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WMD Terrorism

Progress on UN WMD Measure Mixed

Wade Boese

Three years after the UN Security Council required states to enact measures to prevent nonstate actors from acquiring or using unconventional arms, progress toward that goal is disparate and muddled. The limitations are perhaps best summed up by the fact that the United States is calling 2007 “the year of implementation.”

In April 2004, the Security Council unanimously adopted UN Resolution 1540 mandating that governments institute and enforce “appropriate, effective” laws, border controls, export controls, and physical security measures to make it tougher for terrorists to arm themselves with biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons or the means to deliver such weapons. (See ACT, May 2004. ) The resolution did not define “appropriate” or “effective.”

The resolution grew out of a Sept. 23, 2003, call by President George W. Bush to criminalize proliferation and gained traction with the February 2004 exposure of the nuclear black market network ran by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. (See ACT, March 2004. )

The Security Council mandated that all states report within six months on their activities and plans to fulfill the mandates of the resolution and established a committee with a two-year lifespan to monitor and report on these efforts. In April 2006, the Security Council extended the committee’s lifespan another two years. (See ACT, June 2006. )

Only 54 countries met the original reporting deadline, but by last April, a total of 129 governments had supplied at least one report. Still, 62 countries, most of which are located in the Caribbean, the South Pacific, and sub-Saharan Africa, had not complied with the resolution’s reporting requirement. All countries with nuclear weapons, except North Korea, have reported.

Some of the nonreporting governments contend they do not have the capacity, resources, or need to report. In an April 18 interview, a British government official said that it was “too early” to judge whether some countries are “not willfully complying.” The Security Council adopted the resolution under Chapter VII of the UN charter, providing the possibility that countries could be sanctioned or penalized for noncompliance, although the issue has not yet been raised.

Slovakian Ambassador Peter Burian, chairman of the committee, made obtaining reports his top priority last year, launching an outreach campaign to inform governments about their obligations under the resolution. Despite three outreach seminars in China, Ghana, and Peru as well as other workshops, the effort had yielded just seven more initial reports as of April 20.

One source close to the committee told Arms Control Today April 18 that Burian still considers “very important” the “universalization” of the resolution as measured by states’ recognition of their responsibilities through reporting to the committee. The source said Burian views the outreach phase of the committee’s work as unfinished.

Nonetheless, an official associated with the committee said it and its eight independent experts would increasingly turn to compiling best practices or lessons learned as voluntary guidelines for countries to follow in implementing the resolution.

In interviews with Arms Control Today, several officials familiar with the committee’s work said the body was unlikely to recommend priorities to states because of the perception that it would be interfering with or encroaching on a government’s sovereign right to legislate.

The United States, as well as the committee, is urging governments to develop national implementation plans. Washington adopted its own such plan last May, but details of the document have not been made public.

A U.S. official and the official associated with the committee said in separate interviews that the process of creating national implementation plans was valuable in and of itself for bringing together government bureaucrats who otherwise might not talk.

Both also asserted that involving the private sector would be essential to the resolution’s long-term success. They said businesses had to be made more aware of their economic stakes in preventing a terrorist attack by use of an unconventional weapon or the trade they might risk losing if their state is perceived as lacking proper controls, regulations, and security measures. 

The official associated with the committee told Arms Control Today April 20 that countries needed to “set their own priorities” because a “one-size-fits-all approach” was inappropriate. The official explained, for example, that a landlocked country requires different types of controls than a maritime state.

A common challenge that many countries face is funding the measures to fulfill the resolution. Describing the problem of preventing nonstate actors from obtaining unconventional weapon as “huge,” the official said addressing it is “very expensive.”

The resolution calls on states that can do so to lend expertise or financial, organizational, or technical assistance to those governments requesting such help. Forty states have announced their willingness to provide direct assistance, although the committee is not tabulating delivered assistance.

Neither are some major donors. Both the United States and United Kingdom could not provide Arms Control Today with totals, saying they have many programs, some preceding the resolution, that contribute to the resolution’s goals. U.S. officials have highlighted one initiative, the Export Control and Related Border Security program, as allocating almost $132 million since 2004 to other countries for training and equipment to implement the resolution.

The committee does not seek to match potential donors with recipients. It describes its role as a “clearinghouse,” which entails maintaining general lists of assistance requests and aid offers. During a Feb. 23 Security Council debate on the resolution, Brazil called on the committee to be more active in facilitating assistance.

Guarding against biological weapons proliferation is an area most in need of attention and assistance because it lags behind efforts on chemical and nuclear arms, according to the official associated with the committee. The official attributed this disparity partially to the fact that countries can turn to the International Atomic Energy Agency in the nuclear realm and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the chemical sector but do not have a comparable institution to turn to in the biological field. The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention did not establish any implementation body or secretariat.

The official said another area where countries need to step up their efforts is enforcement. Many countries have laws or controls in place, but they do not always apply them, the official said.

Still, all officials interviewed for this article agreed that the much more difficult work was yet to come. Many see the implementation phase as more complicated than the outreach phase, which they also cautioned must continue. The official associated with the committee said that all countries face a “long, hard slog.”

GAO Calls for Security Prioritization Changes

Scarlet Kim

The Department of Energy should better prioritize which foreign sites with radioactive materials should be protected against terrorist theft, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The GAO, which conducts studies for Congress, reviewed the Energy Department's International Radiological Threat Reduction Program at the request of Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii). Established in 2002 following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the program aims to implement security upgrades at foreign sites with radioactive materials and recover lost or abandoned high-risk radioactive sources.

Radioactive sources are devices that use radioactive materials for myriad purposes, including medical and industrial applications. Terrorists potentially could acquire these materials, such as cobalt-60, cesium-137, and strontium-90, to produce a radiological dispersion device, or a “dirty bomb,” which uses conventional explosives to spread radiation. Dirty bombs are not as lethal or destructive as nuclear weapons, but they are commonly referred to as weapons of mass disruption because their detonation could cause mass fear and panic.

The March 15 GAO report recommended that the Energy Department prioritize sites by concentrating efforts on those with the greatest amount of radioactive materials. Despite the Energy Department's success at improving the security of hundreds of sites in more than 40 countries, the report found that “many of the most dangerous sources remain unsecured, particularly in Russia .” Of particular concern are more than 700 Russian operational or abandoned radioisotope generators, which are electrical generators powered by radioactive decay, and 16 out of 20 waste storage sites in Russia and Ukraine.

The GAO asserts the program has focused a disproportionate amount of attention on securing material at medical facilities, which contain much smaller quantities of radioactive sources. One explanation is that upgrading the security at medical facility, compared with securing radioisotope generators, entails less scope and cost. As of September 2006, almost 70 percent of all sites secured were hospitals or oncology clinics.

In visits to Russia, Lithuania, Poland, and Georgia, the GAO also discovered that some sites were not properly maintaining earlier security enhancements. The report noted the absence of a plan to sustain such security upgrades.

As of January 2007, the Energy Department has spent $120 million on the program, but future funding is uncertain. According to a department official interviewed by the GAO, since 2003 the agency has steadily decreased funding on program implementation. It intends to redirect future funds to projects such as securing plutonium and highly enriched uranium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons.

The Department of Energy should better prioritize which foreign sites with radioactive materials should be protected against terrorist theft, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). (Continue)

HEU Smuggling Sting Raises Security Concerns

Justin Reed

Georgia and the United States revealed in January that in early 2006 they had arrested a Russian man attempting to sell 100 grams of weapons-grade uranium. The seizure was one of the largest of its kind and raised questions about the security of nuclear stockpiles in the region.

A joint Georgian-CIA operation nabbed Oleg Khinsagov in Tbilisi along with several Georgian accomplices. The sting was set up after Georgian authorities discovered extensive smuggling operations in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“When we sent buyers, the channels through Abkhazia and South Ossetia began to expand, and we started seeing a huge flow of materials…. Sometimes it was low-grade enriched materials, but this was the first instance of highly enriched material,” Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili told the Associated Press.

Khinsagov was carrying a plastic bag full of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in his jacket pocket. “He was offering this as the first stage in a deal and said he had other pieces,” Merabishvili said. “We don’t know if that was true,” he added. Georgian authorities sentenced Khinsagov to eight to 10 years in prison.

Efforts to discover the origin of the HEU have been hampered by squabbling between Russia and Georgia. Georgia gave a sample of the smuggled material to Russia for analysis but Russia’s Scientific Research Institute of Non-Organic Materials called the quantity of the sample “insignificant.” Only a few grams of HEU are needed to perform a full forensic analysis, however.

The Russian prosecutor-general is considering an inquiry.

Georgian and Russian officials blame each other for not being fully forthcoming. Tensions have been high since President Mikheil Saakashvili was elected in 2004 on a pro-U.S. platform. His election exacerbated disagreements over the stationing of Russian troops in border regions. (See ACT, January/February 2007. )

In a related development, the United States and Georgia signed a deal in February 2007 to increase cooperation in preventing nuclear smuggling. The agreement will facilitate information sharing between U.S. and Georgian offices, train Georgian experts, adequately store discovered radioactive substances, and increase border patrols.

The United States has already provided similar assistance to Russia to prevent nuclear smuggling.

House Approves Nonproliferation Initiatives

Miles A. Pomper

The House of Representatives approved several nonproliferation initiatives in January as part of a broader bill to fully implement the recommendations of an independent commission that investigated the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Implementing a campaign pledge of new Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House approved the measure 299-128 on Jan. 9 in one of the first pieces of legislation of the new Democratic-controlled Congress. Congressional aides said that they expect the measure eventually to be reconciled in a House-Senate conference committee with similarly broad legislation approved Feb. 15 by the Senate Governmental Affairs and Homeland Security Committee.

The 9/11 Commission, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, had warned in 2004 that “the greatest danger of another catastrophic attack in the United States” comes from weapons of mass destruction (WMD). (See ACT, September 2004. )

Key provisions in the House bill would lift legal roadblocks to providing aid to Russia and other former Soviet states to safeguard or destroy nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons stockpiles as well as associated delivery vehicles and facilities; create a White House office to coordinate U.S. efforts to prevent WMD proliferation and terrorism as well as establish an independent commission guiding U.S efforts; and seek to use sanctions and foreign aid to prevent the emergence of new black market nuclear networks.

The House bill would overturn long-standing requirements that bar the disbursement of threat reduction monies unless the president annually certifies that former Soviet states receiving the aid are committed to meeting several criteria, including compliance with all arms control agreements. In December 2005, Congress granted the president permanent authority to annually waive those restrictions but stopped short of eliminating them outright. (See ACT, January/February 2006. )

The certification requirement became a major hurdle to threat reduction activities in Russia and other former Soviet states in 2002 when President George W. Bush refused to certify Russia’s commitment to complying with treaties banning chemical and biological weapons. That refusal, the first since the program began in 1991, triggered a freeze of some threat reduction funds, stalling projects aimed at securing and dismantling surplus weapons and their fabrication facilities.

The bill included another provision that would create a new Senate-confirmed White House coordinator of efforts to counter the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, particularly to terrorist groups.

Democrats have long campaigned for such a coordinator, saying that greater coherence needs to be brought to scattered efforts across the government. But the idea has won little support from the White House itself, which sees it as simply adding additional bureaucracy. Moreover, budget authority for individual programs would still remain with the relevant agencies.

In a related provision, the measure would establish a nine-member independent commission to assess the current initiatives in this area and recommend steps for moving forward.

A newer initiative included in the bill seeks to prevent the recurrence of black market nuclear networks like the one fashioned by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. Khan’s network is said to have provided technology for enriching uranium to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

It would require the president to impose sanctions for the transfer of enrichment or reprocessing materials or technology to some non-nuclear-weapon states that did not have functioning enrichment or reprocessing plants as of Jan. 1, 2004. In particular, penalties would be required if the transfers went to states that did not have in force an additional protocol to their safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or had a nuclear weapons program. The most sweeping sanctions would include suspensions of arms licenses and foreign aid to countries that host such black market networks. However, these sanctions could be waived by the president.

Both uranium enrichment and the reprocessing of spent fuel for plutonium can provide the fissile material for nuclear weapons. Additional protocols provide IAEA inspectors with greater authority to investigate allegations of undeclared weapons programs.

The passage of the nonproliferation provisions was a victory for Democrats, such as Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), who have unsuccessfully pushed similar legislation in the previous Republican-controlled Congress.

Tauscher told the House that, “[f]or too long, the Bush administration and their congressional allies have left nonproliferation on the back burner. The bill before us today provides the tools we need to fight the threat of the world’s most dangerous weapons.”

Many Republicans, however, objected both to the broad scope of the bill and individual provisions. In particular, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sought to strip a provision that would encourage the Bush administration to seek UN Security Council authorization for its Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). The 2003 initiative launched by the United States aims to interdict shipments of weapons of mass destruction and related goods to terrorists and countries of proliferation concern.

“Giving the United Nations the ability to define what is permissible under the PSI will result in the imposition of unpredictable limitations, unpredictable conditions, and unpredictable interpretations and would result in a regulatory straightjacket overseen by the international bureaucracy,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “If this recommendation were followed, the PSI would be undermined.”

Democrats, however, countered that the provision was aimed at broadening international support for the PSI. The motion failed on a largely party-line vote of 198-230.

The House of Representatives approved several nonproliferation initiatives in January as part of a broader bill to fully implement the recommendations of an independent commission that investigated the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Bush Cuts Threat Reduction Budget

Daniel Arnaudo

President George W. Bush’s 2008 fiscal year budget request calls for more cuts in programs related to nonproliferation activities in the former Soviet Union, although some individual threat reduction programs would see gains or maintain funding.

Some proposed reductions reflect the winding down or closure of programs, while other cuts may reflect a shift in priorities away from traditional U.S.-Russian programs such as Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) to more regional or international programs.

Department of Defense

Money requested for the CTR program in the Department of Defense budget is down again this year to $348 million. The $24 million reduction for fiscal year 2008 follows a $44 million cut the previous year. The CTR program seeks to better control the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) complex in the former Soviet Union by securing chemical, biological, and nuclear facilities and finding employment for former weapons scientists and technicians.

The Pentagon budget would increase spending by $75 million in fiscal year 2008 for biological threat reduction efforts, including securing pathogens and facilities and setting up monitoring equipment for border posts and customs. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), however, said he plans to offer an amendment to increase funding for biological weapons nonproliferation by $100 million. If approved, this would bring overall spending to $244 million in the next fiscal year.

Nonetheless, in a Jan. 25 interview with Inside the Pentagon, Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, said broader increases for CTR funding were unlikely. Spratt said that although he wanted to see increased funding for securing fissile material and a more “rigid” scheme of accounting for sites in Russia and the United States, “I don’t think the budget will come to us…with enough money in [in it] to do these extra things.” He said he would work to find an offset for increased funding of nuclear nonproliferation activities but would not take it out of funding for the war in Iraq or other essential activities.

Indeed, money proposed for the Nuclear Weapons Storage Security program was down to $23 million for fiscal year 2008, a decrease of $64 million from current spending. This reflects the completion of a number of significant upgrades to Russian facilities and a shift to maintenance.

No funds were requested for the chemical weapons destruction program in fiscal year 2008. Although work on the weapons destruction facility at Shchuch’ye in Russia is still unfinished, the program is scheduled to end this year. Independent experts estimate the facility needs at least another $200 million to be completed.

The Nuclear Weapons Transportation Security program, on the other hand, is slated to receive $38 million for fiscal year 2008, a $5 million increase over the current spending. This will help to transport 48 trainloads of nuclear warheads to more secure facilities for storage and dismantlement.

The administration also requested a $2 million increase in funding for the Strategic Offensive Arms Elimination program. The $78 million in funds requested for fiscal year 2008 would be used to carry out such tasks as eliminating 65 ICBMs, defueling and storing another 20 ICBMs, and decommissioning or eliminating 44 ICBM silos.

The request for the WMD Proliferation Prevention Initiative to create better monitoring facilities on the borders of former non-Russian Soviet states was slightly higher than the previous year, at $38 million.

Department of Energy

The administration’s fiscal year 2008 budget request for a number of Department of Energy nonproliferation programs would also be below current spending. The International Nuclear Materials Protection and Cooperation (INMP&C) program was cut by $41 million to $372 million.

The INMP&C program works to secure the former Soviet nuclear complex, both personnel and material. Part of its funding is dedicated to goals agreed to in a 2005 joint statement between Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Bratislava. The Energy Department has explained that the decreases reflect completion of many of the upgrades.

The Energy Department cut $40 million out of the Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF) and 12th Main Directorate program, citing contractor and technical access problems as well as poor weather conditions. The program seeks to secure vulnerable nuclear weapons and weapons usable materials at SRF and 12th Main Directorate sites in Russia. The Bush administration also indicated that it projects further large cuts in funding to programs in “closed” Russian cities once dedicated to designing and testing nuclear weapons. In 2005 at Bratislava, however, the United States promised to continue to support such programs.

The Elimination of Weapons Grade Plutonium Production program also will receive less funding this year as its projects in Russia continue to wind down. Some $182 million is requested for fiscal year 2008, down $25 million from current spending. The projects were created to replace Russian plutonium reactors with generators powered by fossil fuels at Severnsk and Zhelenznogorsk. They are on schedule to be completed by fiscal year 2008 and fiscal year 2011, respectively.

Funding for the Russian Fissile Materials Disposition program will be cut to zero for fiscal year 2008. This comes after a dispute over Moscow’s refusal to pay for a mixed-oxide fuel-fabrication facility. This refusal angered Congress and halted the program, which converts weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for civilian nuclear reactors. The greater Fissile Materials Disposition program, which focuses on cutting stockpiles in the United States through similar techniques, was slightly increased to $609 million after the Senate concluded it was still worthwhile.

By contrast, funding for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) continues to increase, up $13 million to $119 million. The program works to reduce and protect nuclear and radiological material internationally.

Department of State

The administration requested $464 million for the Nonproliferation, Anti-terrorism, De-mining and Related Programs line item in the Department of State’s budget. Funding for all of the subprograms within this section devoted to nonproliferation were down, something that was noted by Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Lugar in a Feb. 8 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Export Controls and Border Related Security was set at $41 million, the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Fund at $30 million, and the Global Threat Reduction Program, formerly the Nonproliferation of WMD Expertise Program, is presently allocated $53.5 million.

Obama in particular took issue with the cuts, saying that these are “modest, but cuts nevertheless.” He added, “Now, I recognize that budgets are about priorities, but given how important, potentially, interdiction and some of these other programs are, you know, I’d like to see us at least stay constant…not go backwards.”

In response, Rice, while noting that these programs may be in less demand than in past, said, “I don’t think that we want to be complacent, and obviously we’ll keep examining it.” The administration, however, requested a $36 million increase for small arms and light weapons destruction activities globally. This proposed boost would raise future spending to $44.7 million.

President George W. Bush’s 2008 fiscal year budget request calls for more cuts in programs related to nonproliferation activities in the former Soviet Union, although some individual threat reduction programs would see gains or maintain funding.

Enforcing International Standards: Protecting Nuclear Materials From Terrorists Post-9/11

George Bunn

For a long time, how nuclear facilities were protected from terrorists and thieves has been largely the prerogative of the facilities themselves or individual governments.[1] But the September 11 terrorist attacks and statements by Osama bin Laden have raised new concerns about preventing terrorists from stealing or attacking nuclear material that is often not well protected. As a result, new international standards have been adopted, calling on states to provide stronger protection for nuclear material.

So far, however, these standards are very general and lack effective enforcement. To remedy these shortcomings, the UN Security Council should consider such measures as providing a greater role for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Since 1977, the IAEA through Information Circular 225 has provided recommended standards for protection of nuclear material.[2] The agency also has long supplied technical assistance to states desiring help. Unlike the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’s (NPT) requirement of safeguards for nuclear reactors, however, these physical protection standards are voluntary, unless required by a state supplying the nuclear material. No treaty yet gives the IAEA authority to adopt required physical protection standards, and many states have long resisted such standards.

Then-IAEA Director-General Hans Blix, in a preface to the 1993 version of the IAEA’s recommendations for physical protection of nuclear reactors and materials, implied it would be preferable to have required rather than discretionary international standards:

Physical protection against theft or unauthorized diversion of nuclear materials and against the sabotage of nuclear materials by individuals or groups has long been a matter of national and international concern. Although responsibility for establishing and operating a comprehensive physical protection system for nuclear materials and facilities within a State rests entirely with the Government of that State, it is not a matter of indifference to other States whether and to what extent that responsibility is fulfilled.[3]

Yet, neither the NPT nor the 1980 Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) required states to provide protection for nuclear material within their territories. As a result, deciding what protection should be provided within a country was generally left up to the nuclear facility or the national government. Some nuclear supplier states, such as the United States, have asked recipient states to provide fences, walls, or other protections against theft and sabotage, but protection has varied considerably from country to country. By contrast, there were required international standards in the CPPNM for nuclear material transported from one country to another.

New, Required International Standards

Since September 11, 2001, heightened concern about terrorists has begun to produce efforts to improve standards for such protection. In 2004 the UN Security Council adopted a new global requirement for protecting nuclear material within countries as part of new Security Council standards to prevent the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. The new physical protection requirement for nuclear material is set forth in Resolution 1540, which calls on states to “develop and maintain appropriate effective physical protection measures” to guard their nuclear material and nuclear facilities.

The Security Council did not prescribe the characteristics of the measures the states were to adopt except to require that they be appropriate and effective for implementing the states’ responsibilities under Resolution 1540. Nor did it define what it meant by “appropriate” or “effective,” but it did create a committee to interpret and implement Resolution 1540. This committee’s role so far has been to urge states to supply the reports sought by the council on what the states have done to implement the resolution, to review those reports, and to call on those states that have not answered questions adequately or have not yet submitted a report to do so.

When the 1540 Committee was created by the council, the committee’s life was limited to two years, although Resolution 1540 was to continue in effect indefinitely. The two-year limit for the committee was adopted apparently because council members were in disagreement as to the time needed to get countries around the world to respond to the council’s questions and requirements. That job has not been easy, and the council renewed the committee in 2006.[4] It now has acquired a staff and consultants, and it communicates regularly with member states who have not supplied other requested information.[5]

The legal authority of the Security Council to demand Resolution 1540 reports from UN member states has been questioned by some analysts. Resolution 1540 was adopted unanimously, however, and its committee continues to request that states that have not reported adequately do so.[6] So far, the Security Council itself has not adopted resolutions demanding responses from states, and it has not attempted to adopt new council standards for physical protection of nuclear materials. The 1540 Committee’s second term will expire in less than two years. It is not clear who then will shoulder the administrative responsibility for implementing Resolution 1540, particularly its provisions on physical protection of nuclear material.

In 2005, more than 80 CPPNM states-parties agreed to some new standards for protection of nuclear material within each of their countries,[7] but the CPPNM amendment to which they agreed provides standards that are mostly discretionary. For example, the amendment says that the physical protection required of states that agree to the amendment “should be based on the state’s current evaluation of the threat.”[8] What then is required of CPPNM members that do not feel that their nuclear materials and facilities are threatened by terrorists or thieves? In addition, the CPPNM amendment will not go into effect until ratified by two-thirds of CPPNM members, who now total 112 states. By September 2006, only five had done so.[9]

For a number of years before this amendment was agreed upon, CPPNM members debated whether to accept any international standards for protecting their domestic nuclear activities. They had already accepted standards for nuclear material in international transport by joining the CPPNM, but it took years to persuade most CPPNM members that new provisions should be accepted for protecting nuclear materials within their territories. The amendment that was adopted did not provide high standards for such protection, and CPPNM members do not seem to be in a hurry to ratify the amendment. Perhaps they are waiting for the outcome of the 1540 Committee’s efforts affecting physical protection of nuclear material.

In addition, Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in July proposed a “Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism.” They called for a meeting of “willing partner nations” to agree on methods for cooperation to implement the initiative. In October, a first meeting of the states involved in this voluntary initiative took place in Morocco. Those attending the so-called Group of Eight (G-8) Plus Five meeting included G-8 countries Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States as well as Australia, China, Kazakhstan, Morocco, and Turkey. According to Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph, the participants agreed on the goals, principles, and methods for the initiative.

Among the agreed goals was improving the “physical protection systems for nuclear and other radioactive materials and substances.” The agreed principles also included improving domestic measures to account for and secure these materials.[10] Joseph said that “the initiative will help prevent terrorists from acquiring the nuclear and radiological materials needed to set off a nuclear or radiological device” and “will go a long way toward improving the physical security at civilian nuclear facilities.”[11]

The next day, the White House issued a “Statement of Principles by Participants in the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism,” stating that the purpose of the initiative was:

to develop partnership capacity to combat nuclear terrorism on a determined and systematic basis, consistent with national legal authorities and obligations they have under relevant international legal frameworks, notably the Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism [which calls for cooperation between states in investigation, prosecution, and extradition of nuclear terrorists], the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and its 2005 Amendment, United Nations Security Council [Resolution 1540].[12]

Participants also agreed to develop physical protection systems for nuclear and radioactive materials, enhance the security of civilian nuclear facilities, and prevent the provision of safe haven to terrorists, the statement said.

It remains to be seen what effect this initiative will have. The G-8 Plus Five have within their territories most, but not by any means all, of the world’s nuclear materials and facilities. If they could reach a consensus on more exacting nuclear physical protection standards for the future, that would be a step forward. It is as yet unclear, however, whether states will adopt new requirements as a result of the initiative and whether the recommendations will produce significant improvements within the territories of the participants and those of other states.

Implementation of Resolution 1540

Of the new international standards for protecting nuclear materials within each country, only Resolution 1540 has any public record of implementation efforts. So far, these efforts have focused on collecting and reviewing the many reports that states submitted in compliance with the resolution’s requirements. By December 2006, 133 UN member states had submitted responses, but 58 still had not. The committee has asked those that have not submitted Resolution 1540 reports to do so, and it has raised questions about reports it considered incomplete. The committee continues both to review reports from states and to assist states requesting help in preparing the reports. The committee has not yet asked the council to issue a mandatory order to any state that has not submitted a report.[13]

How far will the 1540 Committee or the Security Council go to enforce Resolution 1540 requirements on noncompliant states? The 1540 Committee is now the place to turn for enforcement of the resolution’s requirement that states provide “appropriate effective” physical protection of nuclear material against terrorists and thieves. The committee has asked the IAEA in turn to advise the committee on what physical protection services the agency provides to its members. The IAEA’s initial response was to provide information on what the agency was already doing to help its members improve the physical protection of their nuclear facilities:

Since 2001, the IAEA has moved rapidly to review and strengthen its programs and activities to provide states with the means of preventing, detecting and responding to sabotage, theft and unauthorized access to, or illegal transfer of, nuclear material and other radioactive substances, as well as their associated facilities. To prevent such events, we must have a comprehensive global approach to nuclear security, based on internationally accepted instruments, and which is implemented worldwide.… Resolution 1540 addresses many of these requirements. The [IAEA] stands ready to assist states in their efforts to implement the resolution.[14]

The IAEA described its programs designed to assist states in improving physical security at their nuclear facilities. For example, the agency helps develop “internationally accepted recommendations and guidelines for the physical protection of nuclear material.” On request, it sends experts to evaluate the national physical protection systems of IAEA members’ nuclear facilities.[15]

In considering the adequacy of Resolution 1540 reports of UN members, the 1540 Committee has thus enlisted the help of the IAEA, as is appropriate given the agency’s authority and experience in recommending better protection of nuclear facilities and materials from theft and sabotage. The IAEA now provides to its members recommended standards for physical protection of nuclear facilities; training for those whom its members employ to deal with physical protection; and, on request, an “inspection” and review of members’ efforts to provide physical protection of their nuclear facilities.[16]

The IAEA’s review of physical protection at the nuclear facilities of its members is different from its implementation of IAEA safeguards to prevent diversion of nuclear materials at these facilities. Unlike safeguards, physical protection is not a requirement of the NPT. The NPT calls for inspections to assure that safeguards standards are met and that the inspected state’s nuclear material is not diverted to nuclear weapons. There is no similar NPT requirement for IAEA review of physical protection to prevent theft and sabotage of nuclear material. Resolution 1540 now requires physical protection for those purposes, but so far, that requirement has been implemented by the Security Council, not the IAEA.


The Security Council would be well advised to consider giving the IAEA a greater role in ensuring that the physical protection requirements of Resolution 1540 are satisfied. The 1540 Committee has acquired expert advisers on necessary physical protection measures. They can hardly be expected, however, to go from country to country as IAEA inspectors do to check that such measures are in place. Nor does it make sense to have two sets of international inspectors for these facilities. It seems worthwhile to consider whether IAEA inspectors could be trained and tasked with checking the adequacy of physical protection at the reactors and other nuclear facilities when they conduct routine inspections. The IAEA inspectors could notify the facilities of any problems and provide the 1540 Committee with copies of their reports.

What more can be done to raise both international standards for physical protection of nuclear materials and compliance with those standards? The pending CPPNM amendments may not do a great deal to raise international standards for physical protection of domestic nuclear facilities because these amendments leave so much to the discretion of each national government. Moreover, they may not go into effect for a few years because of the slow rate of ratification. The general standards for physical protection in Resolution 1540, however, are now in effect. Moreover, the Security Council and its 1540 Committee may have the potential for requiring changes in the physical protection provided for nuclear materials around the world. At the same time, however, the IAEA has greater experience in dealing with physical protection than the 1540 Committee.

The Security Council, backed up by its 1540 Committee, should move ahead to establish effective standards for physical protection of nuclear facilities around the world. It should consider assigning to the IAEA the task of conducting a series of inspections to see whether these standards are being met. Given the current state of physical protection efforts around the world, having the Security Council involved in raising standards to prevent terrorists and thieves from acquiring nuclear material at peaceful nuclear facilities such as power and research reactors could be a useful next step for the protection of these facilities.

George Bunn, the first general counsel for the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, helped negotiate the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and later became U.S. ambassador to the Geneva Conference on Disarmament. He is now at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.


1. See Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) INFICIRC/274, Rev. 1, May 1980, Art. 2.1. See also George Bunn, “U.S. Standards for Protecting Weapons-Usable Fissile Material Compared to International Standards,” Nonproliferation Review (Fall 1998), p. 137; George Bunn, “Raising International Standards for Protecting Nuclear Materials From Theft and Sabotage,” Nonproliferation Review (Summer 2000), p. 146; George Bunn and Fritz Steinhausler, “Guarding Nuclear Reactors and Material From Terrorists and Thieves, Arms Control Today, October 2001, pp. 8-12; George Bunn et al., “Research Reactor Vulnerability to Sabotage by Terrorists,” Science and Global Security, Vol. 11 ( Summer 2003), p. 85.

2. The current version is The Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, IAEA INFCIRC/225/Rev.3 (1993).

3. Ibid.

4. See UN Security Council Resolution 1673 (2006) (providing for a new Resolution 1540 subcommittee when the term of the first two-year subcommittee had expired).

5. For a description of the 1540 Committee’s actions, see “Briefing by the Chairman of the Security Council Committee Established Pursuant to Resolution 1540,” May 2006.

6. See Daniel Joyner, “UN Security Council 1540: A Legal Travesty?” CITS Briefs, August 2006; Lars Olberg, “Implementing Resolution 1540: What the National Reports Indicate,” Disarmament Diplomacy, No. 82 (Spring 2006), pp. 2-4.

7. See Paul Kerr, “States Vow to Update Nuclear Materials Pact,” Arms Control Today, September 2005, pp. 42-43. The 2005 agreed text to amend the CPPNM asks states-parties to establish and maintain physical protection measures for nuclear material within the state’s territory, and it lists “fundamental principles” for physical protection that should be applied “insofar as reasonable and practicable.” These include “[t]he responsibility for the establishment, implementation and maintenance of a physical protection regime within a state rests entirely with that State,” and “[t]he State’s physical protection should be based on the State’s current evaluation of the threat.” See IAEA Board of Governors General Conference, GOV/INF/2005/10-GC(49)/INF/6 (September 2005).

8. See CPPNM Amendment of 2004, Arts. 2A and 3G.

9. See “Nuclear Security: Measures to Protect Against Nuclear Terrorism,” IAEA General Conference Res. GC(50) RES/11 (Sept. 2006).

10. “Statement of Principles by Participants in the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism,” 2006, October 31, 2006 (hereinafter Global Initiative statement).

11. Jacquelyn Porth, “Nations Meet in Morocco on How to Counter Nuclear Terror Threat,” Washington File, Oct. 30, 2006.

12. Global Initiative statement.

13. See “Briefing by the Chairman of the Security Council Committee Established Pursuant to Resolution 1540,” May 30, 2006.

14. IAEA Secretariat, “IAEA Activities Relevant to UN Security Council Resolution 1540,” 2005/Note 22. In September 2005, the IAEA General Conference adopted a long resolution listing the steps that the agency and its members had taken “to improve nuclear security and protection against nuclear and radiological terrorism” and commended the IAEA director-general and Secretariat for their “continued efforts to improve nuclear and radiological security and prevent nuclear and radiological terrorism.”

15. Ibid.

16. See IAEA, “The Physical Protection of Nuclear Material,” Information Circular INFCIRC/225/Rev.3 (1993).

Anti-Nuclear Terrorism Principles Issued

Wade Boese

Led by the United States and Russia, 13 countries recently promulgated eight general principles for averting and responding to nuclear terrorism. The group will meet in February to discuss further actions.

The principles emerged from the inaugural Oct. 30-31 meeting in Rabat, Morocco, of the voluntary Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin announced the initiative in July on the eve of the Group of Eight (G-8) summit in St. Petersburg. (See ACT, September 2006. )

In addition to host Morocco and the other six G-8 members—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom—Russia and the United States invited Australia, China, Kazakhstan, and Turkey to participate in the meeting and the International Atomic Energy Agency to observe.

A Department of State official told Arms Control Today Nov. 18 that Moscow and Washington wanted to limit the initial meeting to a “manageable size.” Invites were extended to China and Australia, according to the official, because they are seen as “very important” to the initiative’s success, while Kazakhstan and Turkey are “important geographically.” The latter three countries also were among the first publicly to welcome the initiative’s unveiling.

The October principles outline basic steps governments should take to deny terrorists the means to conduct nuclear attacks as well as measures to mitigate the consequences if governments fail. The principles also emphasize developing capabilities to trace and prosecute terrorists and their accomplices or suppliers.

Many of the principles essentially have already been accepted in existing international agreements or legal mandates. The 2005 International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism obligates adherents to protect their radioactive material against theft, while UN Security Council Resolution 1540 and its successor, Resolution 1673, require all governments to take an array of steps to prevent nonstate actors from acquiring nuclear arms or biological and chemical weapons. (See ACT, May 2005 and May 2004. )

The State Department official said the U.S.-Russian initiative and its principles are to serve as a “vehicle” to help implement these other instruments. Ideally, the official said, the initiative will “foster activities” between not only governments but also between the private and public sectors to implement these international obligations and to take on additional responsibilities beyond them.

Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph, the U.S. co-chair of the initiative, said July 18 that participating governments would seek a work program at the inaugural meeting, but this is now the objective of the second meeting scheduled for February 2007 in Turkey. The Russian co-chair is Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak.

The work plan is expected to include exercises, information sharing, task forces, and workshops to promote the initiative’s goals. Participating states also will seek to agree on “terms of reference for implementation and assessment to support effective fulfillment of the initiative,” according to an Oct. 31 State Department press statement.

The initiative will be open to all countries that endorse the principles. The State Department official said that the aim is to create a “steady and growing network” of participants because “we cannot [combat nuclear terrorism] alone.”

Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism Principles

The following eight principles were agreed to by the 13 countries participating in the inaugural October meeting of the voluntary U.S.-Russian Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism.

  1. Develop, if necessary, and improve accounting, control and physical protection systems for nuclear and other radioactive materials and substances;
  2. Enhance security of civilian nuclear facilities;
  3. Improve the ability to detect nuclear and other radioactive materials and substances in order to prevent illicit trafficking in such materials and substances, to include cooperation in the research and development of national detection capabilities that would be interoperable;
  4. Improve capabilities of participants to search for, confiscate, and establish safe control over unlawfully held nuclear or other radioactive materials and substances or devices using them;
  5. Prevent the provision of safe haven to terrorists and financial or economic resources to terrorists seeking to acquire or use nuclear and other radioactive materials and substances;
  6. Ensure adequate respective national legal and regulatory frameworks sufficient to provide for the implementation of appropriate criminal and, if applicable, civil liability for terrorists and those who facilitate acts of nuclear terrorism;
  7. Improve capabilities of participants for response, mitigation, and investigation, in cases of terrorist attacks involving the use of nuclear and other radioactive materials and substances, including the development of technical means to identify nuclear and other radioactive materials and substances that are, or may be, involved in the incident; and
  8. Promote information sharing pertaining to the suppression of acts of nuclear terrorism and their facilitation, taking appropriate measures consistent with their national law and international obligations to protect the confidentiality of any information which they exchange in confidence.

Nuclear Forensics Article Featured in Arms Control Today


For Immediate Release: October 11, 2006

Press Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, (202) 463-8270 x107 and Miles Pomper, (202) 463-8270 x108

(Washington, D.C.): North Korea’s claimed nuclear test this week has sparked renewed interest in nuclear forensics, a series of scientific techniques used to accurately identify the source of the nuclear bomb or material used to make a nuclear explosion. Two nuclear experts make the case for developing an enhanced and expanded nuclear forensics capability in the current issue of Arms Control Today, which is published by the independent and nonpartisan Arms Control Association.

Nuclear forensics has long been part of the U.S. toolkit, but could become far more critical in providing “extended deterrence” in the event of a nuclear terrorist attack. Knowing that their deadly wares could be traced back to them and fearing the likely severe consequences, potential proliferators might think twice about dealing with terrorists.

Today, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius called on the United States to pursue a “crash program” on nuclear forensics. In their Arms Control Today article earlier this month, William Dunlop and Harold Smith support the concept, but argue that bilateral or international forensic capabilities would best serve U.S. and global security interests. Dunlop is a semi-retired scientist from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. Currently at the University of California at Berkeley, Smith is a nuclear physicist and a former assistant to Secretary of Defense William Perry for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs.

Determining the source of the nuclear bomb or material used in a terrorist attack is vital, according to the two experts. An accurate finding “would help in restoring confidence to populations fearful of additional detonations and provide governments with evidence to pursue and find the perpetrators and eliminate further threats,” they write.

In what would clearly be an extremely tense and distrustful post-attack atmosphere, the authors contend, “the credibility of the nuclear forensic information would be significantly enhanced if provided or corroborated through a multinational or at least bilateral nuclear forensic team.” Dunlop and Smith recommend that the initial steps toward creating such a team begin with the United States and Russia.

The article, “Who Did It? Using International Forensics to Detect and Deter Nuclear Terrorism,” is currently available on the Arms Control Association’s web site. A sidebar to the article provides an easy-to-follow explanation on how scientists can determine the nature of a nuclear explosion and potentially pinpoint from what material or arsenal it originated.

# # #

The Arms Control Association (ACA) is a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to promoting effective arms control policies. ACA publishes the monthly journal Arms Control Today.


Subject Resources:

Who Did It? Using International Forensics to Detect and Deter Nuclear Terrorism

William Dunlop and Harold Smith

On February 2, The New York Times reported that the Pentagon has formed a nuclear forensics team tasked with identifying the attackers should the United States be hit with a nuclear bomb.[1] Adapting nuclear technology to the forensics of exploded nuclear weapons is an old but rapidly evolving field.

It dates back to at least 1949, when analysis of airborne debris, retrieved at high altitude off the coast of China, convinced President Harry Truman that the Soviet Union had exploded a nuclear device on the steppes of central Asia. The technology is neither new nor has it been particularly secret, but the formation of a national nuclear forensics team is newsworthy and a useful development. An international team, however, would be even better.

Although Washington has naturally focused on preventing a nuclear terrorism attack in the United States, a U.S. city is not necessarily the most likely target for nuclear terrorists. It is doubtful that a terrorist organization would be able to acquire a U.S. nuclear device and even more doubtful that it would acquire one on U.S. soil. Accordingly, if a terrorist organization does get its hands on a fission device, it is likely that it will do so on foreign territory. At that point, the terrorists will have an enormously valuable political weapon in their hands and will be loath to risk losing that asset. Given the risks associated with getting the device into the United States, the rational choice would be to deploy the device abroad against much softer targets. For Islamist terrorists, a major “Christian” capital such as London, Rome, or Moscow might offer a more suitable target.

Among these, Moscow perhaps presents the most compelling case for international cooperation on post-detonation nuclear forensics. Russia has the largest stockpile of poorly secured nuclear devices in the world. It also has porous borders and poor internal security, and it continues to be a potential source of contraband nuclear material and weapons, despite the best efforts of the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program. If terrorists obtained the nuclear material in Russia and set Moscow as their target, they would not have to risk transporting the weapon, stolen or makeshift, across international borders. Attacks by Chechen terrorists in Beslan and at the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow offer ample proof that a willingness to commit mass murder for fanatical reasons rests within Russian borders, and a foreign source of operatives, particularly from the neighboring Islamic states to the south, is by no means inconceivable.[2] Moscow is also a predominately Christian city where local authorities routinely discriminate against Muslim minorities.

Furthermore, extremists might conclude that a nuclear blast in Moscow could inflict damage well beyond that directly stemming from the attack. The Soviet generation that came to power during the Cold War retained a memory of the United States as an ally in the Great Patriotic War. The present Russian generation has no such remembrance but seems to have retained the animosities and suspicions that were a part of the nuclear standoff. Hence, nuclear terrorists may well believe that they could cause another East-West cold war or even encourage Russia to retaliate against the United States. After all, the sinking of the Kursk was believed by some influential Russians to be the result of U.S. action.[3] How much more likely would be such a view if the Kremlin were destroyed? As long as the world is filled with suspicion and conflict, such reactions are to be expected and, more importantly, anticipated.[4] One has only to remember the early reactions and suspicions in the United States following the 1996 TWA Flight 800 airline disaster.[5]

Because the United States is the technological leader in nuclear forensics, its capability will certainly be offered and probably demanded no matter what foreign city is subjected to the devastation of a nuclear explosion. The entire world, not just Americans, will live in fear of a second or third nuclear explosion, and forensics could play a vital role in removing or at least narrowing that fear. Because of such worldwide dread, there will be an international aspect to nuclear forensics regardless of where the explosion takes place. It would be better to be prepared in advance for such contingencies than to delve into the arcane world of nuclear weapons and radiochemistry on the fly.

Nuclear Forensics

The force of a 10-kiloton nuclear explosion on the streets of Moscow and the radioactive debris that would be deposited locally and ejected into the atmosphere could provide, over a period of time extending from hours to weeks, insight into various aspects of the weapon employed. For example, the international seismic community, assuming a surface burst, would have estimates of the yield of the weaponwithin hours. That measurement could be confirmed by examining the resultant crater using airborne or space-borne photography or by knowing the distance at which windows withstood the force of the shock wave. Both would also be known within hours, and there would be little doubt that the explosion was nuclear: the mushroom cloud is the symbol of the age.

The radioactive debris can provide far deeper insight. Over a period of several weeks, laboratories throughout the world with access to the debris and the equipment and expertise to conduct the necessary measurements could address questions that would potentially shed light on the identity of the perpetrators. Among these would be whether the weapon was based on highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium. Other questions that could be answered include:

  1. If the weapon used HEU, scientists could determine the enrichment or share of the uranium-235 that it contained.

  2. If the weapon used plutonium, scientists could determine how much time the fuel had spent in a nuclear reactor to create the appropriate plutonium isotopes, the length of time since this isotope was separated from spent nuclear fuel, and various isotopic signatures that might provide other indications of the production and separation processes.

  3. The sophistication, or lack thereof, of the weapon. Scientists could make this judgment based on the efficiency of the plutonium or HEU fission and whether fusion reactions might have been employed to enhance the yield.

If the isotopic data obtained from the debris could be compared with similar data from plutonium or HEU stockpiles or weapons, it might be possible, under some conditions, to conclude that some of the fissile material did or did not come from a specific arsenal. It might even be possible, given enough time and access to actual weapons designs, to conclude whether a particular type of weapon had been employed.

Such determinations, if credibly obtained and distributed, could prove vital. If it were made clear, a priori, that the supplier of the nuclear material and/or weapon would be held responsible, nuclear forensics might deter potential suppliers. After an attack, nuclear forensics could be combined with other forensics methodologies and information tying involved individuals to places and events. Together this data could help establish the route from the supplier to the user and perhaps facilitate elimination of the supply chain. Furthermore, because the samples that might be collected are very small and have a mixture of isotopes with short, medium and long half-lives,[6] a significant amount of time, measured in days, is needed before the presence of some isotopes with longer half-lives can be measured with certainty. Hence, the time required to make some of these key determinations imposes a temporary moratorium on potentially catastrophic reactions by political leaders, who can legitimately inform their constituencies that appropriate action must wait until the evidence is clear.

Although the technical challenge to fielding an international nuclear forensics team is considerable and the benefits to the international community seem incontrovertible in an era of nuclear terrorism, the political and diplomatic obstacles are enormous, perhaps overwhelming. The world community may for the moment have to be satisfied with a few seemingly small steps that could be vital in setting the stage for an international undertaking of critical importance.

Access to Debris

Unlike the reactor accident in Chernobyl, where the debris drifted northward, the narrow plume of measurable, radioactive debris emanating from an explosion in Moscow would probably drift slowly to the east and would not cross the Russian border until it reached Kazakhstan approximately 24 hours later. Conceivably, the Russian government, if it chose, could deny access to the debris for that period of time, during which it could make its own measurements and determinations and could withhold the information. In all likelihood, such a policy would fail for several reasons:

  1. Russian scientific capability is widespread and sophisticated, particularly in Moscow and its environs. Unauthorized measurements by knowledgeable scientists in Russian laboratories would be eagerly sought and propagated by a hungry press.

  2. If the explosion were near the Kremlin, the U.S. embassy in Moscow would be damaged, perhaps severely, but there would be survivors who would be evacuated to the United States, possibly carrying samples of debris with them.

  3. Foreign experts might have access to the debris as it crossed into Kazakhstan approximately a day or so after the event. Certainly, the government of Kazakhstan would have access, and given the degree of nuclear testing that has been conducted in that country, one would have to presume that forensics expertise and equipment would be available.

  4. It might be possible for the United States or another country to fly over Russian soil to obtain airborne samples of the debris. It is uncertain whether the United States or any other country would mount such a politically risky operation.

  5. The Russian government would also have to worry that foreign governments might conduct clandestine operations on its soil.

Given these considerations, it would be foolish for Russia or any other targeted nation to deny foreign access to the debris. The interests of an attacked country would be better served by inviting international expertise to participate in a forensic examination.

Access to Stockpile Data

Foreign access to the debris is one thing; access to stockpile data for purposes of comparison is quite another. Even if Russia or another country were attacked, current diplomatic realities make it unlikely that a government would grant foreign experts access to relevant stockpile data. In the Russian case, one suspects that the Kremlin would choose to treat the problem as a Russian problem at least until the source were known to them, a period of time ranging from a week to an indefinite future. In the interim, if they so chose, Russia would be free to inform the international community of their suspicions.

Ideally, the nuclear powers, operating under the aegis of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), would form an international team of nuclear forensics experts. The IAEA seems to be the better choice for a variety of reasons, including its sponsorship of an existing international working group dealing with the pre-detonation identification of nuclear materials.[7] Admittedly, on paper the CTBTO has the advantage of an established mission and an operational charter in some aspects of post-detonation nuclear forensics. It cannot perform many of these missions, however, until the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty enters into force, which will not happen in the foreseeable future.[8]

In either case, the forensics team would be similar to the UN Special Commission inspectors in Iraq following the 1991 Persian Gulf War or the IAEA inspection teams that verified the dismantlement of the South African weapons program using weapons experts from a number of nuclear-weapon states. In theory, they would have immediate access, a posteriori, to the debris and access, a priori, to nuclear-weapon data. However, until the threat of nuclear terrorism is perceived far more starkly than it is today, the ideal case is not credible. Nuclear powers surround their databases with heavy secrecy and would be unlikely to share such data with an international team no matter what controls were placed on its members.

Nor is the secrecy unjustified. The United States and Russia know a great deal about nuclear weapons that could be of benefit to terrorists, particularly if the terrorists attempted to build a nuclear weapon from stolen material of unknown purity or from reactor-grade plutonium. The possibility that the weapons data provided to an international organization for an international forensics team might be leaked or otherwise compromised makes the sharing of data of this type unlikely. In short, the gap is still too wide to cross, and it will remain so until the threat of nuclear terrorism becomes much more feared than it is today.

Interim Steps

Nevertheless, smaller steps toward building a credible forensics team are possible and could proceed on two fronts. The first is to replace the international concept with a series of bilateral arrangements, beginning with one between the United States and Russia. The second is for each partner, individually and then jointly, to examine what data could be provided to a carefully chosen and controlled bilateral team. Much of the secrecy shrouding the nuclear arsenals of the two superpowers is based on the fears of the Cold War. Such secrecy may have been important then but is not nearly so now in the face of the new nuclear age involving use of nuclear weapons by terrorists.

In this struggle, the two superpowers are close allies. Russia is deemed by many to be a likely source of fissile material. The United States, meanwhile, is judged to be a likely target, with Russia not too far behind. Such conditions can make allies of even the worst of antagonists. Furthermore, if the United States and Russia agreed to cooperate in this manner, it seems likely that the other recognized nuclear powers— France, the United Kingdom, and perhaps China—would follow. The threat of nuclear terrorism is, after all, international; the response should be the same.

For now, unfortunately, even a tightly controlled, Russian-U.S. bilateral forensics team may be a step too far. The experience of the CTR program, by which the United States assists Russia in dismantling many aspects of its nuclear arsenal, suggests that U.S. access to Russian nuclear weapons data will be extremely difficult to acquire. There are also many U.S. experts who would argue that Washington should be no more forthcoming in providing its data to such a forensics team for similar reasons. Given the potential difficulties, an even smaller step is possible and should be considered.

Building on the Experience of Cooperative Threat Reduction

The CTR experience has demonstrated that progress has only been made after the legal aspects of an endeavor have been resolved to the satisfaction of each country. This suggests that there is a necessary first step that could be taken now. This would not involve exchange of data, but it would put in place all the agreements, including characterization of the data, required to implement a joint forensics team at any point in time, including immediately after a nuclear explosion in any Russian or U.S. city or even anywhere in the world. In short, both governments could agree on the procedures, techniques, equipment, and even personnel that would be used should an attack occur.

The agreements could further ensure that the necessary arrangements are made for rapid transport of specialized technicians and equipment to the scene of the explosion to gather samples or other data. If a precisely defined team were formed, a three-fold advantage would ensue. First, a bilateral team whose capability was made known to all potential suppliers of contraband fissile material would have a deterrent effect as there would be a signature. The signature would admittedly not be as clear as that from a missile launch from an established country, but it would be a signature nonetheless. The deterrent effect would be further strengthened if there were a joint U.S.-Russian statement to the effect that the supplier would be held responsible.

Second, of all the successes the CTR program has achieved during the past decade, one of the most profound and unanticipated has been the close working relationship between a long-standing and unchanging team of experts from the Department of Energy laboratories and the Russian navy. As with most human relationships, a bond of trust has been formed over the years based on professionalism and sense of purpose. The same could be true of the suggested bilateral forensics team. Access to data is also likely to increase as the specter of nuclear terrorism continues to gain credibility. This would naturally cause suppliers to be less willing to arm terrorists.

Third, the unique nature and prestige of such a forensics team would hopefully impress more than suppliers. Political leaders and perhaps even the press would become aware of the existence of an authoritative source of accurate information on nuclear detonations. Public leaders would be more likely to forestall inflammatory pronouncements as the world waited the necessary time for accurate information from a unique and respected source, just as the United States did in the case of the bombing of TWA Flight 800.[9] Surely it would be to the benefit of all to wait a few days or a few weeks before taking extreme measures.


Although the arguments presented here have focused on the advantages and challenges of a U.S.-Russian nuclear forensics team in the face of an attack on Moscow, the symmetry of the situation is readily apparent. If a U.S. city were attacked, Washington would immediately seek to determine the origin of the weapon and its fissile material. The possibility of a Russian source would be high on the list, and there would be no better way to investigate this possibility than through the use of a highly credible bilateral team. Unlike most of the CTR program, where the asymmetry between the U.S. and Russian situations has been apparent and sometimes painful, nuclear forensics in the age of nuclear terrorism could be truly symmetric. The United States and Russia would be clearly seen as equal partners embarked on a project of immense importance, not just to the two countries but to the entire international community.

Although it is conceivable that a U.S.-Russian forensics team could be formed, even that it could be extended to the established nuclear powers of the United Kingdom, France, and China, it is unlikely that other nuclear-weapon states or, more importantly, aspiring nuclear states such as Iran and North Korea would allow access to their nuclear data. Such states might even provide fissile material or weapons to terrorists.

Of what value, then, is multilateral forensics? First, there is the simple process of elimination: there is value in knowing where the weapon did not originate. Second, an urban nuclear detonation would be so horrendous that concerted and cooperative action by the established nuclear-weapon states with regard to finding the source might open the seemingly closed doors of any nation to its nuclear secrets. Finally, the ancient Chinese proverb seems to apply: “the longest journey begins with a single step.”

All hope that the efforts to preclude a terrorist nuclear detonation are successful, but if such an event did occur, timely and credible data is needed on the likely source or sources of the fissile material or the nuclear device. A determination would help in restoring confidence to populations fearful of additional detonations and provide governments with evidence to pursue and find the perpetrators and eliminate further threats. The credibility of the nuclear forensic information would be significantly enhanced if provided or corroborated through a multinational or at least bilateral nuclear forensic team. Such cooperative activities could be fostered by approaches similar to the joint U.S.-Russian CTR programs of the past decade.

Post-Detonation Nuclear Forensics

As responsible governments want to locate nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists before they are detonated, they have tended to focus on improving methods to detect fissile material (pre-detonation) more than using forensic techniques to determine the products generated by fission (post-detonation). Pre-detonation technology includes x-ray machines that may show the presence of a nuclear device and gamma-ray detectors that indicate the presence of fissile material. In post-detonation forensics, the arcane field of radiochemistry plays the major role.

In the event of a nuclear explosion, radiochemists would seek to obtain minute quantities of debris from the nuclear device near ground zero and/or in the atmosphere. They would first separate the atoms into groups of chemically similar elements and then measure the radioactivity of each group. To do so, scientists often employ gamma-ray spectroscopy to measure the time of emission and the energy of each detectable gamma ray, electromagnetic radiation produced by radioactive decay.

The energy of the detected gamma ray is unique to each isotope of a specific element, thereby indicating its presence in the debris. Furthermore, the rate at which that isotope emits its signature gamma ray decays in time according to its unique half-life, thereby providing a second identifier of the isotope. By knowing the chemistry of elements that have been separated, the energy of the gamma rays of any radioactive atoms in that chemical group, and the rate at which the emission of the gamma rays at each particular energy level decays over time, scientists can obtain an accurate measurement of many of the isotopes of the chemical elements in the debris. Because there is always experimental uncertainty, particularly with small samples, all three processes (separation, energy measurement, and time dependence) may be used.

Three types of atoms are of particular interest in a forensic analysis:

  • Atoms of fissile material that did not undergo fission. Examining them allows scientists to identify the material used to make the device and, when compared to the number of fission fragments, to measure the efficiency or sophistication of the weapon.

  • New atoms created by fission and by other nuclear reactions within the fissile material. When scientists compare these, they can obtain considerable insight into the nuclear processes that were involved during the actual explosion.

  • Atoms of material near the fissioning core that were subjected to an intense bombardment of neutrons during the explosion and became radioactive as a consequence. These atoms provide insight into the components of the weapon and the energy of the neutrons that activated the components.

Post-detonation forensics are by no means limited to the steps noted above, nor does the description of even these steps do justice to the creativity and sophistication of instrumentation and techniques that have evolved since the beginning of the nuclear age and which continue to evolve and improve in the face of nuclear terrorism. The Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Energy have substantial and continuing research and operational programs in the field.

—William Dunlop and Harold Smith


William Dunlop is a semi-retired senior scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories (LLNL). He formally led LLNL’s Arms Control and International Non-Proliferation programs and during the 1990s was a scientific adviser to the U.S. delegation involved in negotiations on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Harold Smith is a distinguished visiting scholar and professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley. He served as assistant to the secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs during the Clinton administration. The views reflected here are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies of LLNL or the University of California.


1. William J. Broad, “New Team Plans to Identify Nuclear Attackers,” The New York Times, February 2, 2006.

2. See John B. Dunlop, The 2002 Dubrovka and 2004 Beslan Hostage Crises: A Critique of Russian Counter-Terrorism ( Stuttgart: Verlag, 2004).

3. See Mark Kramer, “The Sinking of the Kursk,” PONARS Policy Memo No. 145, September 2000.

4. Dr. Edward Walker of the University of California at Berkeley contributed greatly to these concepts.

5. TWA Flight 800 exploded at low altitude during takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport on July 17, 1996. Initial suspicions were that it was attacked by a ground-to-air missile.

6. The half-life is the time required for half of the atoms in any given quantity of a radioactive isotope to decay, emitting some form of nuclear radiation.

7. Nuclear Forensics Support: International Atomic Energy Agency Nuclear Security Series No. 2, 2006.

8. To monitor and verify compliance with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), a global network of radionuclide monitoring stations is nearing completion. The network is already delivering data to a Vienna-based International Data Center, which is making the information available to signatories. Data derived from the stations could potentially provide information relevant for attributing the source of the material used in a nuclear detonation. The on-site inspection functions called for under the CTBT, however, will not be available for use until such time as the CTBT enters into force. Such inspections are primarily designed to determine whether a nuclear detonation has taken place.

9. Conclusive evidence that the explosion was caused by an internal malfunction rather than a ground-to-air missile was not available for many months, but the prestige of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was such that the United States decided not to take action until the NTSB had made its determination. By then, of course, retribution was moot.


Anti-Nuclear Terrorism Initiative Launched

Wade Boese

The United States and Russia launched an initiative July 15 that they hope will energize countries worldwide to prevent and react to nuclear terrorist attacks. Whether they succeed remains uncertain, as the initiative is still in its formative stages.

Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin announced the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism July 15 in St. Petersburg just before the Group of Eight (G-8) summit. A joint statement by the two leaders declared that “[t]he United States and Russia call upon like-minded nations to expand and accelerate efforts that develop partnership capacity to combat nuclear terrorism on a determined and systematic basis.” Putin told reporters that he hoped the initiative “opens new horizons” and delivers “concrete results.”

Precisely what other governments will be asked to do is expected to be clarified over the next several months. Moscow and Washington plan to hold a meeting sometime this fall to draw up a statement of principles to guide future actions under the initiative.

When and where this inaugural event will take place has not been determined. Department of State officials interviewed Aug. 17 by Arms Control Today said that other expected participants include the six other G-8 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom) and a few additional select governments. The International Atomic Energy Agency also will be invited as an observer.

One of the State Department officials said the limited participation reflected a desire to restrict the number of those negotiating the principles to a “manageable number.” Afterward, all countries who endorse the principles would be welcome to participate in the initiative.

The U.S. intent is to keep the principles “short and sweet,” the official said. The principles, he added, would not “radically” veer from the contents of the presidents’ joint statement. In their statement, the two leaders urged stepping up efforts to account for and secure nuclear materials, ferret out and crack down on illicit nuclear trade, stiffen penalties for terrorists seeking nuclear material, and prepare for the aftermath of a nuclear attack.

Much of what is in the joint statement, such as safeguarding nuclear materials against theft, are measures countries have already voluntarily committed to doing or are obliged to do by legally binding agreements and acts. For instance, UN Security Council Resolutions 1540 and 1673 require governments to “adopt and enforce appropriate effective laws” to deny nonstate actors unconventional weapons. (See ACT, June 2006.) Another State Department official stated that these pre-existing commitments and obligations constitute the “floor” of what should be expected of other countries.

The State Department officials stressed that the initiative’s value will be measured in part by how quickly governments can translate it into action: holding exercises, forming task forces, convening working groups, and sharing lessons learned. The heart of the initiative, they insisted, was the creation of “partnerships and networks” within and between governments, as well as the public and private sectors.

In a July 18 speech in Washington, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph spoke on this theme. “The initiative will bring diplomats together with first responders, forensic and technical experts, law enforcement officers, the military, and others,” he stated.

Joseph further said a specific work plan would be drawn up at the initiative’s first meeting. He outlined some objectives that the United States would like to see achieved, such as including national nuclear materials information databases and a real-time process for sharing information on detections of illicit nuclear trafficking.

At the same time, Joseph emphasized the voluntary nature of the initiative. “Our goal is to galvanize our partners to invest greater resources in their own capabilities to protect nuclear materials on their territories,” Joseph stated.

In many respects, the initiative resembles the Bush administration’s voluntary three-year-old Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) to interdict shipments of unconventional weapons in transit. Like the PSI, there are no plans for the nuclear terrorism initiative to have a secretariat, formal structure, or financial dues. PSI participants repeatedly note that the PSI is “an activity, not an organization.”

Announcement of the new initiative largely drew praise. Japan, Kazakhstan, and Turkey issued statements welcoming the initiative, as did NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. Former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), a leading advocate of securing global nuclear materials, also labeled the initiative a “significant breakthrough” but cautioned that “there can be a big gap between words and deeds, a big gap between pledges and programs, and a big gap between goals and accomplishments.”



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