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