The fourth Nuclear Security Summit recently concluded in Washington DC, discussing the threat of access to nuclear weapons by terrorist groups. But is nuclear terror a credible threat?
In the wake of the November 13 terror attacks in Paris, police in Belgium arrested a number of individuals with suspected links to IS. Among the evidence collected, however, was one particularly disturbing item: surveillance footage of a senior Belgian nuclear official – who has not been named for security purposes – was seized by police in the home of Mohamed Bakkali, who is currently detained in Belgium on charges of terrorist activity.
The purpose of the footage is unclear, though authorities suspect the individuals involved planned to kidnap or blackmail the official in order to gain access to nuclear material stored at a facility near the Belgian town of Mol. This sparked concern that the terrorists intended to construct a “dirty bomb”, where conventional explosives are augmented with nuclear material to radioactively contaminate an area.
So what efforts are being taken to curb the risk of nuclear terror? On a local level, UK scientists have recently tested prototypes of a device to detect hidden nuclear material, which is expected to be deployed at ports and airports as part of the government’s Cyclamen nuclear monitoring system.
On an international level too, this problem is not being taken lightly. Indeed, US President Barack Obama described nuclear terror as “the single biggest threat to US security”. The work of the Nuclear Security Summits, first proposed by President Obama in Prague in 2009, has been extensive. Since 2010, weapons-grade nuclear material has been removed or secured from more than 50 facilities in 30 nations, with over a dozen countries now free of these radioactive materials altogether.
One such country is Ukraine, which is reassuring amid the unrest faced by the Eastern European nation. The overall quantity of material secured was sufficient to build 150 nuclear weapons, and radiation detectors have been installed at 300 border crossings, ports and airports. A comforting list, no doubt.
However, recent events in international relations have placed the work of the summits in jeopardy. Despite the attendance of leaders from nations ranging from the UK to Kazakhstan, Russia did not attend the Washington Summit in early April. Following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, agreements between the US Department of Energy (DOE) and the Russian state-owned nuclear company Rosatom were cancelled, and projects concerning nuclear non-proliferation to research cooperation between scientists from both nations were annulled. The Russian government retaliated, announcing it would no longer accept American aid to secure its weapons-grade fissile material. As the American journalist Josh Cohen put it, “Russian-American nuclear security cooperation is now dead”.
This is particularly concerning given the threats posed to Russian nuclear security by massive and endemic corruption. Recent journalistic investigations have revealed no fewer than four incidents of attempted smuggling of nuclear material – all linked to Russian organised crime. In one instance, a Russian gang attempted to sell weapons-grade material to I.S. Such material could be used to produce a dirty bomb. The restoration of bilateral nuclear security is dependent on extensive contact between American and Russian scientists, which in turn requires a de-escalation in tension between the two countries.
The issue is all the more pressing since a 2013 report by the US Department of Defence noted that “‘[the] issue of how to sustain nuclear security upgrades at Russian nuclear sites has not yet been resolved”. Clearly, any attempts to restore the deteriorating standards of Russian nuclear security, which would be crucial in preventing nuclear terror, require the separation of nuclear cooperation from geopolitical tension between the two nations.
Russia and the United States must cooperate to ensure nuclear security. The safety of the world may very well depend on it.
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