Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Nuclear Threat: A Close Look

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) has just released the Securing the Bomb 2007 report on the threat of nuclear terrorism. The report focuses on the risk of detonation of a nuclear weapon, primarily by terrorists. It pays little comparatively attention to other nuclear risks such as "dirty bombs" or attacks/accidents at nuclear power facilities.

NTI makes clear, early on, that the risk is real. There are two main scenarios: Either a terrorist group steals or buys a nuclear weapon on the black-market (perhaps stolen from Russia or Pakistan), or a terrorist group acquires nuclear material (either highly enriched uranium [HEU] or plutonium) with the intent of making a nuclear weapon. For technical reasons, HEU would be the more likely choice, as HEU can be used in a simpler "gun" type device.

NTI makes clear that the risk is realistic, even if it's remote compared to other risks such as conventional explosives.

A terrorist's first problem would be acquiring the material. The good news is that they can't make it on their own - it's too technically difficult. But it may be possible to acquire it, especially through three potential avenues:

[I]t appears that the highest risks of nuclear theft today are in Russia, Pakistan, and at HEU-fueled research reactors.

Russia has the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons and materials, and remains the only state in the world where authorities have confirmed that terrorists have been carrying out reconnaissance at nuclear warhead storage sites.

[I]n February 2006, Russian citizen Oleg Khinsagov was arrested (along with three Georgian accomplices) with some 100 grams of HEU enriched to 89% U-235. The arrest was part of a sting operation in which a Georgian government agent posed as an Islamist buyer for a “serious organization.”
The risk of theft is real:
Today, security for the world’s vast and widely distributed nuclear stockpiles varies enormously, from excellent to appalling.

[A] substantial number of incidents of actual theft of weapons-usable nuclear material have occurred. ... The IAEA database on nuclear smuggling includes 15 incidents of real theft and smuggling of separated plutonium or HEU confirmed by the states involved.

In Russia, Chechen terrorists (some of whom have close links to al Qaeda) have carried out reconnaissance at nuclear weapon storage sites.
Locally, the greatest risk comes from research reactors:
More than 140 research reactors around the world are still fueled by HEU (though usually in forms that would require modest chemical processing before the material could be used in a bomb), and many of these facilities have modest security in place—no more than a night watchman and a chain-link fence in some cases.

A majority of research reactors are either in the United States or Russia.
Even at U.S. research reactors - especially at universities - security is relatively low:
Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) security rules for research reactors are remarkably weak. ... U.S. HEU-fueled research reactors regulated by the NRC continue to have only the most modest security measures in place.

[As of the end of 2007] there will be 19 remaining HEU-fueled research reactors in the United States, of which 8 are licensed by the NRC.

Most civilian research reactors have very modest security. Some are located on university campuses, where providing serious security against terrorist attack would be virtually impossible—and where many of the operators are students, who cycle through frequently, making it extraordinarily difficult to provide serious checks of potential insider thieves.

In mid-2005 an investigation by ABC News documented conditions ranging from sleeping guards to security doors propped open with books at nearly all of the 26 U.S. university-based research reactors, including those with HEU.

None of the U.S. NRC-regulated HEU-fueled research reactors should be considered adequately secured against plausible terrorist and criminal threats (though several have either very modest amounts of HEU on-site, or HEU that is quite radioactive).
Once weapons-capable nuclear material has been stolen, especially HEU, it's virtually impossible to detect and locate. Unlike many nuclear materials (such as the fuel for a nuclear power plant), HEU gives off relatively little radiation, making it possible to transport with only minimal shielding.
[O]nce nuclear material has been stolen, it could be anywhere, and all the subsequent layers of defense, unfortunately, are variations on looking for needles in haystacks.

Moreover, the radioactivity from these materials is weak and difficult to detect from any substantial distance. ... You still can’t detect a nuclear device unless you are close to it.

Radiation detectors ... would have essentially no chance of detecting “clean” HEU with even modest shielding.

Even the expensive new Advanced Spectroscopic Portals now being developed would not substantially improve the ability to detect shielded HEU.
As drug smugglers and illegal immigrants have amply shown, it is not hard to sneak into the United States:
The myriad routes across the world’s scantily protected borders make nuclear smuggling almost impossible to stop. ... Attempting to protect the United States from nuclear terrorism by detecting and stopping nuclear contraband at the U.S. borders is like a football team defending at its own goal line.
And although terrorists could not enrich uranium themselves, it is conceivable that they could develop and transport a crude weapon:
Terrorists would need about 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of HEU for the simplest gun-type bomb—an amount of material roughly the size of a six-pack.

Even before the Afghan war, U.S. intelligence concluded that “fabrication of at least a ‘crude’ nuclear device was within al-Qa’ida’s capabilities, if it could obtain fissile material.”

Even a fully assembled bomb of the crude type terrorists might make could fit in a truck, a fishing boat, a small plane, or the hold of a yacht.
So there is some level of realistic threat, despite the technical difficulties involved and the challenge of acquiring fissile material.

How to solve the problem? A lot of the potential solutions would be in the jurisdiction of agencies such as the Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission, along with the State Department and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for international efforts.

However, there is a local element to solving this problem. Police work is extremely important:

Almost all of the known interdictions have resulted from good police or intelligence work—from sting operations, or from people who became aware of the conspiracy deciding to inform the authorities. There are a wide range of steps that can and should be taken to strengthen international police and intelligence cooperation, to pursue additional demand stings (posing as buyers of nuclear material or expertise) and supply stings (posing as sellers), and to encourage the semi-feudal chieftains who control some of the world’s most dangerous borders to let us know about transports of nuclear material.
Some local police agencies have even provided security for local research reactors:

At the reactor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), since 9/11, there have been 1-2 Cambridge police officers with side-arms on-site to provide security—though these are not required by NRC rules. (Prior to the 9/11 attacks, the facility had no armed guards on-site, relying on response from off-site campus police of-ficers in the event of a problem.)
Other law enforcement activities, such as preventing recruiting and curtailing financial activities, may also be effective:
Terrorist efforts to recruit people with relevant expertise—such as nuclear physicists, metallurgists, or uranium machinists—may be one of the more detectable activities associated with a nuclear weapons effort. To increase awareness of this potential problem (and increase the chance that such recruitment attempts would be reported), police and intelligence agencies should seek to build relationships at locations that may pose particular opportunities for such recruiting efforts.

[I]t is worth making a major effort to change the conditions that make it easier for extreme Islamist terrorist groups to recruit and raise funds—to reduce the dangers of all forms of terrorism, not just nuclear terrorism.
Given the global nature of the threat, as well as the technical expertise required for dealing with nuclear materials, local officials may have relatively limited options to deal with the threat of nuclear terrorism; but that's not the same thing as having no options.

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