This site examines the role of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War international security environment, which faces emerging and constantly evolving threats from state and non-state actors alike. Specific topics discussed include arms control; deterrence; civilian nuclear power; South Asian nuclear strategy and power balance; nuclear terrorism; and the role of the United States in nonproliferation.


The Real Deal with Cesium

Cross-posted with the Huffington Post.
The month of July has been a big one for the chemical element Cesium. Produced naturally through the nuclear fuel cycle and used in a variety of applications from agriculture to cancer treatment, it is highly radioactive in isotopic form Cs-137.

The idea has been floated for a long time of using cesium in a radioactive "dirty bomb," which wouldn't have the same explosive power as a uranium or plutonium nuclear bomb but would contaminate land, water supplies and living organisms, including people. In March 2002, Henry Kelly, President of the Federation of American Scientists, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the possibility of constructing dirty bombs using three different radioactive elements -- cesium, cobalt and americium. He demonstrated that if a cesium-137 bomb were exploded using 10 pounds of TNT at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the resulting contamination might look something like this:

Where the innermost ring represents one cancer death per 100 people due to remaining radiation, the middle ring represents one cancer death per 1,000 people, and the outer ring represents one cancer death per 10,000 people. Moreover, the EPA would recommend decontamination or destruction of the entire area within the outermost ring.

So since cesium can be stolen from a hospital and thus can be more easily acquired than, say, uranium or plutonium, it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine a terrorist group acquiring enough cesium to construct a barrage of low-explosive, highly radioactive bombs and blanketing a major city with them.

It's a good thing people are paying attention to this terrifying possibility: during the month of July alone, cesium and its relatives have gotten some great coverage, though not in the mainstream media. The Global Security Newswire reported on July 6 that federal and New York state authorities, together with people from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), collaborated on removing a small amount of cesium-137 from St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan. Two weeks later, on July 22, the same media outlet reported that a lead-lined safe containing radioactive "seeds" used in cancer treatment had gone missing from a hospital in Illinois.

But here's the scariest incident of attempted or actual cesium theft or disappearance: on July 10, five men were arrested in Pretoria, South Africa, for attempting to sell a cesium device for $6 million dollars to undercover agents posing as potential black-market buyers. Rachel Maddow on MSNBC did a good job of covering the matter in her show on July 19. You can watch the six-minute clip here.

If anyone comes across more incidents of cesium theft or disappearance, anywhere in the world and no matter how spurious the report, please let me know.


Nuclear Smuggling in the Former Soviet Union

Cross-posted with the Huffington Post.
Part of my research responsibilities this summer at the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard includes working on the Anecdotes of Insecurity project, which is hosted on the Nuclear Threat Initiative website (accessible here, though it is admittedly outdated). And in working on that project today, I came across some news that really has piqued my interest in the swath of land that connects Russia to Iran and Turkey -- namely, the countries of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

In 2006, a North Ossetian man named Oleg Khintsagov (sometimes spelled Khinsagov) was arrested for selling 100 grams of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to an undercover Georgian official. He was sentenced to 7 years in prison. An excellent detailed report of the entire episode (in PDF format) is available from the Belfer Center here.

Just last month, it was announced that Khintsagov would receive a presidential pardon that would drop the last two years of his sentence, effectively ending his imprisonment sometime in January or February 2011.

Dr. Matt Bunn, one of the principal investigators at the Project on Managing the Atom where I'm working this summer, was quoted in the Georgian Daily article:
Matthew Bunn, a specialist on nuclear theft and terrorism at Harvard University, called Khintsagov’s early release not uncommon, but nonetheless troubling. “One of the key things to stop nuclear smuggling is to try and deter people from getting into nuclear smuggling. … Anything that decreases the consequences is a concern,” Bunn said.
Which brings me to a very interesting statistic, offered up in April of this year by Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC. I'm putting this one short sentence into a block quote just to illustrate the alarming danger of the situation:
"The Georgian ministry of interior has foiled eight attempts of illicit trafficking of enriched uranium during the last ten years, including several cases of weapons-grade enrichment."
Eight cases during the last ten years is a lot -- especially when speculating about the number of attempts that weren't thwarted. If the prospects of nuclear smuggling and terrorism are to be taken seriously, then government officials must pay closer attention to regions like the Caucasus, where the potential for illicit trafficking of nuclear-related materials is at its highest. Throw in the fact that the region borders Iran (it's not coincidence that so much smuggling comes through Georgia), and the potential for disaster becomes much greater.

The Caucasus region has become a hotbed of illicit trafficking in all manner of goods, from the everyday and mundane to the highly dangerous. This trend has given the region of South Ossetia (where Khintsagov went to sell his HEU) the nickname of "the world's biggest duty-free shop." Seems to me it has been earned.


Ad hoc Agreements and Nonproliferation

For a while now, I have been looking into the litany of agreements, frameworks, treaties and partnerships that constitute the “global nonproliferation regime.” The cornerstone, of course, is the 1968 NPT. Other formal components include the IAEA and its safeguards, the role of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in export controls, and the establishment of nuclear weapon free zones (NWFZ) across the world. All of these are initiatives that to one degree or another are formal, multilateral, and codified in international law.

But there are less formal, more ad hoc agreements that form a sort of “second layer” on top of the formal-arrangement layer. These initiatives may be strictly bilateral, they may be loose partnerships or coalitions with no formal structure, and/or they may not be codified in international law – which is another way of saying they may not be constrained by international law. Examples of these second-layer efforts include the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), the Bush-legacy Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), and the number of bilateral agreements the United States has recently been inking with nations around the world. Two very current examples include a US-Malta anti-nuclear smuggling agreement, and a safeguards agreement between the US and Kuwait. Both deals are agreed to and signed on the US side by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous branch of the Department of Energy.

The benefit of such deals, and of ad hoc arrangements in general, is that by not having the structure of a formal international organization with a secretariat, offices, etc., these agreements and partnerships are more fluid and can mobilize much more quickly. For example, if US intelligence picks up a story about a German-registered merchant vessel bound for Iran from North Korea that potentially has uranium enrichment components on board, one of two things could happen: either the United States could request action from a body like the UN Security Council, or it could leverage a partnership like the PSI.

In the first scenario, the UNSC would convene, deliberate, and finally make a decision in the form of a resolution -- or not. Either way, this process would take considerable time, which in the example given is of the utmost importance and cannot be wasted.

In the second scenario, the US might call on a PSI member state that can interdict the merchant vessel while it is en route to Iran. The member state would probably be a country like Japan, Philippines, Oman, or Qatar, and fellow PSI member Germany would give at least its acknowledgment if not its full permission for the US and/or other coordinating states to take action. That merchant vessel could be intercepted and any illicit materials could be seized -- all in a matter of hours. In the meantime, the UN Security Council would still be debating.

(Incidentally, this example is a variation of an actual situation in 2003, when a ship carrying centrifuge equipment and bound for Libya was interdicted. Following talks with US and UK officials, Libya renounced its nuclear ambitions later that year.)

The role and importance of such "second-layer" arrangements -- which fill the gaps that inevitably are created when formal international arrangements are codified and bureaucratized -- will continue to increase as world leaders recommit themselves to serious arms control efforts, with a view to nonproliferation and disarmament. In a post-Cold War, 9/11-influenced asymmetric arena, the threat of nuclear annihilation comes less from official state actors and more from non-state actors, who could acquire the requisite materials, technology and/or expertise to detonate a weapon of some kind and suffer little consequence, owing to their amorphous, undefinable nature in international politics. As such, the international community will need to continue to possess the capability to move quickly and efficiently, at a moment's notice, to increase the security of nuclear weapons stockpiles, facilities and material, all while preventing in real time any attempts to breach that security.