Our expert Marc Finaud was interviewed on Russian International Affairs Council by Tatyana Kanunnikova, RIAC expert.
How do you assess the threat of nuclear terrorism? What forms of nuclear terrorism would you highlight?
Nuclear terrorism, defined as the detonation of one or several nuclear weapons by a terrorist or a terrorist group, is generally considered as a low-probability but high-impact risk. However, the use by terrorists of a radiological dispersal device (or “dirty bomb” - as if nuclear ones were “clean”) to spread radioactive materials on a large surface with conventional explosives has a higher probability but potentially a lesser impact. In an urban context, it would cause not necessarily lethal contamination but certainly panic, economic disruption, and high decontamination costs.
What countries or regions are most vulnerable to this threat?
In principle, countries possessing nuclear weapons claim to ensure the protection of their stockpiles and a sophisticated authorization system that is designed to prevent any unauthorized detonation. However, in regions marred by conflict (such as Northeast or South Asia, or the Middle East), one cannot totally exclude incidents, takeovers by rogue elements, coups or cyberattacks that may lead to the unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. The risk is even higher in countries possessing stockpiles of dangerous nuclear or radioactive materials such as enriched uranium or plutonium.
What can we do to prevent the risk of nuclear terrorism? Which measures are the most effective?
Some measures have already been adopted in the framework of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or as a result of the Nuclear Security Summits launched by President Obama between 2010 and 2016. In countries possessing nuclear weapons, there should be strengthened standards to reduce the nuclear risk, including by preventing any unauthorized or terrorist access to nuclear weapons facilities.
In countries possessing stockpiles of nuclear or radioactive materials, efforts should continue to eliminate or transfer the most dangerous ones (highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium) to safer locations under IAEA controls.
In your opinion, what terrorist groups might have WMD capabilities? Previously, al Qaeda was known to have sought weapons of mass destruction. Does this threat remain?
Indeed, some large terrorist organizations like al Qaeda or the Islamic State (ISIS) — but previously also a Japanese cult (Aum Shinrikyo) — have sought access to weapons of mass destruction or related materials. Most attempts to procure and use radioactive material or biological weapons on a large scale have failed. On the contrary, there were dozens of cases of use of chemical weapons by ISIS in Syria and Iraq since 2014, whether that group used stolen state-manufactured mustard gas or commercially available chlorine.
In conflicts such as Syria or Iraq, this risk remains high. In most countries, this risk has been reduced by the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1540 from 2004 that legally binds all governments to criminalize access of non-state actors to weapons of mass destruction and related materials. But there is still a need to reinforce and fund law enforcement capacities, including border control, in many developing countries.
US-Russia nuclear disarmament agreements are crucial for international nuclear security. Some experts believe that extending the New START Treaty or reaching a new deal would be possible only with the participation of European nuclear nations. What is the stance of France on this matter?
It still makes sense for the two countries possessing over 90 per cent of the world's nuclear arsenals to conclude agreements for the verifiable reduction and elimination of such weapons. Extending New START beyond 2021 is the easiest thing to do in order to avoid a vacuum period in the legal arms control framework that could pave the way for a dangerous uncontrolled arms race. Including the other nuclear weapon possessing states such as France, the UK, or China, but possibly the non-NPT states (India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea) could be done at the Geneva Conference on Disarmament where they are all represented. Until now, most of them have vetoed any negotiation in this domain.
Some regard interim measures, such as the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) or the prohibition of production of fissile materials for weapons, as prerequisites. But useful technical work could already be carried out about verification of disarmament as it was done before the adoption of the CTBT.
In 2019, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was terminated. In your opinion, does this Treaty reflect the reality of today? What can be done to preserve the Treaty?
It is a pity that the United States has terminated this major stabilizing arms control agreement achieved during the Cold War under the pretext of Russian violations that could have been settled between both countries. The prohibition of intermediate-range missiles, both nuclear and non-nuclear, made Europe much safer, lowering the threshold of nuclear war, and is still needed.
If the defunct Treaty cannot be resurrected, at least there should be some new negotiations or commitments involving not only the United States and Russia, but all European countries to ensure no deployment of the prohibited missiles by any side. Such talks could also address the current deployment of so-called non-strategic nuclear weapons by the US in NATO countries and by Russia on its soil. This would not exclude separate negotiations with China about such missiles in Asia, but this would require an approach based on reciprocity.
The European Union is the main contributor to IAEA funds for nuclear security. However, there were calls for the agency to take a more proactive role in nuclear safety. In your opinion, is the reform of the IAEA possible?
It is a good thing that the IAEA has taken up the task of coordinating nuclear security activities after the Nuclear Security Summits, because of its general mandate and expertise. Nuclear security (i.e. protection from intentional acts) and nuclear safety (i.e. protection from accidents or negligence) go hand in hand and require coordinated approaches.
The issue of funding is still crucial, but when you compare world military spending ($1.82 trillion) with the IAEA budget (ca. $578 million or 0.03 per cent of world military spending), you realize how much more effort could be made to increase the funding of nuclear security and safety. Unfortunately, most governments are reactive and accept such sacrifices only after major events such as Chernobyl or Fukushima occur.
This article was originally published on the Russian International Affairs Council's website (RIAC). Interviewed by Tatyana Kanunnikova, RIAC expert.
© Image: U.S. Missile Defense Agency