Next week, representatives from more than 100 countries will descend upon Vienna, Austria for an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conference on nuclear security. High on the conference’s agenda will be the issue of nuclear terrorism. However, in the run-up to the conference, expectations are already being tempered — a draft ministerial statement obtained by Reuters suggests that the conference will put forth no concrete steps towards establishing an international framework for combating nuclear terrorism, and will opt instead for a more state-based approach.
But let’s back up for a moment. Though the threat of nuclear terrorism is widely acknowledged by the international community as a serious one, commentators in some circles have expressed skepticism, dismissing it as unrealistic, exaggerated, and “magnified dramatically.” So, perhaps we should briefly un-pack this issue: how serious is the threat of nuclear terrorism?
The short answer: very.
In order to successfully carry out an act of nuclear terror, a terrorist group would need three things: (1) a sufficient amount of fissile material; (2) a working nuclear device; and (3) a viable plan to deliver that device to its target.
The third requirement could be satisfied with relative ease. Not to give aspiring nuclear terrorists any ideas, but America’s borders present ample opportunities for potential smuggling. By sea, maritime cargo has been described as “[offering] terrorists a Trojan horse for a devastating attack on the United States.” America’s land borders are no less porous — Graham Allison has wryly noted that nuclear terrorists seeking a land-based delivery route would be well-advised to encase their device in a lead container and smuggle it across the border “in a bale of marijuana.”
What of the other two requirements? Given the technical challenges inherent in producing weapons-grade uranium or plutonium, it would be virtually impossible for a terrorist group to synthesize its own fissile material (the challenges inherent in this process are expertly documented in a 2006 piece by Matthew Bunn and Anthony Wier). The impracticality of creating its own fissile material would likely force a terrorist cell to attempt to procure these substances from a state actor.
I wrote about the threat of state-to-terrorist nuclear transfer at-length in a report for GlobalSolutions.org earlier this year. In a nutshell: for a terrorist group, obtaining fissile material in this manner would be very difficult, but not impossible. To highlight a few potential scenarios: a terrorist group could steal fissile material from a inadequately-secured facility (it’s happened before); it could be on the receiving end of a nuclear transfer from a sympathetic nuclear insider (they exist); or it could purchase the requisite material from a complicit government (perhaps North Korea, which has been described as willing to “sell just about anything to anyone”).
Once a terrorist group acquired the requisite fissile material, actually constructing a nuclear device would pose challenges that are substantial, but far from insurmountable. For instance, in a 2006 report for the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, Charles Ferguson and William Potter wrote that “construction of a gun-type device [such as the type dropped on Hiroshima] would pose few technological barriers to technically competent terrorists.” The Union of Concerned Scientists and the Congressional Research Service have reached similar conclusions.
This brings us back to next week’s IAEA conference. If the aforementioned Reuters article is to be believed, the conference will stress the need for countries to take domestic-level actions to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism, rather than pushing for any kind of broader international framework.
Such a framework is sorely needed. Attempts have previously been made to establish global standards with regards to combating nuclear terrorism, but these efforts have typically been more ad hoc in nature, with no unifying framework to connect them. Even then, these relatively-modest efforts have been stymied by a lack of international support. Take, for example, the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) and the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT). These two treaties, both opened for signature in 2005, provide elements of the kind of framework that many seemed to be hoping would come out of next week’s conference – among other things, they require member states to establish sufficient security standards at domestic nuclear facilities and provide a framework for international cooperation in preventing the spread of nuclear material. And yet, these two conventions remain trapped in diplomatic limbo: the 2005 CPPNM amendment requires 99 ratifications in order to enter into force, but currently has only 68, while ICSANT has entered into force, but has only been ratified by 24 states (the US has yet to ratify either convention).
Nuclear terrorism is frequently described, quite appropriately, as a “low probability, high consequence” act. Obviously, any group of aspiring nuclear terrorists would face significant challenges in realizing their horrific ambitions – however, the prospect of them achieving success does not lie outside the realm of possibility. Clearly, the threat of nuclear terrorism is one that must be taken seriously by the international community. If preliminary reports are to be believed, next week’s conference is unlikely to yield any substantive progress on the issue, making agreements like CPPNM and ICSANT all the more important.