Nuclear Weapons and Terrorism: A Dangerous Mix

By Jean-Bernard Latortue
Contributing Writer
Setember 30th, 2016

When video footage of a Belgian nuclear official was discovered in the apartment of a terrorist behind the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015, it heightened the concerns of national security experts in the United States and abroad about nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorist groups. As strange as it may sound, though, catastrophe is opportunity. The United States and the other nuclear powers must seize this opportunity to work together to broaden their nuclear security policy to mitigate the growing threat of a nuclear-armed terrorist group. Stronger physical protection of nuclear facilities, tigher border controls around nuclear power states, and increased transparency among civilian and military nuclear programs will undeniably lower the risk of this threat.

Since an improvised nuclear bomb can be made from highly enriched uranium or plutonium, a terrorist group would not need to take over a nuclear-armed state to posses such a weapon. A thriving black market exists for just the materials a terrorist would need to create a bomb on his or her own. As of December 2015, the Internal Atomic Energy Agency Incident and Trafficking Database system has recorded a total of 2889 incidents involving thefts, losses, and attempts to illegally sell or traffic fissile materials across international borders. Therefore, a terrorist attack involving an improvised nuclear device is not inconceivable nor impossible, although it may be improbable.

Currently, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) does not inspect every nuclear facility globally, thus some countries may not be in accordance with the agency’s safeguards and nuclear security measures. Even more striking is that states sometimes fail to account for the totality of the nuclear material at their various facilities. For instance, in Pakistan, missing weapons-usable materials are rarely reported by the facility and subsequently turn up on the black market. Another shortcoming of the status quo is that some states with nuclear programs do not have the proper resources to require all employees undergo an extensive security clearance process before being hired. Without a thorough background check, employees at nuclear facilities could act as double agents, working for the facility while simutaneously passing information to terrorist groups.

Much of U.S.’ nuclear security and non-proliferation endeavors over the past half-century have been rightly focused on arms control treaties and agreements such as the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, which deters states from acquiring nuclear capabilities. However, nuclear security today requires a more proactive approach that must work towards or achieve:

Safer nuclear facilities. Collaborating with countries like Pakistan, where terrorists are more likely to train. Physically strengthening the security of research reactors and other affiliated facilities would reduce the likelihood of non-state actors reaching those facilities;
Tighter border controls. Reduce the smuggling of nuclear materials and make it extremely difficult for non-state actors to get the necessary components needed to build nuclear devices. This would entail border police and other law enforcement bodies playing a greater role in the prevention of trafficking of radioactive materials; and
Better understanding of the threat. Greater transparency among states would develop a common understanding of the threat and help establish broad political agreements on more effective ways to secure nuclear sites.

The aforementioned efforts require abundant resources and strong domestic political support. While these policy steps may not completely eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of radical groups, they would certainly demonstrate a commitment from the international community to confront threats from terrorist groups and signal a step in the right direction.

The United States has shown extraordinary and effective leadership in the past in its non-proliferation policy aiming to avoid the acquisition of nuclear weapons among state actors. The United States surely can rise to the occasion again to ensure global peace and security.

Jean-Bernard is a second-year graduate student in the International Affairs master’s program at the Elliott School of International Affairs. He received a B.A. in History and Political Science from St. Thomas University in Miami, Florida in 2013. Before enrolling in the MA program, he interned on Capitol Hill and worked for a lobby group in Washington, DC. Jean-Bernard can be reached at Jlatortue@gwmail.gwu.edu.

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