabitants. This not only broadens the threat in terms of available material and technology, but increases the number of potential proliferators and the likelihood of an incident. Delivery on target also has been simplified, especially in terms of an IND or RDD; it is not necessary to have sophisticated military aircraft or missile delivery systems. Terrorists can load one of these devices into a van and deliver it on target, in much the same manner as occurred at the World Trade Center in New York City or at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

The steep increase in observed nuclear smuggling activity, and the mounting concern expressed by the national security community, raise some fundamental questions: What is going on? Why is it occurring? Who is involved? Where is it occurring? What does the future hold? …

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