18 February 2006

Apocalypse Soon?

By Andrew Boswell

Fellow columnist Rupert Read recently raised concerns about a 9/11 type attack on a nuclear power station. However, what about the scenario of a terrorist with a nuclear device in a suitcase entering a Western city to detonate it or hold a government to ransom?

Surprisingly the necessary nuclear material is travelling easily around the world. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed 650 cases of illegal trafficking of nuclear materials worldwide between 1993 and 2004. There is simply already a lot of such material out there.

In his book Nuclear Terrorism, Harvard international relations specialist Graham Allison reports a consensus in the US security community that a 'dirty bomb' attack is "inevitable" and an attack with a nuclear weapon highly likely, if loose nuclear material is not retrieved and secured soon.

As little as four kilograms of plutonium - about the size of an orange - can potentially be enough for a nuclear bomb. Although the Kananaskis G8 summit (2002) pledged up to $20bn to tackle threats posed by nuclear, chemical and biological weapons from the former Soviet Union, such programmes are only addressing the tip of the iceberg.

Beyond weapons, legacy nuclear energy programmes have endowed a huge risk. "The greatest opportunity for would-be nuclear terrorists or countries seeking a quick bomb or two are poorly secured sites that contain significant quantities of highly enriched uranium (HEU)", states a paper in this January’s issue of Arms Control Today. Unlike plutonium, HEU can be worked without special protections and can be made into a relatively simple bomb.

Authors, Glaser and Hippel, report 258 nuclear reactors worldwide, many in Russia and not under proper guard, that have not been properly decommissioned and contain enough HEU for 1,000 bombs. "Many … are in urban locations with only modest security, presenting potential targets to would-be nuclear terrorists. … At several sites, there is enough HEU to make more than 10 gun-type weapons."

A recent study into nuclear smuggling by Louise Shelley, director of the Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at American University, made some alarming discoveries. "Complex networks of diverse, cooperating groups appear to be smuggling HEU and other materials regularly out of Russia and into Western Europe". These pass along via a cooperative network that makes it difficult to discern an overall organisation, typically transported "thousands of miles" before detection. "There is little understanding of the actors involved or the target destinations" Shelley has said. "There is a market for small amounts of these materials, and different groups are seeking them." The destinations and quantities involved suggest the recipients are Western-based terrorists rather than "rogue states".

If developed, new nuclear energy programmes pose even greater risks. In giving evidence to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee on 9th November last year, Dr Frank Barnaby, indicated that future nuclear programmes, such as that currently being considered by the Blair government, would use mixed-oxide (MOX) nuclear fuel, a mixture of uranium and plutonium dioxides from which plutonium may be more easily separated. Speaking of terrorist groups getting hold of plutonium and fabricating a nuclear weapon, Barnaby said "if we move into the plutonium economy, over time the probability of that happening does become a near certainty".

Although the outlook might appear grim, some commentators, like John Steinbruner, director of the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, sees potential for a radical improvement in international affairs if "the threat of catastrophic terrorism is taken seriously". He suggests that if "meaningful protection" is accepted as a priority then "security relationships would necessarily elevate interest in protective collaboration over the legacy of confrontation."

That is, a move from the current Bush policy of expanding the US military's offensive missile capability, developing a next generation of 'usable' mini-nukes and the weaponisation of space, to disarmament and cooperation with the other major independent global powers, Russia and China.

Former Kennedy defence secretary Robert McNamara echoes these sentiments and calls the risk of doing otherwise Apocalypse Soon.

Giving up the gargantuan struggle for military supremacy would be immensely beneficial and allow for a huge diversion of resources to humanitarian causes. Steinbruner concedes, this would be "revolutionary in character" but questions whether major governments, the US in particular, are "capable of making such adjustments". He concludes however that "they are being subjected to potentially compelling incentives to do so" as the widely held view is that the alternative could well be "ultimate doom".

In the UK, these issues are hugely pertinent to the Blair government's desire for both new nuclear energy plants and new post-Trident nuclear weapons. Why does no one in parliament seriously raise the spectre of nuclear terrorism?

I am grateful to Liam Carroll for collaborating in writing and researching this column.