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Probability of a Nuclear Attack by Terrorists Has Increased, Warns Council Report

Related Bio: Charles D. Ferguson, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Science and Technology
March 28, 2006
Council on Foreign Relations

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U.S. Must Work Harder to Secure Nuclear Materials and Weapons

Contact: Anya Schmemann, DC Communications, +1-202-518-3419 or aschmemann@cfr.org


March 28, 2006—While the "threat of a nuclear attack by terrorists has never been greater," the U.S. government has yet to make prevention the highest priority, says a new Council on Foreign Relations report that outlines ways to reduce the possibility of nuclear terrorism.

"The probability of nuclear attack has increased because traditional deterrence—threatening assured destruction against a valued asset such as a national territory—does not work against the terrorist groups most likely to covet nuclear weapons," says the report, Preventing Catastrophic Nuclear Terrorism, authored by Council Fellow for Science and Technology Charles D. Ferguson.

"Securing and eliminating vulnerable nuclear materials and weapons offer points of greatest leverage in preventing nuclear terrorism," says the report. "For these activities, much more national and international action is urgently needed to address the problems of Pakistan's highly enriched uranium [HEU] and nuclear arsenal; Russia's highly enriched uranium; highly enriched uranium at more than one hundred civilian facilities in dozens of countries; and tactical nuclear weapons."

"The biggest impediment to reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism involving Pakistan is President Musharraf's expressed belief that terrorists cannot make nuclear weapons," says Ferguson. The United States should try to "convince [President Musharraf and Pakistani leaders] that certain terrorist groups can build crude, but devastating, nuclear weapons if these groups have access to enough highly enriched uranium."

"Securing Russian weapons-usable nuclear materials is vitally important but not adequate," says the report. A recently released Council-sponsored, Independent Task Force report on U.S. policy toward Russia underscores this point: "The United States must expand its cooperation with Russia to keep the most dangerous international actors from acquiring the most dangerous weapons, technologies, and materials. This is a fundamental American security interest—one that is far easier to protect if Washington and Moscow work together and far harder if they do not."

"Preventing nuclear terrorism is also closely connected to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries," writes Ferguson. "By reducing the number of countries with nuclear weapons or weapons-usable nuclear materials, terrorists will have fewer places to buy or steal these critical components of nuclear terrorism."

The report identifies areas where efforts have fallen short in securing and eliminating nuclear weapons and weapons-usable nuclear materials, and offers recommendations to plug these gaps:

  • "To help dissuade transfers of nuclear weapons from 'rogue' leaders to terrorist groups, the United States should clearly articulate a declaratory policy that it reserves the right to respond with the strongest measures including removal of those leaders from power."
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which inspects nuclear facilities to detect diversion of weapons-usable nuclear materials, is underfunded and understaffed.
    • The report recommends doubling the $15.5 million that the IAEA has budgeted for its nuclear security fund and says "the member states should give the IAEA the authority it requires to expand its nuclear security assistance and inspection activities."
  • The Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) aims to convert HEU-fueled civilian reactors and remove HEU stored at poorly protected civilian facilities, but it has lagged behind schedule.
    • "The United States, Russia, the IAEA, and their partners within the GTRI should expand the scope of the GTRI to include all currently operating HEU-fueled civilian reactors."
    • "The United States should announce an unambiguous policy that it supports delegitimizing the use of highly enriched uranium in the civilian sector."
  • The United States should "offer security assistance [to Pakistan] that includes generic physical security procedures, unclassified military handbooks, portal control equipment, sophisticated vaults and access doors, and personnel reliability programs."
  • "The United States should reach agreement with Russia to accelerate and expand the successful Megatons-to-Megawatts Agreement," which converts weapons-grade HEU to a non-weapons-usable, low enriched form for nuclear reactor fuel.
  • The United States should extend the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) agreement, which is set to expire in June 2006. The CTR agreement helps to secure Russian nuclear materials and dismantle Russian decommissioned ballistic missiles, submarines, land-based missile systems, and chemical weapons.
  • "Washington and Moscow should quickly resolve access issues to complete security upgrades at the remaining 20 percent of Russian facilities containing about half of Russia's stockpile of weapons-usable nuclear materials by 2008 or earlier."
  • "The United States and Russia should work together to secure and reduce tactical nuclear weapons that are more portable and forward deployed than strategic nuclear arms and thus can be more susceptible to terrorist acquisition."

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