Leiden Safety and Security Blog

Why we should not stop worrying about nuclear terrorism

Why we should not stop worrying about nuclear terrorism

Today is the second day of the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in The Hague. So far, people talking about the NSS seem to be asking three things. First of all: what are the chances something goes wrong (disturbances of the NSS such as protests or more seriously: people planning an attack on a head of state)? Second: how much does this summit actually cost (over 52 million euros)? And third: will Putin show up (no he won´t). Very few people seem to ask what this summit is actually about. What will the 58 world leaders and their delegates discuss, both formally and informally, during these two days in The Hague?

It was President Obama, who said when he was still a US senator, ‘The American people face no greater or more urgent danger than a terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon.’ When in office, he initiated the first Nuclear Security Summit in a speech in Prague in 2009, stating: ‘The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War.’ These two statements are a summary of the two main issues to be discussed in the coming days in The Hague: preventing nuclear terrorism and preventing  the smuggling of nuclear materials worldwide.

But how feasible is the threat of nuclear terrorism? How realistic is the prospect of a terrorist group acquiring nuclear materials and using it to produce a dirty bomb? The general consensus is that there are two scenarios: either terrorist groups are given nuclear weapons by states or they acquire fissile materials on their own and use it to produce a dirty bomb. Regarding the first option, there are those who argue that the whole idea of nuclear terrorism just does not make much sense. As Georgetown professor Keir Lieber argued in his article ‘Why States Won’t Give Nuclear Weapons to Terrorists’, states have little incentive to give nuclear weapons to terrorists because the risk that an attack would be traced back to them is just too big. Apart from that: who guarantees the terrorists will not turn against the donor-state?

On the other end of the debate, there are those like Harvard professor  Graham Allison, who argued just two weeks ago in a public lecture at Leiden University – Campus The Hague that ‘whatever is imaginable, can happen’. As long as unsecured nuclear materials are still out there across the globe, the chance of a nuclear attack by terrorists exists and something needs to be done about that. He pointed out that for example Al Qaeda has said it seeks a bomb and that it would have no problem with using it.

So where does that leave us? Should we choose one or the other? 100% security can never be attained, but translating a sensible risk strategy into a political discourse is not easy. Policymakers cannot either invest all their time and money to what is generally seen as a ‘High Impact, Low Probability’ type of threat, yet at the same time they cannot choose to simply ignore an existing threat altogether. It is a fact that outsized nuclear arsenals still remain in the United States and Russia, and that China, India and Pakistan continue to expand their arsenals and stockpiles of fissile materials. And even the Dutch themselves are unlikely to meet earlier NSS promises regarding enriched uranium and reactor conversion.

So what should be the prospect for those attending the NSS? The challenges posed by the current nuclear governance regime are clear. The good news is that, according to a recent report by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, there has been a significant reduction in the stockpiles of fissile materials usable for weapons worldwide. The bad news is that the current nuclear regime remains a patchwork of voluntary recommendations and very few binding agreements: and even when countries agree to cooperate, many do not keep their end of the bargain. So what needs to be done is first of all: to assess the current threat of nuclear terrorism and the smuggling of nuclear materials. Second, further steps need to be taken to strengthen commitment to the current nuclear regime. And most importantly: the idea needs to be refuted that discussing and planning for low probability issues is a waste of time at all. In a world where everything is imaginable and uncertainty is the key word, the NSS is one very sensible way to prepare for the unexpected.

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