Nuclear Terrorism: A Clear Danger

Terrorists exploit gaps in security. The current global regime for protecting the nuclear materials that terrorists desire for their ultimate weapon is far from seamless. It is based largely on unaccountable, voluntary arrangements that are inconsistent across borders. Its weak links make it dangerous and inadequate to prevent nuclear terrorism.

Later this month in Seoul, the more than 50 world leaders who will gather for the second Nuclear Security Summit need to seize the opportunity to start developing an accountable regime to prevent nuclear terrorism.

There is a consensus among international leaders that the threat of nuclear terrorism is real, not a Hollywood confection. President Obama, the leaders of 46 other nations, the heads of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations, and numerous experts have called nuclear terrorism one of the most serious threats to global security and stability. It is also preventable with more aggressive action.

At least four terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, have demonstrated interest in using a nuclear device. These groups operate in or near states with histories of questionable nuclear security practices. Terrorists do not need to steal a nuclear weapon. It is quite possible to make an improvised nuclear device from highly enriched uranium or plutonium being used for civilian purposes. And there is a black market in such material. There have been 18 confirmed thefts or loss of weapons-usable nuclear material. In 2011, the Moldovan police broke up part of a smuggling ring attempting to sell highly enriched uranium; one member is thought to remain at large with a kilogram of this material.

A terrorist nuclear explosion could kill hundreds of thousands, create billions of dollars in damages and undermine the global economy. Former Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations said that an act of nuclear terrorism “would thrust tens of millions of people into dire poverty” and create “a second death toll throughout the developing world.”

Surely after such an event, global leaders would produce a strong global system to ensure nuclear security. There is no reason to wait for a catastrophe to build such a system.

The conventional wisdom is that domestic regulations, U.N. Security Council resolutions, G-8 initiatives, I.A.E.A. activities and other voluntary efforts will prevent nuclear terrorism. But existing global arrangements for nuclear security lack uniformity and coherence.

There are no globally agreed standards for effectively securing nuclear material. There is no obligation to follow the voluntary standards that do exist and no institution, not even the I.A.E.A., with a mandate to evaluate nuclear security performance.

This patchwork approach provides the appearance of dealing with nuclear security; the reality is there are gaps through which a determined terrorist group could drive one or more nuclear devices.

Obama’s initiative in launching the nuclear security summit process in Washington in 2010 helped focus high-level attention on nuclear security issues. Unfortunately, the actions produced by the 2010 Washington Summit and that are planned for the upcoming Seoul Summit are voluntary actions that are useful, but not sufficient to create an effective global nuclear security regime.

The world cannot afford to wait for the patchwork of nuclear security arrangements to fail before they are strengthened. Instead, we need a system based on a global framework convention on nuclear security that would fill the gaps in existing voluntary arrangements. This framework convention would commit states to an effective standard of nuclear security practices, incorporate relevant existing international agreements, and give the I.A.E.A. the mandate to support nuclear security by evaluating whether states are meeting their nuclear security obligations and providing assistance to those states that need help in doing so.

Nuclear terrorism is a real and present danger for all states, not just a few. Preventing it is an achievable goal. The current focus on nuclear security through voluntary actions, however, is not commensurate with either the risk or consequences of nuclear terrorism. This must be rectified. If the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit makes this a priority, there can be an effective global nuclear security regime in place before this decade ends.

By Kenneth C. Brill, a former U.S. ambassador to the I.A.E.A. and Kenneth N. Luongo, president of the Partnership for Global Security. Both are members of the Fissile Material Working Group, a nonpartisan nongovernmental organization.

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