Nuclear Smuggling: Not Just Fodder for Hollywood

By Heather Von Behren

We have all read dramatic headlines or watched TV dramas about terrorists attempting to acquire nuclear or radiological material for a weapon.  While this this may seem like Hollywood make-believe, we should be under no illusions about the real–life challenges we face.  Given the destruction terrorists could unleash with a dirty bomb or an improvised nuclear device, nuclear terrorism is a threat to our collective security. 

President Obama acknowledged as much in his landmark speech in Prague in April 2009 when he declared, “We must ensure that terrorists never acquire a nuclear weapon.  This is the most immediate and extreme threat to global security.”

To help address this threat, President Obama proposed head-of-state meetings to address the issue of nuclear security.  The United States hosted the first of these gatherings—dubbed the Nuclear Security Summit—in 2010.  Two subsequent Summits were heldin the Republic of Korea in 2012 and in the Netherlands in 2014.  This month, leaders from 52 countries and four international and regional organizations will attend the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., where they will discuss international priorities and advancements in global nuclear security.  

Since the Obama Administration initiated the Nuclear Security Summit process, the international community has made significant progress on counter nuclear smuggling—including by working together to build capabilities to prevent, detect, and respond to radiological and nuclear smuggling threats.  This includes the actions of both governments and international organizations, as demonstrated by the recent Global Counter Nuclear Smuggling Conference convened by INTERPOL, which included law enforcement officials from more than 110 countries. 

These threats remain at the top of Summit participants’ priority list.  The seizure of weapons-grade nuclear material in Georgia in 2010 and Moldova in 2011 suggests that these types of materials could still remain in illegal circulation.  In addition to locking down material under government control, the international community is working together to investigate smuggling networks, remove nuclear and other radioactive material from the black market, and arrest individuals involved.

The United States, for example, has several programs underway that are making nuclear and radiological facilities and international borders more secure than ever before.  Other countries have made similar progress—both on their own and, sometimes, with help from the U.S. government. 

For example, 80 experts from 30 countries and international organizations recently gathered in Karlsruhe, Germany, for a Counter Nuclear Smuggling Workshop co-hosted by the U.S. Department of State and the European Commission—the second workshop of its kind.  Experts shared approaches to detecting, investigating, and building criminal cases against nuclear smuggling activities.  Such efforts are most effective when national government agencies closely cooperate and international partners share information in a timely manner.

One way countries can strengthen coordination in investigations of nuclear smuggling networks is to establish task forces that bring together national law enforcement, intelligence and technical experts.  Such task forces might use, for example, collectors to gather information on nuclear smuggling networks, analysts to review this information and identify connections between cases, law enforcement officers to conduct investigations and arrests, and liaisons to share information with the international community and the public.  These networks can be mobilized at a moment’s notice to locate and secure black market nuclear materials and arrest the individuals involved. 

The Government of Jordan has been an international leader on counter nuclear smuggling in the Nuclear Security Summit process and was one of the first countries to formally establish a national counter-nuclear-smuggling team.  In January 2016, the United States signed a Joint Action Plan with Jordan to combat nuclear terrorism and to improve efforts against nuclear and radiological smuggling.  This brings to 14 the total number of such agreements we have in place with key partner countries.

Joint Action Plans encourage our partners to increase radiological source security, strengthen border detection, and pass legislation that makes nuclear and radiological smuggling a criminal activity.  These plans have also been instrumental in securing commitments to strengthen law enforcement and intelligence capabilities and to improve nuclear forensics capabilities. 

Nuclear smuggling will be a hot topic at this year’s Nuclear Security Summit.  But when the event is over and the delegations have returned to their countries, our work with our international partners to make sure nuclear and radiological materials all over the world are secured and smugglers are brought to justice will continue.  We are unwavering in our commitment to ensuring that terrorists never acquire a nuclear weapon.

Heather Von Behren is chief of the counter nuclear smuggling unit in the International Security and Nonproliferation bureau.