Monday, October 20, 2014
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The New Loose Nukes

LOS ANGELES – Nobody would dispute the danger inherent in possessing nuclear assets. But that danger becomes far more acute in a combat zone, where nuclear materials and weapons are at risk of theft, and reactors can become bombing targets. These risks – most apparent in today’s chaos-ridden Middle East – raise troubling questions about the security of nuclear assets in volatile countries everywhere.

Two recent events demonstrate what is at stake. On July 9, the militant group now known as the Islamic State captured 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of uranium compounds at Mosul University in Iraq. The captured uranium was not weapons-grade; international inspectors removed all sensitive material from Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War (which is why it was absent when the United States invaded in 2003). But what international response, if any, would have been initiated if the cache had been highly enriched?

On the same day, Hamas launched three powerful Iranian-designed rockets from Gaza at Israel’s Dimona reactor. Luckily, two missed the target, and Israel managed to intercept the third. But the episode represented a serious escalation of hostilities and served as an important reminder of the vulnerability of nuclear reactors in warzones.

In fact, Hamas made similar attempts to attack the Dimona complex in 2012, as did Iraq in 1991, with the aim of releasing the site’s contents to inflict radiological damage on Israel’s population. (The perpetrators appeared clueless to the fact that certain weather conditions would have concentrated the radioactive debris in the Palestinian-majority West Bank.)

Of course, it is possible that these events are an aberration. After all, the only conflict so far in which authorities have lost control of sensitive nuclear materials was the Georgia-Abkhazia War in the 1990s, when unknown forces seized a small amount of highly enriched uranium from a research institute.

Likewise, though there have been numerous attacks on nuclear reactors under construction, the sole threat to an operating plant in a combat zone outside of Israel occurred at the start of the fighting in ex-Yugoslavia, when Serbian nationalists considered attacking Slovenia’s Krško power plant and sent warplanes over the site. The plant’s operators temporarily halted electricity generation to curb the risk of a radiation release, but nothing came of the threat.

Indeed, whenever nuclear assets have been least secure – during the Soviet Union’s collapse, China’s Cultural Revolution, and the Algiers putsch (when a group of mutinous retired generals set their sights on a nuclear device that France was testing in the Algerian desert) – they have not been compromised. Even in Ukraine today, despite the escalating civil conflict, the country’s 15 nuclear power plants have remained untouched (though even with new defensive measures taken by Ukrainian officials, this could easily change).

It is impossible to know whether this benign pattern will hold. But recent developments in the Middle East suggest that there are grounds for concern in other volatile countries, namely Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran.

Pakistan has a large nuclear weapons program and faces an expansive jihadi insurgency, which previously attacked military bases suspected of housing nuclear assets. Though Pakistan has not experienced a nuclear breach, and the government insists that safeguards remain robust, the country’s increasingly frequent and severe bouts of instability raise serious questions about the future.

While North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is much smaller, persistent doubts about the regime’s sustainability make it a matter of grave concern. In the event of the regime’s collapse – a distinct possibility – it would be difficult to prevent the diversion of its assets, or even the use of its weapons.

For its part, Iran seems relatively stable, at least compared to its neighbors. But it faces an uncertain political future. If a power struggle emerges, the large Bushehr reactor could be used as a bargaining chip.

To mitigate such risks, the international community could maintain its traditional policy of sitting tight and hoping that governments retain control of their nuclear infrastructure. But the United States, for one, is no longer satisfied with this approach. According to media reports, it has devised a strategy for deploying Special Forces to neutralize Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in the event that its authorities lose control. And some government-connected think tanks have explored the possibility of deploying US combat forces to address nuclear risks in North Korea if the regime crumbles.

Such plans, however, are by no means foolproof – not least owing to the difficulties of finding concealed nuclear assets and safeguarding reactors. Moreover, the American public’s willingness to become enmeshed in yet another risky military venture, when boosting homeland security could suffice, is dubious, at best.

Instead of waiting for a major development to force hurried action, the world’s major powers should engage in a full-throated debate to determine the best approach to address nuclear risks in volatile countries, seeking ways to cooperate whenever necessary. After all, even rival powers like China and the US or India and Pakistan share an interest in preventing the world’s most dangerous weapons from falling under the control of its most fanatical minds.

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  1. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Bennett Ramberg expresses his concern about loose nukes in "chaos-ridden" countries, where these "weapons are at risk of theft". In war-torn countries nuclear reactors "can become bombing targets" too. He mentions two incidents in recent weeks that illustrate the threat.
    A month ago ISIS militants had seized some 40 kg of uranium compounds at Mosul University in Iraq. Despite the limited amounts, they can enable the Islamists, with the availability of the required expertise, to use the uranium in its terrorist acts.
    A few weeks ago Hamas launched three missiles from Gaza toward the city of Dimona in Israel and its nuclear reactor. Two fell near the town, while a third was intercepted. In October 2012 Hezbollah Chief Sheikh Nasrallah spoke of an Iranian-made drone on a reconnaissance mission in Israel to explore "sensitive sites" such as the Dimona nuclear reactor. Israeli fighter planes shot down the drone north of the Negev desert. Indeed these episodes "served as an important reminder of the vulnerability of nuclear reactors in warzones".
    Mr. Ramberg believes "the only conflict so far in which authorities have lost control of sensitive nuclear materials was the Georgia-Abkhazia War in the 1990s". Meanwhile Georgia has become a transit hub for nuclear materials - bomb-grade uranium and plutonium, as well as dirty-bomb isotopes. There are still large stockpiles of them left over from the Cold War era. The country lies between Asia and Europe, with around 225 miles (360 km) of unsecured borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Most of all the region is poor. The illicit trade of "sensitive materials" booms, despite US and Georgian efforts and hundreds of millions of dollars spent in fighting nuclear contraband.
    Although Iran and North Korea could pose a nuclear threat, the risk of a terrorist attack is all the more imminent in Pakistan. In November 2011 former prime minister Pervez Musharraf told CNN that Pakistan was moving its nuclear materials around the country by helicopter or in vans by road to keep them away from the prying eyes of the US or India. The nuclear weapons are vulnerable to terrorist attacks by the Taliban. He also revealed that Pakistan's nuclear programme was dispersed around the country, at 12 or 15 different sites.
    Pakistan sells nuclear technology as well. Abdul Qadeer Khan developed nuclear weapons for Pakistan and later offered his know-how to any country with the money to pay. Gaddafi was his most lucrative client. The Saudis are said to be asking Pakistan for help with manufacturing nuclear weapons to deter an attack by Iran. This would no doubt start an arms-race in the region. Apart from stopping nuclear proliferation, the international community has to prevent "the world’s most dangerous weapons from falling under the control of its most fanatical minds".

  2. CommentedVladimir Rogozhin

    The increasing instability demands from Humanity of more active actions on minimization of nuclear threat - is primarily a creation of a set of measures from reformed UN - "UN 3.0" and "Council of Existential Security". Pugwash movement of scientists should be initiated to develop a set of measures on creation of a safer world.

  3. CommentedPhiline Scherer-Dressler

    no country nor organisation is able to react adequately to such a full-scale humanitarian disaster scenario. This article actually illustrates very well that the deterrence argument does not hold a second - the mere existence of nuclear weaoons is a threat, the risk of a detonation (be it by accident, or madness, by non-state actors) is ridiculously high. nuclear weapons do not bring anyone security. There can be no "right hands" for these weapons. It is in every individual's security interest to outlaw nuclear weapons, and to eliminate them.

  4. CommentedEdward Ponderer

    We are not yet organized in the organic way in which we must, so yes, for the time being such contingency plans must be advanced. But we must realize that ultimately Murphy's law will not be outsmarted this way. We are adding to the global system complexity this way, and at a point of no return--an event horizon that we've likely already passed through--we are feed-forwarding to the destructive chaos that we are trying to avoid or at least forestall.

    Murphy's law--chaos--can only be met by homeostasis of the same fractal ("strange attractor") nature. This involves a coordinated unity that would--if we survive till then without too much pain--evolve by necessity of its own in local reorientations and unifications linking into ever larger systems like a huge cogwheel mechanism coming together.

    Take the pieces we call Egypt and Israel. There is no friendship, but there is a vital interactive need regarding Jihadist onslaught which forces them to some measure of unspoken alignment. As that mutual tie of their destinies force them to some loyalty to this alignment, this "higher self" defined by this common need--there comes a bonding as organs in a single body. Organs don't love each other--they might by their radically different natures, lacking coordination, be toxic to one another. However, those very differences must now do a turnabout into a coordinated system upon which each is vitally dependent--ergo making them bound in mutual dependence. Inevitably, some sense of love of self projects here to love of the others. When combined into a majority of "others," inevitably concern for the system means more direct concern for these others than the self (as this is an indirect concern for the self which has become the dominant part of the total concern for the self).

    Aye, but what of “infections" to the newly forming body--like ISIS or whatever this murderous destructive horde calls itself today—which to the bitter end would refuse joining the fold but mutilate and dominate it? The forming body itself will react as a coordinated whole against it--as it were isolating it in a vacuole, suffocating it and digesting it. This whole is no longer a loose group of global policeman or individual nations defending themselves. It will literally be one, super-intelligent single coordinated entity. Something like ISIS can't fight it because it has become an impenetrable wall of vastly superior intelligence.

    This is literally natural evolution--the only requirement is to survive that long--and in order to insure that we need to be proactive in accelerating the globalization process--at all different levels of the (literally living) system.

  5. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    Although the article tries to sound optimistic there is so much WMD's all over the world (not only nuclear), and even conventional weapons have so much destructive capability, that considering the present volatile geo-political situation the world seems to be ready for an unprecedented catastrophe.

    The only way we can prevent such scenario is the understanding how interconnected and inter-dependent the world has become.
    The US/UK "return" to the Iraq conflict, multitude of countries being sucked into the Ukrainian, Israeli-Palestinian conflict and similar events are good examples of how nobody can isolate themselves, escape, or think they are safe from trouble.
    In a global, integral world we evolved into we are all sitting on the same boat, it does not matter where the "hole is drilled", if the boat sinks we all drown.

    Only a sensitive, mutually complementing supra-national cooperation, rising above inherent separation, rejection and hatred can safeguard humanity's future.
    Starting right here, right now.

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