Preventing Nuclear Terrorism – The Quest for Realistic Policy Tools?


By Richard Weitz

“Global Nuclear Security and Preventing Nuclear Terrorism” was the subject of an April 6 expert panel at the National Press Club. The speakers noted some progress in this area but considered the recent Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul inadequately ambitious to meet this problem.

Yet, the solution they most favored enactment of a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT)—seems unlikely to occur anytime soon.

Robert Gallucci, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and former chief U.S. negotiator during the North Korean nuclear crisis of 1994, warned that the risk of an act of terrorism using an improvised nuclear device was growing.

He noted that the main obstacle facing the terrorists was obtaining the nuclear material–actually designing or delivering a nuclear explosive device to a target was much easier.

Gallucci described two ways in which terrorists could most likely obtain dangerous nuclear materials — a state could transfer it to them or they could steal it, presumably with the help of insiders or criminals. He noted that elements in Iran and North Korea could plausibly transfer nuclear material to terrorists, while nuclear leakage through theft remains a problem with Russia and Pakistan.

Gallucci’s solution was to end the production of the two fissile materials now commonly used for nuclear weapons — highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium extracted from spent nuclear reactor fuel.

President Barack Obama re-launched international interest in a FMCT when he listed such a treaty among his administration’s core disarmament objectives in his April 2009 Prague speech. President Obama at Prague April 2009. Credit Image: Bigstock

Alexander Glaser, assistant professor, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, endorsed this goal, but warned that the Nuclear Security Summits focus only on one percent of fissile material that is in civilian stocks. Most of the fissile material is linked with existing nuclear weapons programs, especially those in Russia and the United States.

Individual countries normally do not publicize the size of their nuclear material holdings, but the world’s estimated stockpile of fissile material is sufficiently large to make approximately 100,000 nuclear bombs.

According to the International Panel on Fissile Materials’ estimates, there more than 2,000 tons of weapon-usable material — about 1,600 tons of HEU and almost 500 tons of separated plutonium in global civilian and military stocks. Most of these fissile materials are held by the United States and Russia, but other fissile materials are scattered at hundreds of sites in more than 30 countries. Manufacturing a simple but inefficient Hiroshima-type atomic bomb requires some 50-60 kg of HEU and less than half that amount to power a sophisticated Nagasaki-type implosion bomb.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the most important multinational institution for nuclear security, has confirmed almost two dozen incidents of theft or loss of fissile material. However, it is unclear how many cases have gone unreported or how much stolen HEU or plutonium is available on black markets.

The P-5 (Britain, China, and France as well as Russia and the United States) are no longer producing fissile material for weapons, but Glaser felt they should make a joint declaration committing themselves to continuing that cut-off pending enactment of FMCT.

President Barack Obama re-launched international interest in a FMCT when he listed such a treaty among his administration’s core disarmament objectives in his April 2009 Prague speech.

The treaty’s proponents describe it as contributing to nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament as well as other worthy goals. Most national governments and many international nonproliferation meetings have generally endorsed negotiating a FMCT.

Yet, despite some progress since adopting the requisite mandate to discuss a FMCT in 1995, the years spent negotiating a draft treaty in the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) have failed to yield the desired agreement.

Several obstacles look likely to continue to impede major progress.

FMCT proponents generally claim that such a treaty would strengthen the non-proliferation regime, reduce nuclear terrorism risks, and promote nuclear disarmament.

Depending on its specific provisions, a FMCT could:

  • limit the global volume of fissile material and therefore the number of nuclear warheads
  • improve the security of fissile materials by limiting their volume and expanding international monitoring of nuclear activities
  • reduce the volume of dangerous nuclear items potentially available to terrorists, which would allow other threat reduction measures to concentrate resources on enhancing the security of the remaining material
  • formalize and make universal the unilaterally declared fissile material production moratoria made by individual countries
  • complement and support related nuclear arms control measures such as by hindering states’ capacity to exceed nuclear warhead limits
  • promote transparency and build confidence among current and potential nuclear weapons states

Perhaps the most enticing contribution of a FMCT would be to help integrate some countries better into the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.

Specifically, a FMCT could provide a means to limit the nuclear warheads and nuclear activities of those few, but strategically significant, countries that are not parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) such as India, Israel, and Pakistan. A FMCT might also reinforce prohibitions on Iran and other countries that are developing the capacity to enrich uranium on an industrial scale not to misuse that capacity to make nuclear weapons.

The efforts of the new Obama administration to re-launch FMCT negotiations, manifested by Prague disarmament speech the previous month, contributed to the CD’s finally agreeing in May 2009 to an annual work program that included negotiations on a FMCT. Nonetheless, the CD failed to move beyond discussing a FMCT to actually negotiating one in 2009. The conference lapsed once more into deadlock in 2010 and 2011.

The informal discussions and working papers to date have already revealed several contentious issues that would likely arise should there ever be any formal FMCT negotiations. For example, one difficulty arises from the structure and process of the 65-state CD, which is not conducive to producing disarmament treaties since it operates by consensus. Any state can block progress by objecting to some proposed treaty language.

Countries can also effectively hold the negotiations hostage by demanding that the parties address additional issues, such as space arms control or nuclear disarmament. Some states have suggested forgoing the CD’s consensus requirement to allow for more progress on the CD agenda. But many countries resist having their veto powers circumvented on such an important issue.

The most contentious issue is whether the treaty’s provisions should apply to banning the production of only new fissile material or whether existing stocks would also have to be destroyed. Those countries possessing large quantities of fissile material have objected to the latter variant, but many other governments want the broader coverage.

Advocates see reducing existing stocks as contributing to nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. Trying to decrease existing fissile material stockpiles would make any negotiations more difficult, but exempting them would freeze current imbalances. Furthermore, it would privilege those five countries already recognized by the NPT as legal nuclear weapons states as well as those states that have most aggressively flouted nonproliferation norms by acquiring nuclear weapons.

Rather than freezing fissile material levels at present levels, a FMCT could permit states already manufacturing fissile material to keep producing them up to certain levels to produce more equable regional security balances or provide a reserve stockpile for making nuclear fuel for submarines. But most disarmament advocates would see that approach as running counter to the fundamental purpose of the FMCT, which is to decrease or at least cap the world’s nuclear weapons stockpiles.

Debates persist regarding what types of “fissile materials” should be covered under any FMCT. A broad definition would dramatically increase the costs of verifying a FMCT as well as possibly forcing changes in how the civilian nuclear industry deals with these items. The second Bush administration concluded that a FMCT could never be effectively verifiable and that attempting to do so would prove prohibitively costly. The Obama Administration reversed this policy, endorsing a CD negotiating mandate for a FMCT that would be an effectively verifiable treaty. But the number of items covered could increase enormously if one employs a very comprehensive interpretation of “production” and “production facility.” The parties need to decide how much confidence they want to have that no state subject to a FMCT is covertly producing fissile material—bearing in mind that higher confidence levels require more extensive (and expensive) verification procedures.

Some treaty drafts permit the continued production of fissile material for civilian and even military purposes provided that they do not relate to explosive purposes (such as for naval propulsion). Technology has permitted the use of low enriched uranium (LEU) in place of HEU for many nuclear research reactors and medical production purposes. France now uses LEU to propel its submarines, but the U.S. Navy still prefers using HEU fuel. Still, several states strongly object to this exemption.

The importance of achieving universal adherence to the treaty is also a matter of dispute. One of the main arguments in favor of a FMCT is that it would extend the nuclear nonproliferation regime to encompass states that are not party to the NPT. Although having every country join would be ideal, even an accord that included only a few NPT members–such as India and Pakistan, or Iran and Israel–could yield a net benefit to international security.

A FMCT limited to the five NPT-recognized nuclear weapons states plus several non-NPT states having nuclear weapons would relieve the ongoing negotiations from seeking consensus among 65 parties and would also reduce verification costs and activities.

However, this approach has been criticized as distorting the fundamental nature of the Treaty as “nondiscriminatory and universal” because it would treat states that possess nuclear weapons differently than those that do not and would also legitimize the nuclear weapons status of non-NPT members.

The relationship between a FMCT and other arms control issues also complicates the conference’s negotiations.

The CD has in recent years has focused on achieving four goals—a verifiable FMCT, general nuclear disarmament, clarifying negative security assurances, and preventing an arms race in outer space. Linkages with these other arms control issues have delayed progress for many years. For example, the Non-Aligned Movement demanded that the FMCT also include a specific timetable for universal nuclear disarmament, which would supplement the indefinite timetable contained in the NPT. Meanwhile, China and Russia conditioned their support for a FMCT to restrictions on the militarization of outer space.

The FMCT provisions would need to be sufficiently flexible to account for changes in the target materials and technology as well as their means of verification,  This requirement raises the issue of what type of amendment procedures would be needed for any FMCT. Other issues that arise in the case of any major arms control agreement include the conditions under which the treaty enters into force and whether and how a state can withdraw from the treaty.

The objections of key governments us the most immediate obstacle to beginning negotiations within CD, which operates by consensus. Pakistan wants any FMCT to reduce existing stockpiles of fissile material as well as prevent the production of new material because India already possesses much larger stockpiles of fissile materials. Attempts to pressure Islamabad into making concessions before then have failed due to the support Pakistan receives from China and several other countries.

Israel, with its longstanding policy of nuclear opacity, is unenthusiastic about a treaty which on the one hand may require intrusive measures of verification, and on the other may provide a legitimate rationale for regional players like Iran to boost their enrichment and reprocessing capabilities for the ostensible purpose of supporting their civil nuclear industries.

Frustrated governments and people to suggest altering the current negotiating approach of drafting a single agreed FMCT text within the CD, and then submitting the proposed for ratification by all national governments.

One proposal is to secure the commitment of certain key states for a FMCT in the hopes that their endorsement would compel others to join. Another widely discussed alternative is to move the talks to another negotiating forum. For example, the parties might turn to the UN Security Council or the UN General Assembly. But Pakistan, China, and other states have insisted on resolving the deadlock within the existing CD framework.

Alternatively, bilateral or regional agreements, each tailored to their own specific circumstances, could be adopted.

In addition to enhancing mutual transparency and strategic predictability, these limited fissile material cut-off agreements could help spur more universal agreements. Since none of the P-5 currently needs to produce large volumes of fissile materials, they would be logical candidates for such “minilateral” agreements. For example, they might, as Glaser proposes, issue a joint declaration affirming that they have ceased producing fissile materials for weapons purposes.

Thus far, governments have focused on using the Nuclear Security Summits to encourage actions to at reduce, and at a minimum enhance the safety and security of existing fissile materials.

But the summits have encountered their own limitations and I will look at these limitations in my next piece on preventing nuclear terrorism.

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