Nuclear Black Market: Alive and Well

In a previous post, I detailed the important role that the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, spearheaded by former Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, has played in securing loose nuclear material in the former Soviet Union.

Despite Russia’s refusal to extend the program past 2013, there is still a large amount of material that needs to be protected from theft and ultimately, use. In his first foreign policy speech since his reelection at the National Defense University on December 3, President Obama praised this work and emphasized the need for it to continue. In his words, “there are still terrorists and criminal gangs doing everything they can to get their hands on [WMD materials].”

He was absolutely correct. On December 10, Desmond Butler released a chilling account of two Turkish men arrested for attempting to buy highly radioactive materials in Batumi, Georgia. From what the Georgian authorities could ascertain, there is a black market for nuclear materials being run out of Abkhazia, an unrecognized state of the former Soviet Union. Although it is clear the material is originating from one place, Georgian anti-smuggling chief Archil Pavlenishvili has no idea where exactly that place is.

Though the details are somewhat murky, the Georgian government has successfully apprehended nuclear smugglers in possession of a range of radiological materials, including, in some cases, highly-enriched uranium, one two possible ingredients for a nuclear bomb. However without US-led programs and investment in material security and protection as well as anti-smuggling, criminals would have an easier time successfully stealing, transporting, and selling dangerous material. Potential buyers could include rogue states pursuing a clandestine nuclear program. Even more concerning are terrorist groups seeking nuclear material either for a dirty bomb or for an actual nuclear weapon.

The US has led a global effort to ensure nuclear material remains secure, epitomized by the 2010 and 2012 Nuclear Security Summits, which encouraged states to take meaningful steps to protect their own nuclear materials. At the 2012 Summit, nineteen nations signed a Statement to Counter Nuclear Smuggling. The United States in particular has led the Megaports Initiative under the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) as well as Homeland Security’s Container Security Initiative to strengthen anti-smuggling efforts worldwide. Departing from the model of the Nunn-Lugar program which minimizes opportunity for smugglers to obtain nuclear and radiological materials, these programs work to detect and prevent those materials from crossing national borders.  

The Megaports Intiative specifically works to transfer responsibility of anti-smuggling efforts to the host country after three years. However, due to lack of funding, the NNSA has completed less than half of its planned projects. While there is ample room for cuts in the defense budget, it is important to remember how essential anti-smuggling programs are.

Relative to other defense expenditures, the return on investment of these programs is enormous. The consequences of not investing in them are catastrophic. Nuclear terrorism, as Obama noted on December 3, remains one of the major threats to American national security. If we do not continue to assist other countries in creating counter nuclear smuggling frameworks, we risk endangering the security of both the United States and the world.