by Molly Cernicek and Cheryl Rofer
In the past few weeks, we have been barraged with messages stating the risk of nuclear terrorism. Arrests for trying to sell nuclear material and, of course, what could happen if nuclear material, components, or devices end up in the wrong hands. Too much nuclear material is still too poorly secured, and the idea of a mushroom cloud over New York may appeal to some terrorist groups. But risk is not the same as demand. Within the context of nuclear terrorism, risk is a source of danger while demand is the ability and desire to purchase or steal goods and services.
Securing the Bomb chapter “The Threat: The Demand for Black Market Fissile Material” states in its first paragraph:
None of the confirmed cases of seizures of stolen nuclear material includes clear evidence of a particular buyer—whether a state seeking nuclear weapons or a terrorist group. Nevertheless, there is significant evidence that both terrorist groups and states hostile to U.S. interests have sought stolen nuclear weapons or weapons-usable nuclear materials, and have attempted to recruit nuclear-weapons expertise.Those two sentences seem to contradict each other. Three specific instances follow, supposedly illustrating how
demand is becoming more focused and sophisticated and may be overcoming the gap between buyers and potential sellers.But none of these examples illustrates demand in the context of buying or acquiring material or a device. Incidents #1 and #2 show the potential risks of a criminal or terrorist act. In fact, the Chechen terrorists described in incident #2 entertained the idea of taking control of Kurchatov’s nuclear power plant and threatening to blow it up. They instead chose to take over Moscow's Dubrovka Theater with 900 hostages and were gassed by the Russian authorities. Example #3 points to the development of a supplier network. The “foreign client” may very well have been an intelligence agent as the criminals involved in supplying the material were apprehended by Russian authorities. No foreign buyer was identified or apprehended.
1. Incidents of terrorist teams carrying out reconnaissance at nuclear weapon storage sites and on nuclear weapon transport trains in Russia, whose locations and schedules are state secrets;
2. Reports that the 41 heavily armed terrorists who seized hundreds of hostages at a theater in Moscow in October 2002 considered seizing the Kurchatov Institute, a site with enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for dozens of nuclear weapons;
3. The 2003 criminal case involving a Russian businessman who was offering $750,000 for stolen weapon-grade plutonium for sale to a foreign client—and succeeded in making contact with residents of the closed city of Sarov, home of one of Russia’s premier nuclear weapons R&D centers.
Ironically, the frequent discussion of the demand for nuclear weapons and materials in the media could be sending a message to potential suppliers that the market is bigger than it really is. Could this be an intelligence strategy to go after would-be suppliers? Some percentage of employees in every organization that handles nuclear materials may be willing to risk all for a perceived payout. The numbers of arrests of would-be sellers of nuclear material support this possibility.
Corruption is certainly mainstream in multi-national companies. In a 2007 report, PriceWaterHouse Coopers found that 63% of the 390 companies they assessed had experienced some kind of actual or attempted form of corruption within their ranks. The study findings shocked the executives who agreed to be part of the study as most of the companies affected by corruption had no deterrence in place for the kind of corruption they experienced. These companies had misjudged how much risk some of their employees were willing to take for a bigger payoff of some kind.
Countries where corruption is ingrained in common business practices, like Russia, also have this problem. The country tops PriceWaterHouse’s 2009 Global Fraud Survey. In spite of this culture, Russia’s lack of modern infrastructure, lack of labor mobility, and lack of trust have created significant obstacles for would-be nuclear smugglers thus far. US programs focused on materials protection, security and accountability have made a huge impact on Russia, but there is more to do in this area. It wasn’t until relatively recently that the Russian government considered a nuclear threat likely to emerge within its borders. Attacks by Chechen groups have motivated the government to be far more vigilant of their nuclear security.
The demand for illicit nuclear materials, devices, and knowledge in actuality seems to be very low and very specific. Any terrorist group with nuclear aspirations is unlikely to be a repeat customer to avoid the risk of getting caught, mishandling material, recruiting participants with inadequate education, and implementing a difficult attack strategy that they will most likely not survive. If a group can get enough material to pull off a nuclear-related attack, the chances are high that they use it in a much simpler dispersion device. States that build nuclear weapons illegally may pay for outside expertise, material and technology, but if they are to control their risks they need to develop their own competencies in house.
Without a continual demand for nuclear knowledge, material and parts, there will never be a sophisticated supplier network because small and indeterminate demand provides no profits on a recurring basis. Reducing the supply of nuclear material and devices will reduce the number of employees associated with them (replacing them with technology) and increase the risk to those interested in supplying these goods illegally. Stating publicly that there is not a great demand for nuclear material and parts is likely to reduce the number of would-be suppliers as well. A reduced supply should increase the costs and risks of potential nuclear terrorists. There will always be some risk of nuclear terrorism as long as we have nuclear material and devices. But we can lower our risk while raising terrorists’ risks further by communicating a more realistic illicit nuclear materials and technology market. It may reduce the supply of frightening articles to the media’s demand, but that’s a risk worth taking.
Update: Here's the same news in English as in that Postimees article.