Many countries are neglecting their nuclear security—today's summit on the issue in Washington is vitalby Cristina Varriale / March 31, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more: How can we avoid nuclear catastrophe?
The terrorist attacks in Brussels last week, in which 32 people died, reminded states of the importance of tackling the threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism. Investigations into the bombings revealed that Islamic State, who claimed responsibility for the attacks, were actively monitoring workers at Belgian nuclear facilities. In response to this discovery, at two Belgian nuclear plants all non-essential staff were sent home within hours of the attacks, as a precautionary measure. Though IS didn’t manage to access nuclear material in the end, this indicates they may have been interested in acquiring material usable in a radiological weapon, or “dirty bomb.”
Dirty bombs use conventional explosives to spread radioactive material, but lack the nuclear chain reaction and radioactive fallout caused by the explosion of an actual nuclear weapon. Though most of a radiological weapon’s damage would come from its conventional explosives, it is their disproportionate psychological impact on the public that makes them attractive to non-state groups eager to cause mass panic. Such groups may feel that achieving the capability to build “unconventional” weapons will increase the threat others believe they pose, and the seriousness with which their aims are taken. The Islamic State-linked bombers in Belgium are not the first non-state actors to take interest in this particular type of weapon, nor are they likely to be the last.
Given the continued interest by terrorists in acquiring dirty bomb capabilities, it is essential that ntntries around the world recognise illicit procurement pathways and take action to secure radiological materials and the sites in which they are used.
Gaining access to the requisite material is the largest hurdle for a terrorist group seeking to develop a dirty bomb capability, and can be attempted in a number of ways. Firstly, a non-state actor might choose to buy material from the black market. In 2015, Moldovan authorities arrested a member of an organised crime syndicate who claimed to have access to Caesium-137, a radiological material ideal for a dirty bomb. They also revealed that they had recently stopped other smuggling attempts, including of weapons-grade uranium.
The second mode of acquiring radiological material is to co-opt those working within a relevant facility, and have the material illicitly removed from the site. Multiple facilities and institutions across the world maintain radiological sources, such as nuclear power plants, hospitals, universities and research centres.
The final, and perhaps least likely method, is direct theft. The physical security of the sites described above is paramount to ensuring that radiological material remains under regulatory control and cannot be acquired through breaking and entering.
Depending upon where the material was acquired and the location of the target, the next hurdle for a terrorist group would be to smuggle the radiological material across borders to the country in which the weapon is to be assembled and detonated. At some stage in the transport process, hand-carrying the material would likely be required. An understanding of how to handle radioactive sources may therefore also be necessary, underscoring the importance of preventing the spread of nuclear know-how as well as securing tangible facilities and goods.
That smuggling process could be more or less difficult, depending upon the pathway and the destination. Numerous countries, including the UK, use radiation detection monitors at ports and borders that will be able to pick up relevant signatures such as gamma rays. Such approaches could be adopted elsewhere to increase prospects for detecting controlled radioactive materials in transit.
Yet on a wider scale, combating the threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism will require persistent international cooperation on nuclear security. Illicit traffickers and interested terrorist groups will target the sites, the materials, and the knowledge under the weakest controls, and at present, the nuclear security landscape is highly uneven. Some states, such as Egypt, have been called out for their weak physical protection measures at sensitive facilities. These deficiencies could pose an even greater risk as Egypt embarks on its plans to build new nuclear sites. Others countries, including Algeria, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan, have been found to have inadequate mechanisms for preventing insider threats. Many countries also fail to maintain accurate inventories for sensitive materials.
It is for this very reason that the Nuclear Security Summit, which starts today in Washington DC, is so important. Gathering world leaders to discuss the issues outlined above can enhance cross-border cooperation, improve best-practice sharing, and raise the lowest common denominator of nuclear security. That baseline must steadily increase if the threat of non-state actor acquisition of nuclear and radiological materials is to be successfully mitigated.