Advancing Against Nuclear Terrorism

by Graham Allison

At the St. Petersburg G8 summit in July 2006, Presidents Bush and Putin took three significant steps forward in addressing what each has identified as the single largest threat to his country’s national security: nuclear terrorism.

Meeting a day before the summit, Bush and Putin announced a new Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism; a plan for multiple, multilateral guaranteed suppliers of nuclear fuel to States that forgo building their own enrichment plants; and a Civil Nuclear Agreement that will lift restrictions on cooperation between the two countries in developing peaceful nuclear power.

Each of these initiatives provides a framework for dozens of specific actions that can measurably reduce the risk of terrorists acquiring a nuclear weapon. Together they suggest that the Bush Administration is finally beginning to see this challenge whole and to develop a comprehensive strategy for addressing it.

The significance of the Global Initiative against Nuclear Terrorism lies not only in its substance but in Russia’s visible joint ownership of the Initiative. At a press conference, President Putin led with the Global Initiative and explained it with conviction. After years in which Washington lectured Moscow about this threat, Putin’s joint leadership in securing nuclear material worldwide should give added impetus to this undertaking inside Russia as well.

Globally, this initiative calls for work plans in five arenas: prevention, detection, disruption, mitigation of consequences after an attack, and strengthening domestic laws and export controls against future A.Q. Khans. This skeleton has all the required limbs. The test will be how rapidly governments put meat on these bones.

Fortunately, officials at the Departments of State and Energy have already been at work with their Russian counterparts to do that. For example, they have scheduled for autumn 2006 the first-ever joint field exercise that will seek to find and capture hypothetical terrorists who have stolen nuclear material. This will involve Americans and Russians working together in Russia. The Initiative is open to other States prepared to undertake these commitments and we should see new members signing up by year’s end.

The guaranteed nuclear fuel supply tightens the noose arou-nd Iran as it seeks to exploit a loophole in the global Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. By guaranteeing States that six separate international suppliers will provide backup guarantees against interruption of supply for any reason other that breech of commitments under the NPT, this proposal eliminates Iran’s excuse for Natanz—the enrichment plant it is rushing to finish today. This system for supply will be subject to the supervision by the IAEA, which will also have nuclear fuel reserves that allow it to be a supplier of last resort.

The Civil Nuclear Agreement will allow joint research on next-generation, proliferation-proof reactors, including technologies where Russian science is the best in the world. It will permit sale to Russia of US technologies that can improve the safety and efficiency of Russian nuclear power plants. In time, it will allow Russia to import for safe storage US-origin nuclear waste from power plants in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

While several obstacles must be overcome before Russia is open for business, this has the promise to become the largest source of income for Russia’s nuclear industry. Requiring that 25% of the profit be spent on sustaining security for all nuclear material would be a classic example of win-win. It will also relieve nuclear power plant operators worldwide of spent fuel that has been accumulating onsite, providing another positive talking point for opponents of nuclear power.

In their Joint Statement, the two Presidents “recognize the devastation that could befall our peoples and the world community if nuclear weapons or materials or other weapons of mass destruction were to fall into the hands of terrorists.”

If terrorists succeed in exploding a nuclear bomb in Washington or Moscow or Tel Aviv, the pictures of 9/11 and the London subway bombings will pale. Although pictures of war in the Middle East overshadowed the progress made at this year’s G8, Russia and the United States made productive use of the summit as an action-forcing deadline to advance in the war against nuclear terrorism.

Graham Allison is Director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He served in the Clinton administration as Assistant Secretary of Defense. He is the author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (2004).
Email: [email protected]

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