Project Ploughshares Nuclear Terrorism Briefing

Tasneem Jamal

In the wake of the September 11attacks there is rising concern that non-state terrorists could acquire nuclear material or a nuclear weapon to use against civilians. On May 6, Project Ploughshares hosted a briefing in Ottawa to address this concern and assess the threat of nuclear terrorism by non-state actors, as well as to identify areas for further attention.

Participants included government officials, NGO representatives, experts, and academics. The event was made possible through the generous support of the Simons Foundation.

The purpose of the briefing was to give participants a detailed overview of the issue, the legal regime governing the use of nuclear material, and Canada’s participation in international initiatives to prevent nuclear terrorism. Experts addressed three questions: How real is the threat of nuclear terrorism? What international safeguards are in place to prevent access to fissile materials? and How is Canada engaged in the international effort to prevent nuclear terrorism?

Dr. Ben Sanders, former executive chairman of the Programme for Promoting Nuclear Non-Proliferation; David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security; and Terry Wood, Director of the Arms Control Implementation Agency at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, acted as resource people.

Several participants stressed that any use of a nuclear weapon would be an act of nuclear terrorism. The experts noted that an incident of non-state nuclear terrorism would probably take one of three forms: detonation of a nuclear weapon, attack on a nuclear facility, or detonation of a radiological dispersal device or ‘dirty bomb’. Of these, detonation of a nuclear weapon would be most devastating, but also the most difficult to accomplish. Experts suggest that the detonation of a radiological dispersal device in an urban centre is a more likely scenario. This would have a relatively small impact in terms of immediate destruction, but uncertain long-term consequences and substantial psychological and political effects.

There is evidence to suggest that Al Qaeda has been attempting to acquire a nuclear capacity for several years. Testimony in the Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam American Embassy bombing cases tells of efforts to purchase nuclear fuel on the blackmarket in the early ’90s. Paper evidence discovered in Afghanistan further substantiates suspicions that the terrorist group has been seeking to build or buy a nuclear weapon. However, there is no indication that Al Qaeda has finalized a transaction or is in possession of either nuclear material or a nuclear weapon.

There are several mechanisms in place by which the international community is actively seeking to deny non-state groups access to nuclear material. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) plays a key role by implementing a variety of programs to safeguard nuclear material. In response to the events of September 11, the IAEA designed a Nuclear Terrorism Prevention Program to supplement and reinforce national efforts to ensure nuclear security, as well as identify areas for improvement.

Canada is involved in the multilateral legal regime to protect nuclear material through its participation in the UN, IAEA, Group of 78 and Nuclear Suppliers Group. Nationally, several measures have been designed to prevent non-state terrorism generally, and chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) terrorism specifically. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission began a three-phase effort to assess security at Canadian nuclear installations and make improvements where necessary immediately following September 11. Other legislative measures are being debated, including a National Anti-Terrorism Plan.

The final session of the briefing was a facilitated discussion, during which participants identified areas for attention and further action.

There is a need for Canadian support of initiatives in Russia to increase nuclear materials protection and the safe disposal of nuclear materials.

  • Financial support for the IAEA is a source of concern. Counter-terrorism should be part of the regular budget, which needs increased financial support by all member states.
  • It is essential to generate political will to sustain support for the IAEA, particularly amongst G8 countries. Canadians need a much better understanding of the threat and possible responses.
  • There are two elements in preventing nuclear terrorism: an immediate response to the threat in order to prevent a nuclear terrorism incident; and long-term change to reduce demand and address root causes. Neither can be ignored; rather, there must be an integrated approach.
  • Perspective must be maintained when assessing the nuclear terrorist threat. While nuclear attack could have disastrous outcomes, the threat from chemical and biological weapons is significant, and these may in fact be the preferred tools of terrorists.
  • The link must be made between counter-terrorism and broader arms control – support for the NPT is key to combating nuclear terrorism. It is important to examine the threat of nuclear terrorism involving non-state actors within the context of the overall threat posed by nuclear weapons in the arsenals of states – the traditional nuclear powers, the newly emerging nuclear powers, and the threshold states. Disarmament is essential.
  • The rule of law and the international apparatus of multilateral legal agreements must be upheld.

Participants emphasized that the response to the nuclear terrorism threat should be both multi-dimensional and multi-lateral. “Multi-dimensional” means that a response requires a combination of intelligence, police work, and international cooperation in controlling and accounting for nuclear materials, as well as political, social, and economic measures in support of conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and disarmament. “Multi-lateral” requires the international community to work together to build a universal, non-discriminatory, rule-based nuclear non-proliferation regime.

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