Illicit Nuclear Trafficking & the New Agenda

by Vladimir A. Orlov

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In most cases, information about nuclear theft or nuclear smuggling shows that most trafficking involves radioactive substances that are not nuclear materials and cannot be used to produce nuclear weapons. These are primarily natural uranium and uranium dioxide, and sources of ionizing radiation. Sometimes they were intended for resale inside the country where the materials were obtained, sometimes for smuggling abroad. Such cases pose no threat from the point of non-proliferation, though they do raise fears and concerns over what have been called "dirty bombs".

The problem of analyzing illicit nuclear trafficking is complicated by the considerable amount of confidential, unverified, or exaggerated information. To a certain extent, the mass media sensationalize reports, and journalists are not always professional enough to explain to the readers the difference between highly enriched and depleted uranium, for example. In some cases, the problems of illicit trafficking are the targets for political and diplomatic games or the objects of undercover campaigns by intelligence services themselves.

Russia is often identified in the world press as a source of illicit nuclear trafficking. The reason for this was the collapse of the USSR and the suspicions of insufficient physical protection of nuclear materials and weakness of control systems. The first wave of information about nuclear smuggling from Russia dates back to 1992, and many reports were discredited or proven false.

It would be a mistake to connect the problem of illicit nuclear trafficking with any particular state (including Russia). At the same time, it would be wrong to say that there was no illicit nuclear trafficking in Russia, as some officials did in the early 1990s. The problem exists and it is universal. One cannot preclude, for example, that some weapons-usable materials have been smuggled from Western Europe and North America to Pakistan and Israel.

More Cooperation Needed

As stated by the G-8 leaders at the Moscow Nuclear Safety and Security Summit as early as 1996, illicit trafficking in nuclear material poses a global proliferation risk and a potential danger to public health and safety. The criminal diversion of nuclear material could assist States or terrorist groups to bypass the carefully crafted controls of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime and permit them to construct or otherwise acquire a nuclear or radiological weapon. The G-8 leaders admitted that the majority of cases, so far, had involved only small amounts of fissile material or material of little use for weapons purposes, and many apprehended nuclear traffickers had been swindlers or petty thieves. Nevertheless, cases of illicit nuclear trafficking continue to occur. (See box, IAEA Database on Illicit Nuclear Trafficking.)

Efforts to prevent illicit trafficking in nuclear material are being reinforced. They include strengthening the first line of defense, i.e. safe and secure storage of nuclear materials and efficient measures of protection, control and accounting to prevent proliferation. They will also need to involve tightening of national export control systems.

International cooperation in this area, sensitive from the point of national security, has its limits. It is understood, however, that without international cooperation, the problem of illicit nuclear trafficking, when involving more than one State, cannot be solved. For instance, in the framework of international cooperation to prevent illicit nuclear trafficking, the G-8 established the Non-Proliferation Experts Group to coordinate its efforts with a range of intelligence, customs, law enforcement and other agencies.

The international community's response additionally should draw upon the existing instruments and organizations of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. These include universal adherence to the NPT and the Principles and Objectives agreed at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, and to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, as well as application of the recommendations on physical protection made by the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

Cooperation within the framework of the Zangger Committee and the NSG is particularly important in the struggle against illicit trafficking. The IAEA plays a special role in international cooperation and has adopted an action plan supporting its programme to prevent illicit trafficking and nuclear terrorism. Recent proposals by the IAEA Director General for greater and more concerted action for stronger controls over nuclear materials are a sign of the challenges before the international community. They merit proactive and urgent attention.

Vladimir Orlov is the founding Director of the Moscow-based PIR center for Policy Studies in Russia. In 2001-2002 he served as a consultant to the United Nations. In 1994 and in 2001-2002 he was a visiting scholar and Senior Research Association at the Center for Non-proliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies. He joined the Geneva Centre for Security Policy in January 2004 as a Faculty Member. Author's e-mail: [email protected]

Parts of this essay are drawn from his work at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy in April 2004, and from a paper he authored on illicit nuclear trafficking.

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