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Danger from loose nukes in volatile countries

by Bennett Ramberg

Nobody would dispute the danger inherent in possessing nuclear assets. But that danger becomes far more acute in a combat zone, where nuclear materials and weapons are at risk of theft, and reactors can become bombing targets.

These risks — most apparent in today’s Middle East — raise troubling questions about the security of nuclear assets in volatile countries everywhere.

Two recent events demonstrate what is at stake. On July 9, the militant group now known as the Islamic State captured 40 kg of uranium compounds at Mosul University in Iraq. The captured uranium was not weapons-grade; international inspectors removed all sensitive material from Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War (which is why it was absent when the United States invaded in 2003). But what international response, if any, would have been initiated if the cache had been highly enriched?

On the same day, Hamas launched three powerful Iranian-designed rockets from Gaza at Israel’s Dimona reactor. Luckily, two missed the target, and Israel managed to intercept the third. But the episode represented a serious escalation of hostilities and served as an important reminder of the vulnerability of nuclear reactors in war zones.

In fact, Hamas made similar attempts to attack the Dimona complex in 2012, as did Iraq in 1991, with the aim of releasing the site’s contents to inflict radiological damage on Israel’s population. (The perpetrators appeared clueless to the fact that certain weather conditions would have concentrated the radioactive debris in the Palestinian-majority West Bank.)

It is possible that these events are an aberration. After all, the only conflict so far in which authorities have lost control of sensitive nuclear materials was the Georgia-Abkhazia War in the 1990s, when unknown forces seized a small amount of highly enriched uranium from a research institute.

Likewise, though there have been numerous attacks on nuclear reactors under construction, the sole threat to an operating plant in a combat zone outside of Israel occurred at the start of the fighting in ex-Yugoslavia, when Serbian nationalists considered attacking Slovenia’s Krško nuclear power plant and sent warplanes over the site. The plant’s operators temporarily halted electricity generation to curb the risk of a radiation release, but nothing came of the threat.

Indeed, whenever nuclear assets have been least secure — during the Soviet Union’s collapse, China’s Cultural Revolution, and the Algiers putsch (when a group of mutinous retired generals set their sights on a nuclear device that France was testing in the Algerian desert) — they have not been compromised. Even in Ukraine today, despite the escalating civil conflict, the country’s 15 nuclear power plants have remained untouched (though even with new defensive measures taken by Ukrainian officials, this could easily change).

It is impossible to know whether this benign pattern will hold. But recent developments in the Middle East suggest that there are grounds for concern in other volatile countries, namely Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran.

Pakistan has a large nuclear weapons program and faces an expansive jihadi insurgency, which previously attacked military bases suspected of housing nuclear assets. Though Pakistan has not experienced a nuclear breach, and the government insists that safeguards remain robust, the country’s increasingly frequent and severe bouts of instability raise serious questions about the future.

While North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is much smaller, persistent doubts about the regime’s sustainability make it a matter of grave concern. In the event of the regime’s collapse — a distinct possibility — it would be difficult to prevent the diversion of its assets, or even the use of its weapons.

For its part, Iran seems relatively stable, at least compared to its neighbors. But it faces an uncertain political future. If a power struggle emerges, the large Bushehr reactor could be used as a bargaining chip.

To mitigate such risks, the international community could maintain its traditional policy of sitting tight and hoping that governments retain control of their nuclear infrastructure. But the United States, for one, is no longer satisfied with this approach.

According to media reports, it has devised a strategy for deploying Special Forces to neutralize Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in the event that its authorities lose control. And some government-connected think tanks have explored the possibility of deploying U.S. combat forces to address nuclear risks in North Korea if the regime crumbles.

Such plans, however, are by no means foolproof — not least owing to the difficulties of finding concealed nuclear assets and safeguarding reactors. Moreover, the American public’s willingness to become enmeshed in yet another risky military venture, when boosting homeland security could suffice, is dubious, at best.

Instead of waiting for a major development to force hurried action, the world’s major powers should engage in a full-throated debate to determine the best approach to address nuclear risks in volatile countries, seeking ways to cooperate whenever necessary. After all, even rival powers like China and the U.S. or India and Pakistan share an interest in preventing the world’s most dangerous weapons from falling under the control of its most fanatical minds.

Bennett Ramberg, a policy analyst in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs under President George H.W. Bush, is the author of “Destruction of Nuclear Energy Facilities in War and Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy.” © 2014 Project Syndicate www.project-syndicate.org

  • Zeenia

    Why to criticize Pakistan and North Korea’s nuclear weapons
    program, why not Israel, who is carrying a huge stockpiles of nuclear weaponsand is not answerable just because of USA support. Nuclear weapons are a sourceof security from external aggression to a state and there is nothing to worryabout. Pakistan nuclear program is safe and a robust and compartmentalized security establishment is running its nuclear program which is fool proof. It is a part of international propaganda which usually get activated and international analysts start discussing safety and security issues of its nuclear program which is nothing more than a coward act.

  • My Take

    The national consensus on Pakistan’s nuclear program and the institutionalized structure of the NCA and its secretariat constituted vigilant custodians of the country’s nuclear program. The physical-protection apparatus and custodial safeguards arrangements make Pakistani nuclear facilities and weapons inaccessible to the unauthorized outsiders. Consequently, there has been no recorded incident of the sabotage or theft of the Pakistani nuclear material to-date. To conclude, these safety and security arrangements manifest that terrorists would neither sabotage nuclear facility nor be able to steal Pakistani nuclear weapon or material for their nefarious designs.

  • Rajiv Sharma

    The author forgot to mention our great India’s nuclear security parameter as there are numerous hazardous nuclear installations in India that could
    lead to a major disaster with extraordinary bearing on the lives of
    large populations around these facilities. According to an Australian
    newspaper (The Age),
    there is no national policy in India on nuclear and radiation safety.
    Despite all this, India has never made an effort to adopt world
    standards and best practices for nuclear safety. Radioactive waste disposal in Indian rivers is an undocumented environmental tragedy in India.

  • Eshel Dapez

    If we take this term ‘loose nukes’;
    all nukes are equally at loose until or unless, states adhere to Non
    Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which termed as a major pillar in nuclear domain of
    the world. In fact, this ter, ‘loose nukes’ should contain all those states
    which are Defacto. In this context, India
    and Israel gather the same worries and apprehensions but because of political
    discrimination they are exempted from this domain of being ‘loose nukes.’ We won’t
    be successful in addressing the volatility of states until we toe states on
    equal basis and ensure state security to everyone. Nukes play a vital role for
    status quo but they are vital for deterrence against threats to a state. This
    is the very reason for acquisition of nuclear weapons.

  • Shehwar

    This is unwise to include
    Pakistan in the list of those countries which are politically unstable with
    shaky statehood traits. Pakistan is a country who stands in coherent manner on
    nuclear security of a country no matters whose administration comes in. The country
    is fully aware of all the challenges and threats and that’s why it possesses
    robust command and security infrastructure for the security of its nuclear
    assets. Despite of international worries about the program, there is no single
    event occurred which reflect any kind of security breach. Pakistan has its own
    comprehensive system of nuclear security and should not be towed in the same line
    with other countries.

  • chinpin ginpin

    Since the inception of Pakistan’s nuclear program it has been the victim of harsh and subjective criticism but the efforts done in the field of nuclear non proliferation being non signatory to NPT have proved it worth and have shown it to international community that how much Pakistan is concerned about the safe and secured operation of its nuclear program. Its nuclear program is running under the strict and robust and compartmentalized structure and supervision of NCA and its secretariat SPD. International must not worried about the safety of its nuclear weapons.