Illicit nuclear trade a ‘worsening problem’

The trafficking of nuclear materials and technologies related to nuclear weapons is a growing threat, experts said Thursday at the 6th annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit, but they said there are numerous ways to try to mitigate — if not eliminate — the problem.

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, and Will Tobey, senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science & International Affairs, identified some of the supply chains for illicit trafficking that could lead to proliferation of nuclear weapons in countries such as Iran and among terrorists and “non-state actors.”

“I think it’s a worsening problem,” said Albright, whose institute released a report in October that addressed the future concerns.

Over the next 5 to 10 years, black market trading is likely to be conducted by several nations seeking nuclear weapons or wanting to maintain existing weapon arsenals or capabilities, Albright said.

Tobey said there have been about 20 known thefts of highly enriched uranium or plutonium, the nuclear materials that can be used to make a nuclear weapon. The good news is that those materials were later seized by authorities, but the bad news is that the places from which they were stolen – mostly bulk-processing facilities – didn’t know the nuclear materials were gone until after they’d been recovered.

Iran, North Korea and Pakistan are associated with many the nuclear smuggling efforts, but there are other areas of future concerns, according to Albright.

Unless they step up their efforts to control exports, Hong Kong, India, Southeast Asia, Turkey, Brazil, Argentina, Russia and portions of Eastern Europe could become suppliers of concern, he said.

The potential proliferation of nuclear weapons is not just about uranium and plutonium, but lots of technologies – some of them quite sophisticated with multiple purposes — that can be used to process materials or otherwise adapted for use in the development of bombs.

The speakers identified China as a major supplier to Iran and elsewhere, sometimes serving as a conduit for export-controlled equipment manufactured in the United States and other countries.

If Iran purchases this equipment, it is probably violating multiple laws, but they said there’s not enough enforcement or consequences for those who’re identified as participants in illegal trades.

Tobey said the nuclear trafficking threat today is a lot different than it was 30 to 40 years ago.

Now there are terrorists bent on wholesale destruction – as much as they can – and there is widespread dissemination of basic nuclear-weapons-related knowledge via the Internet, he said. You no longer have to go to a library and check out a book, he said.

There also has been a spread of technological expertise, and sophisticated export-controlled parts can now be manufactured anywhere there’s room for a precision computer-aided manufacturing machine, Tobey said. He referenced a plant in Malaysia that was used to provide parts for the notorious A.Q. Khan network that expanded the worldwide nuclear capabilities.

The Obama administration has made a major push to recover nuclear materials in countries around the world, with some notable successes. As part of National Nuclear Security Administration’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative, more than 1,450 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and plutonium – enough material to make more than 50 nuclear weapons – have been removed from vulnerable sites.

Because of the heavy snowfall in the Washington, D.C. area, summit organizers had to find substitutes for some speakers on Thursday, alter schedules and make changes on the fly. Friday is the final day of the conference, and among those expected to speak are Dan Poneman, the deputy secretary of energy, and Rose Goettemoeller, the State Department’s acting under secretary for arms control and international security, who was scheduled to speak earlier in the week.

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Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.