Nuclear terrorism: should the UK be concerned?

A secret trial in Georgia has recently confirmed fears that highly enriched uranium is available on the black market. When the UK government is making significant cuts to sensitive areas of national security, there is cause for concern
Matthew Cottee Matthew Moran
9 November 2010

A recent article published in a national newspaper revealed the key details of a successful sting operation carried out by Georgian counter-proliferation specialists. The incident, which took place in March of this year, saw two Armenians, a physicist and a businessman, smuggle 18 grams of highly enriched uranium (HEU) into Georgia by train. The smugglers believed that they were selling an advanced sample to a terrorist group when in reality the buyer was an undercover police officer.

In technical terms, 18 grams of almost weapons-grade HEU does not pose any large-scale threat; to construct a nuclear device, an amount of around 25 kilograms is required. The real cause for concern lies in the fact that the HEU was successfully transported across national borders. In the case of Georgia, this is the third time in seven years that HEU has been intercepted by the authorities. On a larger scale, however, the illicit trafficking database maintained by the International Atomic Energy Agency reveals that since the early 1990s, there have been 15 confirmed incidents involving unauthorized possession of HEU and Plutonium (Plutonium being the other fundamental material that could be used in a nuclear device, although it requires considerable technical expertise to weaponise). Some of these events involved attempts to sell these materials and their smuggling across national borders.

The news of the trial in Georgia has thrust the question of nuclear terrorism into the spotlight and there are three main issues at stake. First, there exists a certain amount of fissile nuclear material which is beyond government control. Second, this material can potentially be sold transnationally on the black market. Third, vendors are willing to sell to international terrorist organizations. So what are the larger implications for nuclear terrorism?

In April 2009, Barack Obama’s Prague speech proposed an international effort to lock down nuclear material in order to prevent the acquisition of a nuclear weapon by terrorists.  He surmised that although ‘the threat of global nuclear war has gone down [...] the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.’ Obama’s concerns culminated in the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington – the largest gathering of Heads of State hosted by a US President since 1945 – highlighting the seriousness of the issue.

However, concerns regarding accessible nuclear material have existed for some time. Legacy threats resulting from the Cold War led to the creation of the US Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR) in 1992, and the G-8 initiated Global Partnership (GP) in 2002. These programmes have thrown significant resources at mitigating the threat of nuclear material and relevant knowledge ending up in the wrong hands. CTR was aimed at preventing the theft or diversion of sensitive material following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent turmoil that followed, and has tried to safeguard the technical expertise associated with the Soviet nuclear weapons programmes. Similarly, the GP, which budgeted US$20 billion over 10 years, was designed to enhance the security of nuclear and radiological materials in the same region. The GP represents a very narrow set of achievements however, focused on destroying chemical weapon stockpiles and the dismantling of old nuclear submarines. Although a clear step in the right direction, the magnitude of the task has become clearly apparent. The Georgian episode has highlighted the limitations of these initiatives, and has provided an insight into just how big the problem could be.

Should the Georgian case give the UK cause for concern? The recent and comprehensive government review of national security found form in two key documents in October, The National Security Strategy and The Strategic Defence and Security Review. In her critique of these documents, Mary Kaldor highlights the move, outlined in the first document, away from ‘classic military threats’, acknowledging the benefits of the suggested defence framework which is more suited to the changing nature of the security threats facing nation-states in contemporary society. In this context, The National Security Strategy does allude to the threat of nuclear terrorism. However, as Kaldor points out, the ‘radical overhaul’ envisaged in this document is undermined by The Strategic Defence and Security Review, which constitutes a cost-cutting exercise in essence. At odds with the first document, this second review ‘fails to create a capability for the kind of intervention envisaged’ in The National Security Strategy. In terms of nuclear security this is significant, for while the threat posed by non-state actors is recognized, it appears that the national security review fails to go beyond acknowledging the threat posed by nuclear terrorism. There are a number of reasons for this, the overarching one being the gap between perception and reality.

In their work on nuclear terrorism, Matthew Bunn and Anthony Weir debunk what they term the ‘myths of nuclear terrorism’. Among these myths are the belief that it is possible to place a security cordon around a state, the belief that terrorists need to source nuclear weapons from a state, and the belief that terrorists are unable to construct a nuclear device. The incident in Georgia has proven that at least two of the above statements are indeed myths; states are not impenetrable and fissile material can be bought on the black market. The problem is, proof of the third myth would be potentially devastating. For while the threat of nuclear terrorism is easily exaggerated, an enormous amount of damage could be done with a relatively small quantity of HEU in the wrong hands.

Nuclear terrorism also presents challenges in the realm of policy-making. Defence strategy relating to the threat of nuclear terrorism rests firmly on prevention, given the inevitable scale of a successful nuclear attack. However, the notion of prevention proves problematic in terms of results. The events of 9/11 proved that the threat of a terrorist attack on US soil was well-founded. Yet, the problem lies in the fact that the absence of an attack does not, in theory, prove that prevention has been successful. Nor, for that matter, does it prove the absence of a threat. Ultimately, this makes qualifying the value of prevention problematic. And in times of economic hardship and austerity measures, value for money is measured closely.

There is an important balance to maintain between alarmist rhetoric and completely rejecting the threat of nuclear terrorism altogether. The sheer quantity of material, its relative ease of access, and the limited amounts necessary to inflict physical, as well as psychological, damage on a population make the threat although slight, very real. The Georgian case highlights the fact that those wanting fissile material can obtain it on the black market. Of course the sting operation was successful and the quantities of material involved were small. But it enhances the case put forward by Obama and others, that the threat of nuclear terrorism should be a priority. The recent security assessments in the UK gave little mention to such threats.       

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