More International Cooperation to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism

Paolo von Schirach

April 1, 2016

This is the 4th Nuclear Security Summit and the last one to be held with Barack Obama as US President. The objective of these summits is to induce all participating countries and the rest of the world to create and enforce higher security standards for all weapons usable nuclear material in the civilian sector.

There has been considerable progress in this area.

There used to be 50 countries that had such stockpiles. Now we are down to 24. This is good. The fewer the countries that hold such material, the easier the monitoring, and the fewer the opportunities for terrorist and criminals to get hold of any material that could be used to manufacture a weapon.

That said, we still have major problems. About 100 countries stockpile some amounts of radiological material in a variety of sites. Many of them are not properly guarded. We do not have a precise  inventory of who has what, and where. This creates a potential and serious security loophole that at some point in the future may create opportunities for terrorist groups like ISIL.

It is not unthinkable that radical Islamic groups and/or other terrorist organizations may want to acquire radiological material that could be used to manufacture a radiological weapon to be used against Europe, America, or other targets.

Compared to a nuclear weapon this type of device would not produce equally devastating consequences. But the damage would still be huge, and way beyond anything that would be caused by conventional explosives . Beyond the destruction and loss of life caused by the explosion, the release of radiological material would make the areas affected and thus contaminated off limits for a number of years.

Just think for a moment of the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident in Japan  of March 2011. Years after the event, and notwithstanding a huge decontamination effort on the part of the Japanese Government, entire towns and other areas close to the nuclear power plant site are still off limits because of the lingering effects of the release of extremely dangerous emissions.

Just imagine the horrible consequences if a weapon with radiological material would be exploded in a major airport, an electric power plant, a large factory, or other critical infrastructure. Beyond any immediate loss of life and destruction of property, the consequences of a radiological explosion would be felt for years.

For this reason it is absolutely critical that all governments adopt the highest safety standards in order to retain total control over all their radiological material, while making sure that it is all safely stored and guarded.

From this standpoint, it is a pity that Russia refused to take part in this Nuclear Security Summit. The US and Russia are the two leading nuclear weapons countries. They both have large stockpiles of weapons usable material and radiological material. If the two countries could set aside their political differences, they could announce a major joint initiative aimed at leading the world in all measures and systems aimed at enhancing the safety of all nuclear material.

Paolo von Schirach is President of the Global Policy Institute and an Adjunct Professor at BAU International University. A different version of this article first appeared in the Schirach Report