Have Nuclear Security Summits Made the World Safer?
This week the US hosted a nuclear security summit. This is the fourth and final one and although the White House claims success, there are serious questions about whether the summits have made the world safer from nuclear threats.
The White House has put the bests light on the security summits. In a press release they said, “This Summit community has built an impressive track record in meaningful progress towards nuclear security, and on actions that back up our words. Collectively, Summit participants have made over 260 national security commitments in the first three Summits, and of these, nearly three-quarters have been implemented. These outcomes – nuclear material removed or eliminated, treaties ratified and implemented, reactors converted, regulations strengthened, “Centers of Excellence” launched, technologies upgraded, capabilities enhanced – are tangible, concrete evidence of improved nuclear security. The international community has made it harder than ever for terrorists to acquire nuclear weapons, and that has made us all more secure.”
However, in reality, there is little expected from this summit. According to NTI, what this summit will produce is, “a series of documents containing political commitments by leaders. Individual countries release national statements. And as a group, countries are expected to reaffirm their commitment to nuclear security in a summit communiqué issued at the end of the proceedings. This document will provide a high-level overview of the top policy goals and objectives of the global community with regard to nuclear security. In the national statements, countries describe past actions taken to improve security and announce new unilateral commitments; they will seek to achieve multilateral commitments through so-called gift baskets.
In other words, the results from the summit will be paperwork and unenforceable promises.
Many of the claims are also obviously overstated. While everyone admits that European and American borders are porous, the White House statement claims, “Security at sites and on borders is increasing.”
This is an obvious letdown from the April 2009 speech by Obama in Prague where he outlined an initiative to unite world leaders to secure all nuclear bomb material from terrorists.
However much of the fault lies with Obama, his unwillingness to work with Congress, even when it was controlled by his own party and his own failure to move his own bureaucracy.
The first problem is his unwillingness to push for new nuclear treaties, even when Republican opponents like Senator McCain (his 2008 opponent) were backing him. In 2009 Obama promised that he would have Senate approval of the nuclear test ban treaty, which he promised to “immediately and aggressively pursue.” He didn’t push it and it never went anywhere.
He wanted “a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons.” Again, that failed.
He intended to negotiate with Russia truly deep cuts in both arsenals and then “include all nuclear weapon states in this endeavor.” The depth of his failure is seen by the fact that Russia isn’t even at the summit.
Obama also allowed the bureaucracy and defense corporations to continue towards more modern nuclear weapons. When Representative Trent Franks, (R-AZ), asked at a House Armed Services Committee hearing in March, “Has the administration conducted a detailed analysis of eliminating one or more legs of the triad, or significantly altering the US nuclear posture?” The witnesses had no clear answer.
“I’m not aware of any detailed look at that,” said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James agreed. Both asked for more money for new weapons, but not for any new examination of the American nuclear strategy.
The real problem is the growing network of terrorists in the world and their growing access to nuclear and radioactive material.
While Obama has focused on curbing access to dangerous nuclear materials, he has failed to forge a foreign policy that reduces the number of terrorist organizations that would seek to develop either a nuclear or radiological device. In that regard, he has failed because, as with firearms, the problem is not access to these weapons as much as the number of people who desire them for murderous purposes. And, it is very clear that more terrorists want a nuclear device today than in 2008.
An excellent example is the recent Brussels airport and subway attacks. One Belgian nuke plant security guard was murdered recently and his ID was taken. Two of the Brussels bombers reportedly spied on the home of a top senior scientist in the country’s nuclear program. ISIS has been implicated in an alleged insider plot to obtain radioisotopes from one of Belgium’s nuclear plants for a radiological (dirty) bomb. Two former Belgian nuke plant workers also left their jobs to fight for ISIS in Syria.
The website Defense One stated, “In August 2014, a worker at the Doel-4 nuclear power reactor opened a valve and drained a turbine of lubricant. The valve wasn’t near any nuclear material, but the act caused at least $100 million in damage and perhaps twice that. Later, Belgian authorities discovered that a man named Ilyass Boughalab had left his job at Doel-4 to join the Islamic State in Syria.”
This matches the intentions of several Jihadist groups. The al-Qaida house organ, Inspire magazine, has urged its followers to conduct attacks using “specialized expertise and those who work in sensitive locations that would offer them unique opportunities” to wreak havoc.
But, this threat isn’t limited to Europe. US security agencies see such a threat as existing already in the American homeland.
In 2011, a Department of Homeland Security intelligence report warned of the ongoing jihadist infiltration at nuclear, utility and other infrastructure facilities. The memo, titled “Insider Threat to Utilities,” warned that “violent extremists have, in fact, obtained insider positions.” Moreover, “outsiders have attempted to solicit utility-sector employees” for damaging physical and cyber attacks.
“Based on the reliable reporting of previous incidents, we have high confidence in our judgment that insiders and their actions pose a significant threat to the infrastructure and information systems of U.S. facilities,” the bulletin detailed. “Insider information on sites, infrastructure, networks, and personnel is valuable to our adversaries and may increase the impact of any attack on the utilities infrastructure.”
Since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. nuclear industry has spent more than $2 billion upgrading security – including more than doubling the number of armed guards at entrances and checkpoints surrounding the plants. However, much of the threat comes from those inside the nuclear plants.
South Jersey radical Sharif Mobley was closely associated with al Qaeda and held positions at several nuclear power plants in Salem County, New Jersey, before moving to Yemen. He had passed several federal background checks as recently as 2008. In December, Mobley was sentenced to 10 years in prison after shooting a guard during an attempted escape from detention on terrorism charges.
In 2011, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio arrested Cruz Loya Alvares, who was working at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station despite being a Mexican illegal immigrant who had been deported in 2000. He paid human smugglers to bring him back, secured work in construction, and somehow escaped re-deportation despite being cited by Mesa County Police for driving with a suspended license.
In 2012, another Mexican illegal immigrant, Nestor Martinez-Ochoa, who worked in construction, was arrested after trying to enter the same Palo Verde nuclear power plant with a fake ID — not by federal authorities, but again by Arpaio’s office.
What is most concerning is that there are undoubtedly employees at American and European nuclear facilities that pose serious threats; either through the theft of nuclear materials or sabotage.
The biggest threat is radiological bombs, also known as dirty bombs. Unlike nuclear devices, they don’t employ the power of the atom, but rely on conventional explosives to contaminate an area with radioactive materials. These materials could be stolen from a nuclear reactor plant or even from hospitals.
One concern is that ISIS already has some of the capability to make such a device. In July 2014, ISIS militants seized 88 pounds of uranium compounds from Mosul University. The material was unenriched and so could not be used to build a traditional fission bomb, but a dirty bomb is a theoretical possibility. However, the low radioactivity of the uranium compounds makes it a poor candidate for use in a dirty bomb
Such devices aren’t new or sophisticated. Over 70 years ago, Nazi Germany seriously considered using such a device against the US.
Although dirty bombs are a frightening threat, the reality is that the current tactic of suicide bombings and shootings would probably kill more people. According to the United States Department of Energy, a dirty bomb loaded with radioactive materials from likely sources wouldn’t cause serious illness or death.
Their study found that if nothing is done to clean up the affected area and everyone stays in the affected area for one year, the radiation exposure would be “fairly high”, but not fatal. Recent analysis of the nuclear fallout from the Chernobyl disaster confirms this, showing that the effect on many people in the surrounding area, although not those in close proximity, was almost negligible.
Since a dirty bomb is unlikely to cause many deaths by radiation exposure, many do not consider this to be a weapon of mass destruction. Its purpose would presumably be to create psychological, not physical, harm through ignorance, mass panic, and terror. Additionally, containment and decontamination of thousands of victims, as well as decontamination of the affected area might require considerable time and expense, rendering areas partly unusable and causing economic damage.
An Israeli test of dirty bombs merely confirmed this study. Last year an Israeli newspaper reported that Israel had tested several dirty bombs to determine the threat. The Haaretz report, which included photographs, said the project conducted 20 detonations with explosives laced with a radioactive substance. Mini-drones measured radiation levels and sensors logged the force of the explosions, Haaretz reported.
Researchers quoted in the Haaretz report said the Israeli tests were for defensive purposes only. They said high radiation was found at the center of blasts while small particles carried by wind didn’t pose serious danger, except for the psychological effect of such an attack.
The newspaper said the project, code-named “Green Field” and conducted by staff from Israel’s nuclear reactor in the southern town of Dimona, ended in 2014 after four years of tests. Most were conducted in occupied Negev Desert and one in a closed facility, it said.
Another experiment, called “Red House,” tested the consequences of a radiological substance left in a crowded area without being detonated, the newspaper said. The article said Israeli officials put a radioactive material mixed with water in the ventilation system of a building that simulated a shopping mall.
The report said scientists found such an attack would be ineffective as a majority of the radiation remains in air conditioning filters. Results of the experiments were presented at unspecified scientific forums, it said.
What this means is that an overreliance on protecting the small amounts of nuclear material at hospitals and other facilities is a waste of resources.
So, if such a nuclear security policy is a waste of resources, what is a sensible policy for improving nuclear security?
Nuclear Security Policy or Good Foreign Policy?
Securing fissionable nuclear materials is not a new policy. Nor was it instituted by Obama. In fact, it has been the policy of the nuclear powers since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most of the world’s fissionable nuclear material was secured long before Obama left Illinois for Washington.
The problem is that secured nuclear material does little when countries like Israel and North Korea in particular and other nations are producing their own weapons grade nuclear materials without any meaningful checks. Both of these countries were ignored in the White House statement on the summit and its accomplishments.
The reality is that a more aggressive policy toward these two nations would do more to prevent a nuclear threat to the world.
The other problem is the Obama Administration’s Middle Eastern policy failure. By perusing a policy of benign neglect towards terrorist groups that sprouted in Iraq and Syria, while increasing their hatred towards the West with indiscriminant drone attacks, the US merely increased the number of terrorists who are willing to use such a weapon against the US or Europe.
A successful nuclear security summit must look at nations that are currently producing weapons grade nuclear material and imposing sanctions against them if they continue.
The other important policy is reducing the number of terrorist groups that are willing and able to launch some sort of nuclear attack against the West – either a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb. A weakened ISIS is less likely to have the people or resources to carry out such an attack.
While everyone approves of nuclear security, the answer lies not as much in securing nuclear materials as much as finding a way to reduce the tensions in the world that make some groups more than willing to do anything to “go nuclear.”
Fear Grows as Islamic State Spreads Terror Network Digs in Deep in Afghanistan, Libya
By Peter Brookes
March 31, 2016
As if they didn’t have enough to deal with already, the Pentagon has a new problem to panic about: the rise of Islamic State (aka ISIS) affiliates in Afghanistan and Libya. While we’ve known that ISIS has been spreading beyond the Middle East, creating allies and claiming “provinces,” there has been limited U.S. military activity against it outside the Syria-Iraq theater. That may be changing. In Afghanistan, where there is already concern about a Taliban resurgence as the United States weighs its future involvement, ISIS has made itself known through its usual violent tactics. Islamic State-Khorasan is reportedly responsible for suicide attacks, kidnappings and strikes against U.N., Afghan and Pakistani targets, including a Pakistani consulate.
The Comparative Metrics of ISIS and “Failed State Wars” in Syria and Iraq
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
March 29, 2016
The fighting against ISIS/ISIL/Daesh has become at least three different and interrelated conflicts: a fight against Daesh, a low-level sectarian and ethnic civil conflict in Iraq, and an intense civil war in Syria. It is also, however, part of a far broader regional and global conflict against terrorism and extremism; part of the competition between the United States and Russia; part of the competition between the majority of the Arab world and Iran; and part of an emerging struggle for Kurdish identity, and some form of “federalism” and/or independence that involves a range of separate Kurdish identities, Turkey, and the Arab world.
Why it’s impossible to defeat ISIS with Erdoğan in power
American Enterprise Institute
March 31, 2016
Turkey’s authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is in Washington to participate in a conference regarding strategies to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). That’s like inviting Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to a conference about fighting anti-Semitism. Simply put, Erdoğan has transformed Turkey into “Pakistan on the Mediterranean.” Diplomats might, out of politeness, publicly accept the fiction that Erdoğan wants to fight terror but, after years of denial, there is broad consensus that Turkey does more to undercut the fight against terror than advance it.
Dilemmas of Reform: Policing in Arab Transitions
By Yezid Sayigh
March 30, 2016
Struggles over the security sector have been central to the politics of every Arab state that has undergone transition in the wake of armed conflict or political upheaval since the early 1990s. And wherever pre-transition elite coalitions have been neither forged anew nor replaced, security sectors no longer clearly serve a dominant political, social, and economic order. In these contexts, generic Western models of security sector reform cannot adequately resolve the dilemmas revealed by Arab states in transition and can do no more than alter these sectors superficially. Systemic change is needed, but the political and institutional brittleness of Arab states in transition presents a significant obstacle.
Charting the Course for Nuclear Security: An Indian Perspective
By Rakesh Sood
March 23, 2016
The immense potential of nuclear power is both seductive and scary. In the early years of the nuclear age, the scary aspect led the scientific community to raise the banner of nuclear disarmament, but the seductive component proved too strong for political leaders to ignore. With the age of bipolarity dominating the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union cooperated to create a new narrative in which what was scary was the threat of proliferation. By the end of the 1960s, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty had been concluded, and the 1970s saw the birth of nonproliferation-related export control regimes.
Why Russia Is Claiming Victory In Syria
By Ilan Berman
American Foreign Policy Council
March 24, 2016
The National Interest
Call it Vladimir Putin’s “mission accomplished” speech. The Russian president recently caused an international furor when he abruptly announced that his government was commencing a military withdrawal from Syria. Russia had “radically changed the situation” on the ground through its involvement, and its strategic objectives had been “generally accomplished,” Putin said in a televised meeting with top advisors in Moscow, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. As a result, Russia’s commander-in-chief declared, he had made the decision “to start withdrawal of the main part of our military group from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic starting from tomorrow.” The March 14 announcement was both abrupt and surprising, coming as it did just six months after Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war amid grandiose promises of an enduring global coalition against Islamic radicalism. Not surprisingly, observers have tended to view Moscow’s move as a preemptive step designed to avoid quagmire in Syria’s grinding half-decade-old conflict.
Saudi Snub at the Nuclear Summit?
By Simon Henderson
March 30, 2016
The most junior representation at this week’s Nuclear Security Summit in Washington will be the delegation from Saudi Arabia. Beginning March 31, President Obama will host representatives from fifty-seven countries and international groups, including the presidents or prime ministers of Britain, China, France, Japan, and Turkey, foreign or other senior ministers from various other countries, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. All of the participating nations either consider themselves allies of the United States or value their relationship with Washington — Russia is one notable absentee, Iran is another. Yet Saudi Arabia is unique in not sending a political figure to head its delegation.
The Liberation of Mosul Has Begun
By Michael Knights
March 30, 2016
“No one talks about liberating Mosul anymore,” I wrote for Foreign Policy in August, as Iraq’s war against the Islamic State grinded on inconclusively. But seven months later, with a win in the city of Ramadi under the anti-Islamic State coalition’s belt, they’re doing more than talking about Mosul: The first phase of the Fatah, or “Conquest,” operation to liberate Mosul has begun. Admittedly, the Iraqi government’s announcement this week of its effort to push the line forward near the town of Makhmour, 40 miles southeast of Mosul, is a bit of a red herring. This is just a tidying up of the front line, to push Islamic State rocket teams farther back from Iraqi and U.S. bases, including Forward Operating Base Bell, where U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin was killed by indirect fire on March 19. But though Mosul will not be liberated next week, or next month, real progress is being made in the war against the Islamic State. Returning from a week in Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan, I found that a lot of interesting things are happening below the surface to pave the way for the real offensive to relieve the city.