Features | Security

The Nuclear Security Regime and Nuclear Terror

A comprehensive, sustained approach is needed to stop nuclear terrorism.

By Saira Bano and Srini Sitaraman for
The Nuclear Security Regime and Nuclear Terror
Credit: The White House

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the threat of use of nuclear material by terrorist groups became a major concern. Multilateral efforts were intensified to prevent nuclear terrorism by ensuring a robust nuclear security regime, both at domestic and international levels. U.S. President Barack Obama accelerated these efforts by declaring nuclear terrorism “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security” in his oft-quoted speech at Prague. The four Nuclear Security Summits (NSS) – Washington 2010, Seoul 2012, The Hague 2014, and Washington 2016 – have made important progress in building the momentum to secure vulnerable nuclear materials so terror groups can’t acquire them. Since the summits began in 2010, fourteen countries have completely eliminated civilian stockpiles of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium. It is estimated that thanks to the initiatives of the Obama Administration, roughly 3000 kilograms of HEU – more than enough to make 150 bombs – have been removed from circulation.

The nuclear security architecture has meanwhile been enhanced by creating fifteen training centers and by deploying radiation detectors at 300 borders, airports and ports. At the conclusion of the 2016 Washington summit, five international organizations: United Nations Security Council, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction (GP), and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) are expected to follow the steps outlined in the nuclear security summits.

Although all these efforts seem significant and necessary to promote nuclear security, a recent report issued by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) put the global stocks of civilian HEU are as high as 137 tons, with military stockpiles estimated to be close to 1,377 tons. Combined, there is enough HEU to build as many as 5,000 bombs.

The current international security regime is a collection of international treaties, organizations, and initiatives that are not legally binding; they mostly rely on voluntary engagements. The Nuclear Terrorism Convention, the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM), and the amendment to make it legally binding, and UN Security Council Resolutions 1373, 1887, and 1540 are all useful legal tools, but most of these treaties and resolutions focus on taking actions after a terrorist nuclear attack and do not specifically urge states to take proactive preventive steps.

The IAEA is playing a central role in the nuclear security regime, providing a set of services and recommendations to help member states improve the security of their nuclear material – but again its lack of binding commitment makes implementation challenging.

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There is a third element in the nuclear security regime, namely the different volunteer initiatives undertaken by different group of states, like the GP, the GICNT, and the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).

This piecemeal and volunteer approach to nuclear security is inadequate to meet the challenge of nuclear terrorism. There is an absence of a strong legal regime to secure nuclear and radioactive material, no review process to assess how states are meeting their obligations, and no centralized efforts to improve the security regime overall.

There are two possible approaches to addressing this problem: First, establish a Nuclear Security Convention with a centralized, legally-binding and comprehensive international agreement in which all relevant documents can be integrated. Second, build on the current patchwork of international agreements, institutions, and initiatives, and make them more effective while enhancing the review process to monitor the progress.

The UN treaties and Security Council Resolutions are already binding; what is needed is to develop sustained momentum to make their obligations specific and time-bound for member states. The IAEA recommendations and standards for nuclear security, like IAEA safeguards mandated by Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), should be enhanced and subject to a rigorous review process. Other volunteer initiatives by like-minded states need strong leadership to sustain their progress. U.S. leadership is indispensible on this issue. Obama brought nuclear terrorism to the top of the global security agenda; continued progress on this issue will now very much depend on the commitment of the next U.S. president. However, Russia’s boycott of the Washington Nuclear Summit and its overall recalcitrant attitude has set back progress in improving nuclear security.

The threat of nuclear terrorism is rapidly increasing. Highly worrisome reports emerged in the wake of terror attacks in Brussels that ISIL operatives were monitoring a Belgian nuclear official and that security at Belgium’s nuclear plants was notoriously poor. In August 2014, someone apparently drained 65,000 liters of lubricant from a turbine that produces electricity in Belgium’s Doel 4 nuclear power plant. It has also come to light that two workers from the very plant joined ISIS in Syria in 2012. Analyses of nuclear terrorism generally focus on the scenarios of terrorist stealing HEU and plutonium (weapons-grade material) or making a dirty bomb, but overlook the danger of attacks on nuclear plants.

It is important to eliminate the civilian use of HEU by converting it to low enriched uranium (LEU). The U.S. took the lead on this, and Russia’s subsequent decision to convert HEU to LEU in commercial reactors was driven by the U.S. precedent. Another approach is to encourage states to start their civilian nuclear programs with LEU in first place. For example, China started its nuclear-propelled submarine program by using LEU, despite its ability to use HEU. When the U.S. declared that it would no longer supply HEU for civilian nuclear programs, many states agreed to convert to LEU. But the nuclear security regime focuses only on civilian fissile stockpiles, which are a small fraction of what is being used in military sector. Eighty-three percent of fissile materials are held by military agencies that are beyond the control of the current nuclear security regime.

The proposed Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) aims to prohibit the further production of fissile material (HEU and plutonium) for military use. Pakistan has repeatedly blocked implementation of the proposed agreed program of work because Islamabad is concerned that an FMCT would be disadvantageous to its national security. Hence, Pakistan has demanded that the FMCT include existing fissile material stockpiles, instead of just capping future production.

India, Pakistan, Britain and North Korea are increasing their fissile material for military uses, even as the rest of the nuclear weapon states are either decreasing or have stopped production. On the civilian side, India, Japan and Russia are planning to build new energy programs based on HEU and plutonium. If an FMCT is being negotiated to ban further production for nuclear weapons, its agenda could be broadened to include a ban on the further production of fissile material for civilian uses as well.

Nuclear weapons modernization is another concern that complicates the security regime. The Obama Administration is investing in making vulnerable nuclear material secure, yet is also planning to spend $1 trillion to upgrade its existing nuclear weapons and build new ones over the next thirty years. This is prompting Russia to modernize its nuclear force and it could lead China, India and Pakistan to increase their nuclear arsenals. More weapons production mean more opportunities for terrorist elements to steal nuclear material or sabotage nuclear facilities. A comprehensive and sustained approach towards nuclear security is essential if the threat of nuclear terrorism is to be contained.

Saira Bano (@MaidaSoha) is Commissioning Editor at E-International Relations (E-IR). Srini Sitaraman is Associate Professor at Department of Political Science in Clark University, USA.