"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
July/August 2007
Edition Date: 
Sunday, July 1, 2007
Cover Image: 

More Than Words: The Value of U.S. Non-Nuclear-Use Promises

George Bunn and Jean du Preez

Last year, for the first time, the United States voted in the UN General Assembly against a traditional resolution calling for negotiation of legally binding negative security assurances (NSAs) by nuclear-weapon states. These are promises not to use nuclear weapons against nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) states-parties that have promised not to acquire them. In the debate, the U.S. delegation explained that the United States “opposes a treaty on negative security assurances or any other binding instrument on security assurances.”[1]

U.S. military officials have long opposed explicit promises not to use nuclear weapons against countries that do not have them. Prior to the current administration, however, the U.S. government had rarely been so clear in stating its opposition. This new position is contrary to U.S. national interests.

U.S. superiority in conventional weapons and the advent of precision-guided munitions means that the United States does not need to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons to achieve its military goals effectively, even against those states that possess chemical or biological weapons. Indeed, the United States needs to be prepared to use nuclear weapons only in response to an attack with nuclear weapons. Moreover, the U.S. refusal to endorse NSAs only encourages additional countries, including U.S. enemies, to acquire nuclear weapons.

Cold War Origins

A debate over NSAs began in the 1960s during the negotiation of the NPT. The nations that were being asked in the NPT to forgo pursuit of nuclear weapons wanted assurances that they would not be attacked with nuclear weapons if they gave up the option of having them. Developing countries that belong to the 115-member Nonaligned Movement (NAM) urged that the NPT contain a promise by NPT members having nuclear weapons (China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States) not to use them against members that did not have them. In the United States, secret nuclear war plans probably did not target countries that did not have nuclear weapons, except perhaps for a few that had governments closely aligned with the Soviet Union or China. Nonetheless, the Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed such restrictions on their use of nuclear weapons, and the U.S. delegation to the NPT negotiations was not authorized to agree to any.[2]

Following the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and the revelation that the Soviet Union had deployed nuclear weapons with its troops on Cuban soil, several Latin American countries, spearheaded by Mexico and Brazil, successfully negotiated the Latin American and Caribbean Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty, known also as the Treaty of Tlatelolco. Given the U.S. strategic interest in keeping Latin America free of nuclear weapons, Washington supported the treaty. On the insistence of the Latin American governments advocating the treaty, the United States eventually ratified a protocol to the treaty committing itself “not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against contracting states,” i.e., the parties to the Latin American treaty, none of which had nuclear weapons.[3]

But, the United States, fearing a Soviet-assisted attack from the Latin American region, qualified its treaty nonuse promise by stating that it would consider an armed attack (not necessarily a nuclear attack) by a Latin American treaty party that was assisted by a nation that had nuclear weapons to be incompatible with the Latin American party’s obligations under the treaty. This implied that, in the event of such an assisted attack, the United States could use nuclear weapons to reply even if no nuclear weapons had been used by the attacker.

Although not as unqualified as some Latin Americans had desired, the U.S. promise not to use nuclear weapons against Latin American countries gave the nonaligned states in other parts of the world incentives to seek nuclear nonuse commitments from the nuclear-weapon states, as the Latin Americans had done.[4] During the NPT negotiations in the 1960s, however, the United States successfully resisted attempts by nonaligned countries to provide, in the NPT itself, a commitment not to use nuclear weapons against countries that did not have them.

In 1978 the United States took a significant step toward the demands of non-nuclear-weapon states. It pledged not to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear-weapon NPT member unless attacked by such a member while that member was acting in alliance with a nation having nuclear weapons. Before the 1995 NPT review conference, which extended the life of the NPT indefinitely, U.S. officials knew that they would again be asked by those whose support they needed at the NPT extension conference to promise not to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear-weapon member of the NPT. To meet this demand on acceptable terms, the United States and the four other NPT nuclear-weapon states declared to the Security Council prior to the conference that each would not use nuclear weapons against NPT non-nuclear-weapon states. The United States restated its nonuse promise:

The United States reaffirms that it will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon [NPT members] except in the case of an invasion or any other attack on the United States, its territories, its armed forces or other troops, its allies, or on a state towards which it has a security commitment, carried out or sustained by such a non-nuclear-weapon state in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon state.[5]

France, Russia, and the United Kingdom, who are also permanent members of the Security Council, each made similar NSAs with a similar exception. China, the fifth permanent member, was broader in its NSA. It did not include this exception. Moreover, it included an explicit promise not to use nuclear weapons first.

Except for China, all of the permanent members of the Security Council (the P-5) said that these assurances were not legally binding promises. Later, at the 2005 NPT review conference, China urged eventual negotiation of “legally binding security assurances by nuclear-weapon states,” the goal of the General Assembly resolution to which the first paragraph of this article refers.

These P-5 NSAs were part of the quid pro quo used to gain support from non-nuclear-weapon NPT members for the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995. The United States, which had initiated the effort by the P-5 to provide the promises, saw them as necessary to secure broad support for the NPT’s extension from the nonaligned NPT members. Extension required a majority vote, and nonaligned members represented 115 of the 189 NPT members.

Securing the extension of the treaty in 1995 was important for the P-5, hence their willingness to make nonuse promises to achieve its extension. These nonuse promises, however, have been weakened since 1995, except perhaps for the promise from China.

Taking Back the Promises: The Clinton and Bush Legacies

Soon after the U.S. representative made the promise of nonuse before the Security Council in 1995, the Department of Defense began urging exceptions to it. Probably as a result of this view, the Clinton administration argued that even under a nonuse commitment in a treaty such as the Latin American nuclear-weapon-free zone treaty, the United States would not be bound to refrain from a nuclear response to a chemical or biological attack from a member of the nuclear-weapon-free zone. President Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense, William Perry, said publicly that “if some nation were to attack the United States with chemical weapons, then they would fear the consequences of a response with any weapon in our inventory…. We could make a devastating response without use of nuclear weapons, but we would not forswear that possibility.“[6]

In addition, NATO retained the option to use nuclear weapons first in future conflicts and, like the United States, reaffirmed its right to use nuclear weapons against a chemical or biological attack.[7] Thus, the United States and NATO refused to accept the NSAs as legally binding prohibitions on their use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon NPT members.

Toward the end of his administration, Clinton approved a modification of the B61-11 nuclear warhead for use as a “bunker buster” to attack biological or chemical weapons stored underground in hostile countries, weapons that U.S. officials believed could threaten the United States and its allies. Potential enemies, including some nonaligned countries, were suspected of digging deep underground bunkers for the purpose of sheltering biological or chemical weapons from enemy attack. The proposed bunker-buster nuclear weapons were intended to destroy these bunkers and what they contained before the biological or chemical weapons could be used in an attack on the United States or its allies.

The Bush administration further changed U.S. nuclear weapons-use policy after the terrorist attacks of 2001. The Defense Department’s December 2001 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), parts of which were made public in early 2002, reasserted the Clinton administration’s desire for earth-penetrating nuclear weapons to destroy biological weapons stored underground by an enemy. This position assumed first use of nuclear weapons in that engagement.

In response to questions raised by this provision of the 2001 NPR, a Department of State spokesperson repeated the 1995 NSA that had been given by the United States to help gain votes for the extension of the NPT that year. He added that “the policy says that we will do whatever is necessary to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States, its allies, and its interests. If a weapon of mass destruction is used against the United States or its allies, we will not rule out any specific type of military response.”

In September 2002, President George W. Bush issued a White House National Security Strategy (NSS) that declared that “rogue states and terrorists” were determined to acquire biological and chemical weapons and that the United States might one day need to use nuclear weapons to deal with such an acquisition. The statement seemed to call for the use of U.S. weapons, including nuclear ones, to destroy biological or chemical weapons before either could be used.

[W]e must be prepared to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and our allies and friends…. If the legitimacy of preemption [by the United States is to depend] on the existence of an imminent threat, [we] must adapt the concept of legitimate threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries [who] rely on acts of terror and, potentially, the use of weapons of mass destruction—weapons that can be easily concealed, delivered covertly, and used without warning…. The greater the threat, the greater the risk of inaction—and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action. To forestall such hostile attacks, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.[8]

Under this strategy, preemptive action by the United States might include the use of nuclear weapons to counter a chemical weapon attack or to destroy a potential enemy’s stocks of biological weapons before they could be used. In the December 2002 “National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction,” the Bush administration added that U.S. counterproliferation forces “must possess the full range of operational capabilities to counter the threat and use of [weapons of mass destruction] by states and terrorists against the United States, our military forces, and friends and allies.”[9]

These statements suggest that the United States reserves the right to first use of nuclear weapons to retaliate against attacks using chemical or biological weapons or to destroy enemy chemical or biological weapons stockpiles before they can be used in an attack.[10] Perhaps to implement such a strategy, the administration proposed a new nuclear warhead to Congress, the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP). It was supposed to be used to attack “hard and deeply buried targets,” such as underground storage sites for biological and chemical weapons. Congress cut out the funds proposed by the Bush administration for the development of RNEP in the appropriations for the Department of Energy for the fiscal years 2005 and 2006. The department did not request such funds for fiscal years 2007 or 2008.

The Bush administration in various ways has said that it is not bound to refrain from the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon NPT states-parties who attack with biological or chemical weapons. Indeed, the United States may well have contributed to the failure of the 2005 NPT review conference by refusing even to discuss NSAs there.      

If the security assurances provided by the United States to non-nuclear-weapon NPT members in 1995 appear to these members to have less value as result of the Bush administration’s statements, will this reduce the motivation of some NPT members to stay within the NPT?

The Future of Negative Security Assurances

To states without nuclear weapons not allied to states that do have them, a credible promise by the five NPT nuclear-weapon states not to use nuclear weapons against them should have value. Judging by the demands for such assurances from NAM, the largest caucus of NPT non-nuclear-weapon parties, the quest for legally binding NSAs will continue despite opposition from the United States and most of the P-5.

At the 2000 NPT review conference, these NAM states together with the New Agenda Coalition (NAC), a smaller coalition of non-nuclear-weapon nations formed in 1998 to advance nuclear disarmament, were successful in extracting a clear acknowledgement by all NPT parties, in particular the P-5, that legally binding NSAs would strengthen the nonproliferation regime. The final document of the 2000 review conference also called on the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the 2005 review conference to make recommendations on this issue.

Despite several concrete proposals, including a draft nonuse protocol to the NPT submitted by the NAC, the PrepCom made no such recommendations. Indeed, the final PrepCom in 2004 reported Washington’s perception that the post-September 11, 2001, security environment obviated “any justification for expanding NSAs to encompass global legally binding assurances.” The U.S. delegation reacted to the PrepCom chairman’s summary by stating emphatically, “We did not, do not, and will not agree as stated in the summary that efforts to conclude a universal, unconditional, and legally binding instrument on security assurances to non-nuclear-weapon states should be pursued as a matter of priority.” This message foreshadowed Washington’s position at the 2005 conference, where it asserted that “the very real nuclear threats from NPT violators and non-state actors” eclipses the “relevance of non-use assurances.”

An acrimonious debate about security assurances was among the reasons for the failed 2005 NPT review conference. The United States refused even to discuss them seriously at this conference or at its preparatory meetings, saying:

[T]he end of the Cold War has further lessened the relevance of non-use assurances from the P-5 to the security of NPT [non-nuclear-weapon states], particularly when measured against the very real nuclear threats from NPT violators and non-state actors.… [L]egally binding assurances sought by the majority of states have no relation to contemporary threats to the NPT.[11]

Options for the Next Administration

Attempts to negotiate NSAs with the United States under the Bush administration seem impractical, but the next U.S. administration needs to take up the issue in time for the 2010 NPT review conference. As with the 1995 conference, the United States should lead a P-5 initiative prior to the 2010 conference to reaffirm political pledges not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states. To build confidence in its nuclear intentions, it should allow the conference to establish a mechanism to consider ways to provide legally binding NSAs. In this regard, a new administration could consider several options.

One option would be approval of another UN Security Council resolution going beyond the one adopted prior to the 1995 conference. Such a resolution of security assurances to NPT non-nuclear-weapon parties in full compliance with their obligations could include two key components. It could recognize that legally binding security assurances to non-nuclear-weapon NPT members in full compliance with their nonproliferation obligations would strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation regime and that the Security Council should consider taking action against any nation threatening to use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear-weapon NPT member. Although the first of these two parts would go a long way to address the concerns of many states that the United States and the other nuclear-weapon NPT members have weakened their NSA promises, the second statement would address the security of non-nuclear-weapon NPT members not aligned with any of the P-5.

In light of  the Bush administration’s insistence that the 1995 U.S. assurances, offered essentially to gain support for the indefinite extension of the NPT and recognized by the Security Council, are not legally binding on the United States, and that these assurances do not preclude the United States from preemptory attacks upon underground hiding places for biological or chemical weapons, the solemn declarations made by the United States and other P-5 members are now regarded as of little value by these non-nuclear-weapon NPT members. Unless a post-2008 U.S. administration wins back the confidence of these nonaligned states that U.S nuclear policies are not aimed at them, any approach through the Security Council would be unappealing.

 Another step would be to offer guarantees to countries in nuclear-weapon-free zones outside of Latin America. Other existing zones include Africa, Central Asia, the South Pacific, and Southeast Asia. The United States has not yet committed itself legally not to attack or threaten to attack with nuclear weapons members of these zones. This leaves many to believe that the United States is keeping the nuclear option open even for states that have, in addition to their NPT non-nuclear-weapon state obligations, declared that their own and their neighbors’ territories must be free of nuclear weapons. A main driving force behind declaring these zones free of nuclear weapons is not to be threatened by states that have them.

Nuclear-weapon-free zones play an important role in strengthening the security of states that belong to such zones, but these zones remain complementary instruments to the global nuclear nonproliferation norm: the NPT. Pending the total elimination of nuclear weapons, only the NPT provides the framework for global assurances against the threat or use of nuclear weapons. Because amendment of the NPT is almost impossible, legally binding assurances could be more effectively addressed in a separate treaty or, better yet, a protocol to the existing NPT. Honoring only those assurances given to members of existing nuclear-weapon-free zones would exclude countries not covered by these zones or by other nuclear security arrangements.

A nuclear-weapon state could also provide unilateral security assurances to a non-nuclear-weapon state. This may be feasible in a few cases, but it could also send the wrong signal. North Korea has sought such a promise from the United States. If U.S.-North Korean negotiations produce such a promise, it should of course be conditioned on North Korea’s observance of its commitment not to acquire nuclear weapons and to give up any that it now has. Such a promise, however, could send a dangerous message: the only way to extract assurances from the United States against the threat or use of nuclear weapons is to seek such weapons first. If other states, such as Iran, use similar nuclear brinkmanship, the nonproliferation regime could be blown apart.

Two other broader options could also be considered. One would be a new treaty containing promises by the P-5 not to use nuclear weapons against NPT-compliant non-nuclear-weapon members. Such a treaty has been proposed for negotiation at the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD). NPT outsiders India, Israel, and Pakistan, however, are active participants at this conference and would probably not agree to be excluded from the negotiations. At the same time, many non-nuclear-weapon states would be in principle opposed to accepting NSAs from these three nuclear-armed countries. In the eyes of NPT non-nuclear-weapon members, why should nonmember states with nuclear weapons gain the benefits of a nuclear nonuse promise? In addition, negotiating such a treaty in the CD would create yet another proliferation conundrum. Would Israel, which is a CD member, acknowledge its nuclear status and, as a result, be required to offer legally binding assurances to its Arab neighbors? Will its Arab neighbors accept Israel’s status and its offer? The answer to both questions is likely to be no.

At the moment, the CD remains deadlocked over several issues, including whether to take up a Sri Lankan proposal that includes discussion of NSAs and possibly negotiation of such a treaty. The best option would probably be to negotiate a protocol to the NPT containing NSAs for all non-nuclear-weapon NPT members. The NAC submitted such a draft based on an earlier South African draft for consideration during the preparatory phase for the 2005 conference. The United States, however, categorically opposed it, and no serious negotiations on it resulted.

A protocol to the NPT has the advantage of limiting the recipients of the promise to non-nuclear-weapon NPT members and thereby providing a reward for joining and staying within the NPT. Surely, security assurances should only be available to states that have forgone the nuclear weapons option. Non-NPT states-parties and NPT states-parties aspiring to acquire or develop nuclear weapons in contravention of the treaty should not enjoy such security luxury. Security assurances granted only to non-nuclear-weapon states in full compliance with their NPT nonproliferation obligations will emphasize the basic principle that security is guaranteed by the NPT regime and not by nuclear weapons. This would strengthen the regime and confirm the validity of the NPT and its indefinite extension. Legally binding security assurances linked to the NPT would also build confidence among NPT state-parties, addressing concerns over possible scenarios in which some nuclear-weapon states may consider using these arms.


Although it is too early to predict how the 2010 review conference will approach this thorny issue and what the outcome of the negotiations will be, a significant number of NPT delegations at the first PrepCom meeting for the 2010 conference, including the NAM,[12] the NAC, and close U.S. allies made specific proposals on security assurances.

The European Union, for instance, emphasized that both “positive and negative assurances can play an important role in the NPT regime and can serve as an incentive to forgo the acquisition” of weapons of mass destruction. The EU also committed itself to promote further consideration of security assurances. Italy called for additional efforts “to explore the possibility that existing security assurances may be complemented by a multilateral legally binding instrument.”

 Canada argued that discussions of legally binding NSAs “would most logically take place in the context of the [NPT].” Canada also asked a number of pertinent questions, including whether the unilateral assurances made by the nuclear-weapon states in 1995 are still valid, given “new doctrines announced by some of them. If not, what if any assurances remain from these states?”

As a consequence of the emphasis placed on security assurances during the 2007 meeting of the PrepCom, the chairman stated in his summary of the deliberations that:

[s]tates parties noted that pending the elimination of nuclear weapons, the nuclear-weapon states should provide security assurances to the non-nuclear-weapon states that they would not use nuclear weapons against them. It was expressed that security assurances can play an important role in the NPT regime and can serve as an incentive to forgo the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. It was emphasized that the need for NSAs, a key basis for the 1995 extension decision, remained essential and should be reaffirmed. Reaffirmations were expressed of commitments under Security Council Resolution 984 (1995).[13]

Although a number of delegations reacted to other parts of the chairman’s summary complaining that it incorrectly reflected the discussions at the meeting, especially in the case of Iran, no specific reference was made to these security assurances. It seems that the U.S. delegation either decided that there were bigger fish to fry (e.g., Iran’s nuclear program) or chose simply to ignore the issue.

If the United States and other nuclear-weapon states, perhaps with the exception of China, continue to ignore the long quest by responsible states not to be threatened by P-5 nuclear arsenals, then the outcome of the 2010 conference may be in jeopardy. Another failed conference would hold very negative consequences for the future of the NPT regime, especially if such failure is once again the result in part of the insistence by the United States to retain the right to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against states not having them.

We urge the next U.S. administration to modify the adamant rejection of effective NSAs by the current administration. We believe that negotiating legally binding NSAs in the context of the NPT is the way to go.


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 Conference on Disarmament. Jean du Preez is director of the International Organizations and Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in the Monterey Institute of International Studies.


1. See “Conclusion of Effective International Arrangements to Assure Non-nuclear-weapon States Against the Use or Threat of Use of Nuclear Weapons,” UN General Assembly Resolution 61/57, October 23, 2006.

2. For a more detailed history of the 1960s-1990s negotiations concerning NSAs, see George Bunn, “Security Assurances to Non-Nuclear-Weapon States,” The Nonproliferation Review (Fall 1994), pp. 11-18.

3. Additional Protocol II to the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America, which was signed by Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and ratified by President Richard Nixon in 1971.

4. See Leonard Spector and Aubrie Ohide, “Negative Security Assurances: Revisiting the Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Option,” Arms Control Today, April 2005, pp. 13-19.

5. See Thomas Graham and Leonor Tomero, “Obligations for Us All: NATO and Negative Security Assurances,” Disarmament Diplomacy (August 2000).

6. See Arms Control Association (ACA), “New Nuclear Policies, New Weapons, New Dangers,” Issue Brief, April 2003.

7. Graham and Tomero, “Obligations for Us All.”

8. The White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September 2002, p.14.

9. The White House, National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, December 2002. This is an unclassified version of a classified National Security Policy Document (NSPD), no. 17, issued earlier.

10. See ACA, “U.S. Nuclear Policy: ‘Negative Security Assurances,’” Fact Sheet, March 2002.

11. See statement by Stephen G. Rademaker to the 2005 NPT review conference, available at http://www.un.org/events/npt2005/statements/npt02usa.pdf.

12. Working paper submitted by Cuba on behalf of the NAM at the 2007 PrepCom meeting for the 2010 NPT review conference, NPT/CONF/.2010/PCI/WP.10.

13. See summary statement by Yukiya Amano to the 2007 PrepCom meeting for the 2010 NPT review conference, available at http://www.un.org/NPT2010.

Following the Clues: The Role of Forensics in Preventing Nuclear Terrorism

Sidney Niemeyer and David K. Smith

Although the more than 50 incidents of trafficking in nuclear and radiological materials each year are worrisome, these cases also provide valuable insight to the movement of these materials worldwide. Conducting thorough investigations that utilize nuclear forensics techniques to determine the source of interdicted nuclear materials can help prevent additional trafficking and ultimately terrorist use of nuclear weapons.

After all, the most likely early warning of an adversary’s planned nuclear attack will be previous involvement in illicit transfer of nuclear materials. Until now, however, local authorities have viewed such incidents as narrow violations of domestic laws rather than as threats to national and international security.

If nuclear forensic investigations become the norm for interdicted nuclear materials, investigators could analyze nuclear materials, devices or associated material to identify the source and the route of transit and ultimately help to identify the traffickers.[1] In particular, a nuclear forensics investigation might help answer such questions as: Is there a leak in one of the known holdings of nuclear material? Where was legitimate control lost? How did the material come to be where we found it? Can we link this material to the perpetrators? Is this case connected to previous cases?

A case becomes more significant if it can be linked to other instances demonstrating a sustained effort to sell or obtain nuclear material. Even some incidents that appear to constitute a relatively low threat, for example, trafficking in low-enriched uranium, ought to be investigated because such commerce may portend more serious threats. For example, an adversary may be attempting “trial runs” to test the ability to transport nuclear material without detection. Experience from law enforcement indicates that the combined evidence from two related cases enhances the probability of solving them both.

Once the difficult task of detection and interdiction has been accomplished, nuclear forensics should be used to understand the history of the interdicted material. If the source of the leak can be identified, steps can be taken to close that leak. A scenario that calls for a particularly rapid nuclear forensics investigation is one in which the perpetrators are close to assembling and detonating more than one nuclear bomb. The attacks of September 11, 2001, taught us that if a group of terrorists possess sufficient material, they might well attack multiple targets. Nuclear forensics, applied in time, can be the key to thwarting such a coordinated, multipronged attack.

Indeed, the use of nuclear forensics in a pre-detonation scenario may prove more effective as a preventative measure and deterrent than the more acknowledged scenario of using such techniques in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.[2] Deterrence works only when an adversary perceives that the consequences of its actions will be met by a credible and exacting response. In the case of a nuclear detonation, the typical stated (or implied) response is commensurately severe. Yet, some have questioned the government’s willingness to launch a devastating counterattack against those perceived to be responsible, especially when the evidence against the adversary might be less than unequivocal. By contrast, when the episode involves intercepting nuclear materials at an earlier stage, the response against a supplier could be less draconian and thereby viewed as more credible. Earlier intervention allows decision-makers more time to craft a broader and more measured response.

The time is right to promote the deterrent function of nuclear forensics. Several international instruments are now in place to advance forensic capabilities internationally. UN Security Council Resolution 1540 obligates states to take steps to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction and supporting technologies. The United States and Russia have recently spearheaded the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, which provides for cooperation between law enforcement agencies to address the problem of the spread of radiological materials. Several U.S.-led efforts, including the Nuclear Trafficking Response Group and the Nuclear Smuggling Outreach Initiative, identify nuclear forensics as an important vehicle to ensure the responsible international stewardship of nuclear materials.

Using these arrangements, several specific steps need to be taken to enhance the usefulness of nuclear forensics in preventing nuclear terrorism. First, the United States and other states that have declared countering nuclear terrorism as a priority should seek to establish a new international norm that places far greater importance on conducting nuclear forensic investigations for interdictions of illicit nuclear materials. In a majority of past incidents, the investigation was conducted in the context of local government laws, often from the customs perspective that places a premium on the monetary value of the interdicted material, i.e., if you cannot sell it for much, we do not care much. New policies are necessary that emphasize threats to international and national security. All governments must be committed to pursuing these illegal acts to the fullest extent possible. Doing so would surely greatly enhance the global ability to detect the early warning signs of nuclear terrorist activity.

Second, greatly expand international cooperation in both developing nuclear forensics as a newly emerging discipline and pursuing nuclear forensic investigations. Nuclear smuggling is an international problem; identified smuggling routes do not neatly coincide with state borders. An informal and unaffiliated group that assembles the world’s leading experts in nuclear forensics, the Nuclear Smuggling International Technical Working Group (ITWG), has been working toward just that end since 1995.[3] The ITWG continues to make progress, but it would benefit greatly from new policies that support a greater level of cooperation. These would include much more vigorously developing bilateral R&D projects in nuclear forensics data collection and interpretation; establishing relationships for working cases collaboratively; advancing best practices in pursuing nuclear forensics investigations to establish a global “knowledge base” system that would draw upon subject matter experts and associated information in a way that also protects national interests; and increasing the scope of participation in the ITWG by new member states and organizations affected by nuclear trafficking.

Third, governments should make greater investments in improving their nuclear forensics capability. The magnitude of the investment depends on the extent to which policymakers agree on the relative importance of nuclear forensics in a national strategy for counterterrorism and nonproliferation. We suggest that the current level of investment will only slowly mature U.S. capabilities in nuclear forensics. If we are to embrace an international objective of true nuclear accountability, the appropriate technologies must enable the United States and its partner governments to trace illicit nuclear materials back to their points of origin and unauthorized diversion as well as help identify those responsible for these acts.


Sidney Niemeyer is a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and currently serves as a scientific adviser to the newly formed National Technical Nuclear Forensics Center in the Department of Homeland Security. David K. Smith is a geochemist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and also serves as a scientific advisor on international nuclear forensics to the U.S. Department of State and the National Technical Nuclear Forensics Center.


1. International Atomic Energy Agency, “Nuclear Forensics Support,” Nuclear Security Series, No. 2 (2006), p. 67.

2. See Graham Allison, “Deterring Kim Jong Il,” The Washington Post, October 27, 2006; Michael May et al., “Preparing for the Worst,” Nature, October 2006, pp. 907-908; William Dunlop and Harold Smith, “Who Did It? Using International Nuclear Forensics to Detect and Deter Nuclear Terrorism,” Arms Control Today, October 2006, pp. 6-10.

3. L. Koch et al., “Proceedings: European Safeguards Research and Development Association,” 1999, pp. 805-810.

An Unrealized Nexus? WMD-related Trafficking, Terrorism, and Organized Crime in the Former Soviet Union

Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, powerfully advanced the notion that terrorist groups might acquire and use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or, more plausibly, radiological dispersal devices (RDD). Terrorist interest in weapons of mass destruction is ample. Al Qaeda has been on record as determined to acquire and use these weapons.

In 1995, several years prior to the September 11 attacks, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo sought to gain nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, and it successfully used sarin gas. That same year, Chechen rebels planted but did not explode an RDD made of cesium-137 and dynamite in Moscow’s Izmailovsky Park.

In 2004 the uncovering of the Abdul Qadeer Khan network fueled new concerns that trafficking in WMD material could give rise to a parallel black market of nuclear material linked to organized crime. Pointing out that terrorist organizations and organized crime had already cooperated in the drug trafficking business, a number of analysts warned that organized crime might decide to channel WMD material to terrorists.

Much of the concern about a possible nexus between WMD trafficking, organized crime, and terrorism focused on the former Soviet Union, particularly Central Asia and the Caucasus. There, a large number of insufficiently secured nuclear, chemical, and biological facilities are located in close proximity to trafficking routes for drugs and small arms. Powerful radiation sources also are plentiful and inadequately protected. Furthermore, several terrorist groups in the region have become increasingly radicalized since the September 11 attacks.

Even though these developments suggested that a perfect storm was brewing, more than five years later there is no compelling evidence of a solid nexus among WMD-related trafficking, terrorism, and organized crime in the former Soviet Union. To be sure, a cautionary note is in order. Serious data collection problems in the region make understanding trafficking patterns an inherently limited proposition at best. They also make it essential to improve the quality and quantity of data collection and sharing by local and regional authorities.

Nonetheless, all available evidence indicates that the character of WMD trafficking in the post-2001 period has remained essentially the same as in the pre-2001 period, displaying amateurish features and dominated by the supply side. Trafficking cases involving weapons-grade nuclear material have entailed minuscule quantities, and their number has substantially decreased compared to the pre-2001 period, when most of the proliferation-significant events involving kilogram-level quantities of material were reported. That said, the post-2001 evidence of trafficking in WMD-related material does show new and potentially worrisome characteristics that bear close scrutiny.

The Data Set

This article is based on an analysis of 183 trafficking incidents that occurred in the former Soviet Union between January 2001 and December 2006. The incidents were reported in the Center for Nonproliferation Studies’ (CNS) NIS Export Control Observer,[1] the International Export Control Observer,[2] and the CNS Newly Independent States Nuclear Trafficking Abstracts Database,[3] which gather information from a variety of regional, national and international sources, including gray literature such as conference reports and interviews.[4] The data set includes incidents that constitute illegal activities, with or without criminal intent; orphan material; and cases where the arrest of the perpetrators or seizure of the material occurred outside the former Soviet Union but concerned material or individuals originating or suspected of originating from the former Soviet Union. Hoaxes and events that were first reported as illicit trafficking cases but later revealed to be legal shipments or that had no WMD connection were discarded. Yet, because of the incompleteness of information available in open and gray sources and inconsistencies in press reporting, the data set may include occasional mistakes.

WMD-Trafficking Incidents Prior to 2001

Prior to 2001, aside from a few proliferation-significant incidents[5] in the early 1990s,[6] WMD-related trafficking in the region displayed amateurish features. Although known trafficking involved primarily nuclear and radioactive material—low-enriched uranium (LEU),[7] radioactive isotopes, and contaminated scrap metal—the material was most often stolen for the value of the metal casing and not for the radioactive or nuclear material it contained.

Perpetrators were primarily opportunists motivated by financial gains. They generally were uninformed about the value of the material, which they typically overestimated, or unaware of the possibility of detection or of the associated health hazards. Trafficking was conducted in contraband style, with material hidden in a bag, car, or bus and transported along a southern route, crossing Central Asia and the Caucasus, and proceeding west toward Europe through Turkey. In the late 1990s, the more commonly used westbound route from Russia to Europe was replaced by the southern route. Trafficking appeared dominated by the supply side, with no evidence of an actual demand or connection with organized crime or terrorist groups.

General Trends of Post-2001 WMD Trafficking

Since 2001, the features of WMD-related trafficking appear not to have changed substantially. Most known trafficking incidents involve radioactive orphan sources, contaminated scrap metal, radioactive isotopes such as cesium-137, and low-grade nuclear material, primarily LEU. The first three items account for about 50 percent of the trafficking transactions. In many ways, this is not surprising. Powerful radiation sources disposed of improperly by medical and industrial facilities or abandoned by the Soviet army are abundant throughout the former Soviet Union. Other potent sources contained in radioisotope thermoelectric generators—devices built to provide electricity in lighthouses, radio beacons, and meteorological stations—are inadequately protected.

No proliferation-significant cases have been reported in the 2001-2006 period. Known trafficking incidents with plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU) involve minuscule quantities of material that would not pose a proliferation threat. In addition, a very small portion of these incidents involves weapons-grade material. For instance, 7 percent of the trafficking transactions (14 cases) involve plutonium (Pu-238 and Pu-239),[8] but they consist of minuscule amounts contained in industrial instruments or smoke detectors, which would not pose a proliferation threat.[9]

Only 5 percent, or 10 cases of the known trafficking incidents during the 2001-2006 period, involve HEU. Three of these cases concern HEU with an enrichment level of at least 80 percent, but they also involve only small quantities of material. One had five grams of HEU enriched to about 80 percent. The material, suspected of originating in an unidentified former Soviet Union country, was seized in France in 2001.[10] Another incident involves 170 grams of HEU seized in Georgia at the border with Armenia. Although media reports issued after the material was seized in 2003 did not specify the material’s enrichment level, later reports indicated that the HEU was enriched to almost 90 percent. The third case, which occurred in early 2006, involved 100 grams of HEU enriched to 89.4 percent.[11] This material was also seized in Georgia at the border with Armenia. The enrichment level of the remaining seven HEU cases was not specified, but four of these incidents were reported in 2005 by Georgian authorities, who indicated that the material had been seized during the previous two to three years and was not weapons-grade HEU.[12]

The profile of the perpetrators and their trafficking methods also remains constant. Perpetrators usually are opportunists (39 percent), either facility insiders or native residents of the city or country of material acquisition. Seven percent of the trafficking cases over the 2001-2006 period involved crime groups (12 cases), which include established organized crime groups (seven cases), such as the Balashikha group in Moscow, and groups of individuals suspected of belonging to a regional or international smuggling rings (five cases). Trafficking perpetrated by crime groups hardly differs from the other incidents. They do entail potent radioactive sources that could be used in RDDs, such as cesium-137, or nuclear material such as HEU (two cases) and LEU (two cases). They also involve material with no nuclear application, such as osmium-187 (four cases), or with low radioactivity levels, such as depleted uranium.[13] This may indicate that these groups have a limited understanding of the material’s value. In addition, these incidents generally involve small quantities of material.

Only three cases are loosely connected to a terrorist organization. The first case is based on a 2002 report published in The Guardian, indicating that, according to an unidentified U.S. official, Chechen rebels stole radioactive sources and nuclear material from the Volgodonsk nuclear power plant located in Rostov Oblast, Russia. These allegations were not corroborated by other sources and even denied by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy, and Volgodonsk officials.[14] The second case involved two individuals from the Caucasus who attempted to acquire 15 kilograms of uranium with an unspecified enrichment level from a Russian nuclear combine in 2003.[15] The Russian press speculated that the material was to be used for a dirty bomb to be exploded in St. Petersburg during the city’s tercentennial celebrations. These allegations could not be corroborated as the buyer escaped the police. In addition, given the low radioactivity level of uranium, it would not have made a particularly powerful RDD. The third case, which took place in 2005, involved a Sunday Times reporter posing as an intermediary for Algerian terrorists. He approached an arms dealer in the secessionist region of Transdniestria, Moldova, who was willing to sell Alazan rockets with warheads purportedly containing the radioactive material strontium and cesium. Yet, the possibility that these conventional rockets had been modified to carry radioactive warheads has been subject of much debate and no firm conclusion. Moreover, the reporter’s allegation could not be corroborated as he broke off the deal before paying a substantial amount of money to the arms dealer.[16]

As far as the structure of the market is concerned, it remains decidedly supply side. There are no established connections between suppliers and possible brokers or clients, who most often are nonexistent. Suppliers still overestimate the value of the material and do not seem to have a clear idea of what material has value for nuclear weapons or RDD development. Indeed, many of the transactions entail materials that have no nuclear weapons or RDD application or hardly any radioactivity (e.g., osmium-187, cesium-133, [red] mercury, or depleted uranium).[17] In addition, trafficking transactions are often held in public spaces, such as train stations, with few precautions taken to hide these activities. Twenty-two percent of the trafficking cases identified during the 2001-2006 period were discovered during the sale of the material, 10 percent of which were the result of sting operations. Another 22 percent were discovered during the transportation of the material, most often while crossing a border or as a by-product of roadside police checks.

Novel Characteristics

Even though post-2001 trafficking data does not support the feared nexus among terrorism, organized crime and WMD-related trafficking, new trafficking characteristics have emerged that bear close monitoring.

One of these new features is the appearance of trafficking in chemical and biological material. Only two incidents have been reported for the 2001-2006 period. One involved a nonpathogenic strain of the Ebola virus in Ukraine in 2002.[18] The other concerned mustard gas in Georgia in 2003.[19] In both cases, a dearth of information was provided on the material and, in the case of the Ebola strain, no details about the origin, destination, and perpetrators were revealed, making it difficult to ascertain if this was indeed a trafficking case. Nevertheless, the two cases share something in common: the material was discovered by chance, during an unrelated roadside check (Georgia) and during a customs shipment inspection (Ukraine). Because of the absence of appropriate material detection equipment deployed in the former Soviet Union, this fact alone underscores the difficulty of detecting biological and chemical material. Therefore, the small number of reported incidents may not be representative of actual trafficking in these materials.

Notably, trafficking routes appear to have become more varied during the post-2001 period. Seizure and arrest patterns show that previously the main route went south through Central Asia and the Caucasus and then west to Europe. Today, traffickers are likely using three main corridors. First, the east-west route, going directly from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus to Europe, which was more widely used in the early 1990s, has been reactivated. Second, a new south-east route crossing Central Asia into neighboring Asian countries seems to have emerged. Finally, the late 1990s south-west route has been maintained, with a good portion of the traffic merging in the Caucasus, probably because, from there, the goods can either go west through Turkey or east into Asia and the Middle East. Although today most materials are seized before they reach their declared destination, the use of multiple routes is worrisome because it may indicate that traffickers have detected a possible new demand in these regions. Multiple routes may also deplete the few resources available to the region’s enforcement communities, thus making it more difficult to monitor and control trafficking.

Another troubling feature is that a few cases involved nuclear or radioactive material in combination with small arms (four cases) and narcotics (two cases), which may indicate a convergence between arms or drugs and WMD-related material. In some of these cases, the nuclear or radioactive material was discovered by chance during an unrelated drug or financial investigation.[20] This may indicate that the drug control and financial fraud enforcement agencies can also be useful instruments of proliferation prevention.

The data set also includes a small number of cases involving opportunists that show a higher degree of organization. Several incidents involve groups of individuals who do not belong to an established organized crime group but collaborate for a specific operation, sometimes with the active participation of former law enforcement representatives.[21] Some opportunist cases also involve weapons and explosives, which may be indicative of a link with organized crime.[22]

In addition, one out of four cases involves potent radioactive sources, particularly cesium-137 (37 cases) and stronsium-90 (six cases), which could be used for RDDs. This characteristic is not completely new; trafficking with these sources was common before 2001 because they can be found in many orphaned industrial instruments. Prior to 2001, however, monitoring focused on state capabilities, and because these materials cannot be used for nuclear weapons, this type of trafficking was not considered a high proliferation risk. Given current concern over terrorist use of RDDs, trafficking with these potent radioactive sources has become more preoccupying. Yet, in light of the meager information in media reports about either the quantity or quality of the material, it is difficult to ascertain whether these events are of proliferation significance.

Absence of Proliferation-Significant Cases

The most striking change in the post-2001 period is the absence of reported proliferation-significant cases (kilogram-level quantities of weapons-grade material). Whereas during the early 1990s, when several cases involving kilogram-level quantities of weapons-grade material were recorded, data for the post-2001 period show only three incidents with gram-level quantities of HEU enriched to 80 percent or more. An analysis of these three cases indicates a connection with organized crime for only one of them and no apparent connection with terrorism.

The two Georgian cases have several common characteristics. They both involve opportunists, who were arrested in Georgia while coming from Russia. In both cases, the enrichment level of the material was almost 90 percent, which might indicate that they came from the same source. The French case, on the other hand, involved a criminal group. Although the investigation and the trial that followed the seizure and arrest of the perpetrators did not establish the origin of the material, plane tickets and documents written in the Cyrillic alphabet found in the apartment of one of the perpetrators point to an Eastern origin. The French perpetrators also kept the material in a glass ampoule contained in a lead cylinder.[23] This is in sharp contrast with the transportation means used by the perpetrator in the 2006 Georgian case, which consisted in a plastic bag tucked in his pocket.[24] As HEU is not highly radioactive, this did not represent a health hazard for the perpetrator as long as the HEU was not ingested.[25] Whether the perpetrator was simply blissfully ignorant or was advised by a knowledgeable co-conspirator not to fret about the matter is unknown. In any event, aside from the fact that the three cases involve gram-level quantities of material that could have constituted a sample of a larger quantity of material, the three cases do not seem to constitute a consistent trafficking pattern.

The absence of proliferation-significant cases may be an indicator that international efforts to improve security at nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union are bearing fruit. If so, the occasional incidents involving small quantities of weapons-grade material may be instances of material stolen in the early 1990s, when security measures were not in place. Conversely, the absence of incidents with significant amounts of weapons-grade material also may be a sign that local authorities are unable to identify such cases or that perpetrators have become more sophisticated in their transactions. Because of the dearth of information, we can only speculate.

2003 Spike in Activity

The number of reported trafficking cases in most categories of material, except HEU and LEU, suddenly increases in 2003 and steadily decreases the following years. The number of cases involving opportunists shows a similar evolution. The surge in plutonium cases (small quantities contained in industrial instruments or smoke detectors) is slightly delayed, with an increase occurring in 2004 and a steady decrease starting in 2005. This parallel movement may indicate an improvement in detection capabilities that may have produced a deterrent effect, which is difficult to prove because media sources do not always indicate the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the material. Nevertheless, the possibility underscores the importance of U.S. and IAEA programs, initiated or accelerated after the September 11 attacks, to detect radioactive sources at border points.

The number of cases involving HEU, LEU, and other unspecified enriched uranium, on the other hand, decreases in 2002 and then flattens to a low level in subsequent years.[26] This may be indicative of the fact that there are not many such cases because of the improvement of physical security measures at facilities storing such material. On the other hand, it may also indicate that due to their weak radioactivity, HEU and LEU cannot be detected by existing radiation-detection equipment. Consequently, more trafficking cases possibly have occurred. The small number of cases involving organized crime and terrorist groups can be interpreted the same way. This may indicate the absence of involvement of such groups in trafficking in the former Soviet Union, or it may show that existing border-control equipment and methods are not efficient against more sophisticated groups.

Absence of Evidence Is Not Evidence of Absence

Except for the cases having a loose terrorist connection, the data does not show much of a convergence between WMD-related material trafficking and terrorism. Yet, caution regarding this conclusion is warranted for several reasons. First, investigations of trafficking incidents in the former Soviet Union are usually incomplete, especially so in Central Asia and the Caucasus, because the enforcement communities in these countries do not have sufficient funding or appropriate training to conduct systematic investigations. As a result, investigations are often limited to the arrest of the seller, with little or no information on the identity of other members of a network, if any, or any determination of the origin of the material. The few cases where several members of a trafficking chain—seller, buyer, and intermediaries—were identified and arrested typically involve nationals of the former Soviet Union all meeting in the same place for the transaction.[27] Seldom can the police or security services identify sellers or buyers if they are located in a foreign country. They are also often unable to discover the final destination of the material or even the origin of the material if it did not come from a local facility.

A second problem relates to the lack of information sharing among enforcement organizations in the region, which may spring from the absence of technical means, the lack of political will, and territorial or political disputes. The problematic cooperation between Russia and Georgia regarding the identification of the HEU seized by Georgian authorities in 2006 illustrates the fact that political disputes constitute a powerful obstacle to cooperation in preventing proliferation and identifying trafficking patterns.

Another major obstacle to understanding trafficking patterns is the infancy of export control in the region. For instance, Turkmenistan has no export control law and no export control list for strategic goods.[28] Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have export control laws, but implementing legislation and an export control list for each country are still under development. Uzbekistan’s export control law was adopted only in 2004, and the country’s export control list also is under development.

Except for Russia and Kazakhstan, most countries of the former Soviet Union have a weak legal basis for regulating exports with contradictory and/or incomplete legislation, an underdeveloped licensing system, and understaffed export control organizations with underpaid and untrained personnel. Customs border posts are still ill-equipped to deal with trafficking of WMD-related material, although several U.S. and international programs are underway to provide proliferation-prevention equipment and training in several countries of the region. Some border sections also remain unprotected because of access constraints, such as mountain passes, or territorial disputes. For instance, because of disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Azeri government does not control 132 kilometers of the border between Azerbaijan and Iran. Mountain passes in Tajikistan, especially at the border with Afghanistan, which stretches over 1,200 kilometers, are the most difficult to protect. Visibility in these areas is limited to 10 meters or less.

Finally, insufficient reporting is another cause for concern. Because of their lack of training, customs officials, border guards, and security services sometimes do not recognize the importance of events. During an IAEA workshop in 2001, a Russian customs officer indicated that he was aware of more than 200 cases of illicit trafficking that had not been reported because field custom agents considered them insignificant. Nuclear, chemical, and biological facilities also may not report incidents occurring within their walls either because they poorly appreciate the importance of the event or they fear being involved in a police investigation.

Training programs on export control of strategic material have been launched in various countries in the former Soviet Union since the mid-1990s and are aimed to inform industry and the enforcement community. These programs, however, are primarily directed toward aiding the development of national export control systems or providing training on border control methods and the use of border control equipment. Very little is done in the field of increasing nonproliferation awareness among customs, border guards, and industry. The Export Control and Related Border Security (EXBS) program managed by the Department of State is probably one of the few programs that sponsors such training. The program is very limited, with a total budget of $42 million in 2006 to cover 40 countries, of which former Soviet Union countries constitute only a small portion.[29]


Because our capacity to understand future trends in WMD-trafficking hinges on appropriate reporting from the field, it will become increasingly important to improve the quality and quantity of information gathering by training local and regional officials in recognizing significant incidents. The proliferation consequences of such an imperfect system ought to galvanize the international community to lend appropriate assistance.

The data collected over the 2001-2006 period shows that programs aiming to provide radiation-detection equipment have had some success and should be continued and reinforced, especially in countries located on the southern borders of the former Soviet Union. Although existing technology does not detect HEU, it does detect other material with nuclear-weapon or RDD applications (plutonium and radioactive sources). Until recently, the bulk of such U.S. assistance went to Russia and Kazakhstan because they possessed the largest quantities of WMD material. Only after 2001 did other countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus begin to receive more attention, due to their location on trafficking routes, their position as transit countries, and their proximity to troubled areas such as Afghanistan and Iran.

Nevertheless, border-control assistance programs in countries such as Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are still wanting. These two countries are located on the trafficking routes for drugs coming from Afghanistan, they have porous borders, and Tajikistan is a theater of terrorist activity. In addition, their customs and border guards are ill-equipped and unprepared to deal with trafficking in WMD-related material. These also are the two countries in the former Soviet Union with the worst record in terms of export-control system development. It is important to direct more funding to install radiation detection equipment at their borders—some of which is already being done under the EXBS program—encourage the development of their national export-control systems, and train their border control personnel.

Considering that several countries of the region, such as Georgia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, have mountainous areas difficult to protect, the provision of other technical means would greatly improve border control. Tools such as night-vision equipment, all-terrain vehicles, communication equipment, and helicopters would sharply improve the efficiency of these organizations. It also is important to provide the means to support and operate such equipment. Some of these measures are already being implemented under U.S.-funded programs. Many customs and border guard posts remain unequipped, however, according to local customs and border guard representatives. Another important measure consists of raising the morale and motivation of customs and border guards to perform their tasks efficiently. Increasing or complementing their salaries can help here.

New methods are needed to improve data collection related to trafficking in the region. This could be achieved by establishing a regional information-sharing mechanism that would allow national export-control and intelligence communities to share information. Some countries in the region exchange information on licensing on a bilateral basis (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan) while others do not (Georgia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine).[30] Regional organizations such as the Eurasian Economic Community[31] have been established to harmonize export control procedures and improve information sharing. The organization has a limited membership, however, and so far has achieved little tangible progress. No regional information-sharing mechanisms exist. Previous attempts to create such a system—the Regional Transit Agreement—were supported by the State Department for several years but failed in part because of conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The initiative should be reactivated, and conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan could be avoided by establishing Georgia as the intermediary between the two countries.

Considering that 20 percent of known trafficking cases have been discovered as a result of an investigation, improving police investigative capabilities and training police forces in the region—drug control and financial brigades—in identifying WMD-related material could also greatly benefit data collection and improve our understanding of the possible connections among crime, terrorism, and trafficking.

Programs in the field of chemical and biological nonproliferation are still wanting. Existing training programs and equipment provision are geared toward nuclear material and technology. Considering the dearth of biological and chemical detection equipment, it is important to help customs and border guards identify these materials with other means. These could include such tools as product identification workshops or the design of manuals describing goods related to biological and chemical weapons that could be used by border control personnel. The creation of expert centers on which border control personnel could call for assistance in identifying such material would also be helpful. So far, such centers only exist in Russia. Yet, many other former Soviet states have facilities that at one time produced biological and chemical weapons and that could serve as an expert adjunct to law enforcement agencies.

Finally, for any new system or mechanism to be successful in the region, another major challenge will have to be overcome: the absence of a nonproliferation culture. Government and customs officials, border guards, and exporters alike have little understanding of the concept of export control as a means to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery. Improvements in this area have occurred in Russia and Kazakhstan, but in most other countries of the former Soviet Union, export control is usually understood as “customs control,” that is, the act of checking the validity of documents and collecting duties. It is important to educate local authorities and industry representatives about basic nonproliferation concepts while providing them with updated information on WMD-related material and trafficking techniques and patterns. Several training workshops have been organized under the auspices of the Departments of State, Energy, and Commerce as well as the IAEA. These workshops, however, are often organized with long intervals between them and for a limited number of actors. There is a need for continuous and wider training. Only such a system would truly generate a change in mentality and behaviors. This could be achieved by setting up a nonproliferation curriculum within customs, border guards, and police academies and supporting the creation of such academies where they do not already exist.


Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley is a senior researcher at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Marina Matevski and Karl Scheuerman provided assistance in collecting and organizing the data that form the basis for this article.


1. See Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), NIS Export Control Observer, available at http://www.cns.miis.edu/pubs/nisexcon/index.htm.

2. See CNS, International Export Control Observer, available at http://www.cns.miis.edu/pubs/observer/index.htm.

3. See CNS, NIS Nuclear Trafficking Database, available at http://www.nti.org/db/nistraff/index.html.

4. The incident involving weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) that was reported in January 2007 in The New York Times was included in the data set, as the material was seized in Georgia in January 2006. See Lawrence Scott Sheets and William Broad, “Georgia Says It Blocked Smuggling of Arms-Grade Uranium,” The New York Times, January 25, 2007, p. A1.

5. Proliferation-significant cases are defined as involving kilogram-level quantities of plutonium-239 or HEU with an enrichment level of 80 percent or more. At least 3 kilograms of plutonium-239 or 25 kilograms of HEU enriched to 80 percent or more would be required to build a nuclear bomb. In principle, a nuclear bomb could also be built with uranium enriched to less than 80 percent. The lower the enrichment level, however, the greater the quantity of uranium required. For instance, at 20 percent enrichment, about 200 kilograms of uranium or more would be needed to build a bomb. A bomb maker would also need to understand very advanced techniques in order to be able to use uranium enriched to about 20 percent. Charles Ferguson and William Potter, The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism (New York: Routledge, 2005).

6. For a description of these cases, see William C. Potter and Elena Sokova “Illicit Nuclear Trafficking in the NIS: What’s New? What’s True?” The Nonproliferation Review, Summer 2002, pp. 112-120.

7. Uranium containing less than 20 percent of the isotope uranium-235.

8. An additional plutonium event was reported in the press in 2003. Because the material was stolen in 1993 and the perpetrator attempted to sell it the same year, this case was not included in the data set.

9. Traditionally, plutonium-238 is used for civilian purposes, while plutonium-239 is used in weapons production. Other types of smoke detectors use americium-241, a radioactive isotope slightly heavier than plutonium. A terrorist would need millions of detectors in order to extract enough americium or plutonium to make a powerful RDD. Steve Coll, “The Unthinkable,” The New Yorker, March 12, 2007, pp. 48-57.

10. “French Court Sentences Uranium Smugglers to Jail” NIS Export Control Observer, August 2003, p. 17.

11. Sheets and Broad, “Georgia Says It Blocked Smuggling of Arms-Grade Uranium.”

12. “Georgia Reports Four New Cases of HEU Seizure,” NIS Export Control Observer, July 2005.

13. See “Cesium Sellers Caught Red-handed,” Security Service of Ukraine, May 6, 2004; “1.8kg Uranium Seized in Batumi, Georgia,” Interfax News Agency, July 24, 2001; “Balashikha Organized Crime Group Members Arrested for Attempted Sale of Uranium-235,” Gazeta.ru, December 4, 2001; “Omsk Oblast: Counterintelligence Agents Catch Pensioners Selling Radioactive Osmium and Counterfeit Iraqi Currency,” VolgaInform, March 2, 2003.

14. “Russian Nuclear Theft Alarms U.S.,” The Guardian, July 19, 2002.

15. “A Charmed Pilgrim,” Komsomolskaya Pravda, July 19, 2004.

16. “Dirty Bomb Rockets Again Reported for Sale in Transnistria” NIS Export Control Observer, June 2005.

17. See “National Security Service Detains Three Residents of Tokmok Attempting to Sell Strategic Material for Over One Million Soms,” Kyrgyzinfo News Agency, February 11, 2005; “Incidents of Illicit trafficking in the NIS-Russia,” NIS Export Control Observer, April 2005.

18. “Two Incidents of Pathogen Smuggling Reported,” NIS Export Control Observer, July 2003.

19. “Two Radioactive Smuggling Cases Occur in Georgia Within Weeks,” NIS Export Control Observer, July 2003.

20. See “Kazakhstani Officials Confiscate 1.5kg Uranium Oxide, Heroin,” Interfax News Agency, March 11, 2002; “Tajik Authorities Foil Attempt by Uzbekistani Citizen to Sell Plutonium,” ITAR-TASS, March 15, 2004; “Dirty Bomb in a Nuclear Suitcase,” Izvestia.ru, October 3, 2003; “Des trafiquants d’uranium arrêtés par hazard,” Liberation, July 24, 2001 (in French).

21. “1.8kg Uranium Seized in Batumi, Georgia”; “Balashikha Organized Crime Group Members Arrested for Attempted Sale of Uranium-235.”

22. “Polish Police Arrest Gang Selling Explosives, Radioactive Material,” Gazeta Wyborcza, in FBIS document EUP20030903000339, September 3, 2003; “Dirty Bomb in a Nuclear Suitcase.”

23. “Des trafiquants d’uranium arrêtés par hazard.”

24. No information on the transportation means was given for the 2003 HEU case.

25. As a heavy metal, uranium can pose a toxic risk, especially to the kidneys, if taken into the body.

26. An artificial surge in HEU cases was created by the announcement made in 2005 by Georgian authorities that they thwarted four attempts of trafficking with HEU in the previous two to three years. As the dates of these incidents were not given, they were all recorded in 2005.

27. See “Radioactive Components Stolen From Scientific Research Institute’s Storage Facility Pass Through Ukraine and Seized by Special Services on Western Border,” Fakty i kommentarii (Kiev), May 23, 2002; “Smuggling of Rare-Earth Metals Into Russia Stopped,” Interfax News Agency, December 28, 2001.

28. Turkmenistan’s existing export control list includes only categories of material, such as nuclear material and military technology, but does not provide a detailed list of controlled items.

29. The Export Control and Related Border Security Assistance (EXBS) program.

30. Eighth Central Asia and the Caucasus Regional Forum on Export Control, Tbilisi, Georgia, May 16-18, 2006.

31. The Eurasian Economic Community (EURASEC) was created in May 2001, when the five member states—Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan—ratified the corresponding treaty. Uzbekistan has joined the organization recently. EURASEC replaced the customs union of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Missile Defense Collision Course

By Daryl G. Kimball

When President George W. Bush withdrew from the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty five years ago, he asserted that “my decision to withdraw from the treaty will not, in any way, undermine our new relationship or Russian security.” Now, Bush’s latest proposal to site 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland and an advanced radar in the Czech Republic has severely compounded the Kremlin’s anxieties about growing U.S. offensive and defensive strategic capabilities.

President Vladimir Putin’s response to missile defense deployments in two former Warsaw Pact states has been hostile and counterproductive: he has threatened to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; to target the sites with Russian missiles; and to stop work on a Joint Data Exchange Center intended to help avoid an accidental or mistaken nuclear attack.

For some Americans and Europeans, a rudimentary defense against a potential long-range missile threat from Iran may seem attractive. But for now, it is a flawed idea whose time has not come.

Russia’s concerns may be exaggerated, but that does not alter the reality that the European anti-missile plan is premature and the technology unproven. And, if Washington presses ahead despite Russian objections, it could trigger the renewal of U.S.-Russian missile competition and hamper efforts to further reduce each nation’s still massive nuclear warhead and missile arsenals.

In recent weeks, U.S. officials have crisscrossed Europe to say the proposed system is not designed to counter Russia’s nuclear-armed missiles and therefore does not threaten Russia’s security. To be sure, 10 U.S. interceptors would only provide a rudimentary defense against a handful of incoming missiles, let alone Russia’s current force of some 500 land-based missiles. Highly scripted tests involving prototypes of ground-based interceptors now deployed in California and Alaska have failed three out of five times since 2002. The proposed system in Europe would use a new type of interceptor that has yet to be built, let alone tested.

But just as U.S. officials are seeking missile defenses against an Iranian missile threat that does not exist, Russian leaders are worried they cannot maintain their strategic nuclear retaliatory capability against a porous strategic missile defense that has not been built and a potential U.S. nuclear buildup that will not likely materialize.

Why? Because old habits die hard. Russia and the United States each still deploy approximately 4,000 nuclear warheads on delivery vehicles on high alert, and as a result, military strategists on both sides plan for the worst. Under the flimsy 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), the United States will be able to maintain a large “hedge” arsenal of reserve warheads and excess missile capacity. After SORT expires in 2012, the United States could increase its deployed strategic arsenal from 2,200 to well over 4,000 nuclear warheads.

Russia is on a path to maintain approximately 2,000 deployed strategic warheads by 2012. But the size of Russia’s long-range missile force would be relatively smaller. Independent estimates are that Russia’s land-based missile force could shrink dramatically, down to as few as 150 by the year 2015.

Russia’s fear is that the larger and more accurate U.S. missile arsenal would be capable of delivering a decapitating first strike. U.S. missile defense assets could then counter the few remaining missiles based in Russia’s European territory that might survive and be launched.

To avoid this scenario, Russia could slow its planned nuclear force reductions and accelerate deployment of new long-range missile systems, an option made easier if the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is allowed to expire in 2009. But dismantling strategic arms reductions pacts in order to preserve Russia’s ability to annihilate the United States does not make missile defense a better idea.

Unfortunately, Bush and Putin will not likely resolve their differences and avert a collision on missile defense any time soon. Putin’s offer to use the Russian-leased Gabala radar in Azerbaijan to evaluate Iran’s missile program and, if necessary, to use other basing plans that would not interfere with Russian missiles is worth exploring. Nevertheless, the White House seems determined to begin construction of the European system before Bush leaves office.

Such an approach is mistaken and reckless. There should be no rush to deploy an unproven system against a potential missile threat that will not likely materialize until 2015 or beyond. In any case, Congress is on track to cut the administration’s $310 million request for the European strategic missile defense project and focus U.S. efforts on more capable short- and medium-range interceptors.

The United States and its NATO partners should defer work on the European strategic missile defense project until Bush’s and Putin’s successors arrive. In the meantime, they should engage Russia in a meaningful dialogue to address its missile defense concerns, explore technical alternatives, and advance new proposals for deeper warhead and missile force cuts that would reduce tensions and erase Russian fears of U.S. nuclear supremacy.

When President George W. Bush withdrew from the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty five years ago, he asserted that “my decision to withdraw from the treaty will not, in any way, undermine our new relationship or Russian security.” Now, Bush’s latest proposal to site 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland and an advanced radar in the Czech Republic has severely compounded the Kremlin’s anxieties about growing U.S. offensive and defensive strategic capabilities.

President Vladimir Putin’s response to missile defense deployments in two former Warsaw Pact states has been hostile and counterproductive: he has threatened to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; to target the sites with Russian missiles; and to stop work on a Joint Data Exchange Center intended to help avoid an accidental or mistaken nuclear attack. (Continue)


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