Lowering the Risk of Nuclear Terrorism


The recently-concluded Nuclear Security Summit at Seoul (March 27-28, 2012) highlights the growing concern among the members of the international community, in particular those with nuclear facilities, about the possibility of nuclear materials and weapons being used by the terrorists. Given the fact that in the past terrorists have attempted to obtain sensitive nuclear weapons-usable materials and technology, it is only appropriate that the world community remains committed and united to ensure the safety of nuclear facilities around the world.

At present there are some international conventions that govern the operation of nuclear materials and technology, however, the existing provisions are not sufficient to curb the possible stealing of nuclear materials and associated technology by the non-state actors. While endeavors for formulating more effective and practical measures to prevent the rogue states from becoming safe heaven for the potential terrorists have continued at regional and international levels, none can rest assured that determined and hard core terrorists will not maneuver to have access to nuclear facilities whenever  they can.

It is in this light that one should consider the United States’ role in persuading the possessors of nuclear weapons-usable materials i.e. highly-enriched uranium (HEU) especially the breakaway Soviet republics particularly Ukraine and Belarus to part with such sensitive materials in exchange for international aid. In this regard the contributions made by two American lawmakers like Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn with enviable expertise on nuclear disarmament are worth-admiration. Their persistent efforts to make sure that sensitive nuclear materials do not remain unsecure have borne fruit as evidenced by the transfer of significant quantity of unused HEU to safe destinations.

Safe storage of nuclear materials deny the opportunity the terrorists seem bent on seizing upon for accessing them to make dirty bombs, which when used can cause catastrophic damage to human society. In a thoughtful commentary “The Threat of Nuclear Terrorism: What is New? What is True? Matthew Bunn of Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University warns that the use of dirty bombs in densely-populated cities like New York, London, Paris, or Tokyo can be more devastating than what the world witnessed in August, 1945 when two atomic bombs were dropped in Japan. The decision of former U.S. president then to drop nuclear bombs in Japan has paradoxically convinced incumbent American president Barack Obama to pledge the total elimination of nuclear weapons from the world.

While this commitment to rid the world of nuclear weapons looks as a utopian idea for some skeptics, his current initiative to make the nuclear materials safe deserves appreciation. This may not directly contribute to his historic Prague declaration (April, 2009) that he endeavors to see a world with no nuclear weapons but restricting the possible access to sensitive nuclear materials by the terrorists will help to make humanity safer. Seen from this lens Obama’s initial enthusiasm in organizing the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC (April 12-13, 2010) needs to be applauded. The second such event that took place last week in South Korea is a continuation of this noble enterprise.

The most significant achievement of Seoul Summit has been that all 50 or so world leaders whose countries operate nuclear facilities have re-emphasized the threat of nuclear terrorism. Furthermore, they have stressed that it is the responsibility of states “to maintain effective security of all nuclear material, which includes nuclear materials used in nuclear weapons, and nuclear facilities under their control”.

Micah Zenko of Council of Foreign Relations writes in his essay “Nuclear Summit Progress and Pitfalls” that lasting and effective nuclear security is not a one-time pledge, but rather an ongoing process that will only end with the elimination of weapons-usable materials. There is hardly any reason to dispute this.

The seriousness of the problem linked to nuclear terrorism is to be understood from some references of president Obama’s Nuclear Security Strategy (NSS) which claims that “American people face no greater or more urgent danger than a terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon.” Observers believe that since the end of the Cold War, (Dismantling of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989) the risk of a nuclear attack has increased.

In this vein news coming from North Korea that it is set to launch a satellite on a long-range missile to mark the centenary of its founding leader Kim Il-sung in mid-April has given a wrong signal at a time when the internationally-isolated country had agreed in February to suspend its nuclear activities in exchange for food aid from the Obama administration. North Korea’s neighbors have reasonably been alarmed and their suspicion about the country’s untested leader’s true intentions of inviting inspectors from International Atomic Energy Agency for monitoring uranium enrichment activities has been reinforced. The Japanese Prime Minister Noida has asked the North Korean leadership not to go ahead with its decision to launch the space vehicle.

The reaction to North Korean behavior from president Obama has been no less strong as he has said while attending Seoul Nuclear Security Summit that launching of satellite would be a breach of international obligations on North Korea’s part and prompt the U.S. to rescind an agreement to supply the destitute country with food aid. Happily, he reiterated his commitment to the lofty goals he set in Prague for a nuclear weapon-free world. His acceptance of unique responsibility to act in safeguarding the nuclear materials established by his persuasion of other hosts of nuclear facilities to commit to nuclear security summit declarations has lent credence to his disarmament pledges.

Nuclear terrorism remains a real danger and that is why the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said appropriately (13 June, 2007) that “Nuclear terrorism is one of the most serious threats of our time. Even one such attack could inflict mass casualties and create immense suffering and unwanted change in the world forever. This prospect should compel all of us to act to prevent such a catastrophe.”

One cannot agree more with Richard Lugar whose doctrine says “War on terrorism will not be won until every nuclear bomb and catch of bomb material everywhere in the world is secure and accounted for to stringent and demonstrable standards.”

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