75 years after the Hiroshima bomb, nuclear threat remains

Rogue states must be monitored, but the bigger fear is atomic terrorism. A handful of plutonium could kill many thousands
75 years after the Hiroshima bomb, nuclear threat remains

The atomic bombing of the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, killed 140,000 people.   Picture: Eugene Hoshiko

Tomorrow marks the 75th anniversary of the world’s first atomic bomb attack which killed at least 140,000 people at Hiroshima. Three-quarters of a century on, while there remains significant concern over states using nuclear weapons again, including North Korea, policy focus has shifted to the threat of atomic terrorism.

Nuclear terror became a prominent feature of the international radar after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s when concerns were raised about safeguarding the former Communist state’s extensive nuclear weaponry. 

More than two dozen states had at least 1 kilogram of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) in civilian stocks. 

Since 1993, there have been more than 2,700 confirmed incidents of illicit trafficking, unauthorised possession or loss of nuclear and radioactive material reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

It is the United States, which dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and, three days later, Nagasaki, that has historically been at the fore of international efforts to protect against the spread of nuclear weapons and materials in post-Cold War era. 

The Obama administration held four Nuclear Security Summits (NSS) with more than 50 countries to minimise the use of HEU, securing vulnerable materials, countering nuclear smuggling, and deterring, detecting, and disrupting attempts at nuclear terrorism. 

The NSS process, which has fallen into abeyance during the Trump presidency, reduced the amount of dangerous nuclear material and improved security of much of this. 

For instance, enough HEU for some 3,000 nuclear weapons has been ‘down-blended’ in Russia and the United States; around a dozen countries have returned their previous stockpile of HEU back to the country of origin (mostly to the United States and Russia); a significant number of former nuclear facilities across the world are now both HEU and plutonium free; and around 20 countries have launched a counter nuclear smuggling initiative.

However, Harvard University’s Managing the Atom Project warned last year that “high-level political attention to nuclear security and overcoming obstacles has largely faded, international mechanisms for fostering nuclear security action and cooperation have not managed to fill the gap created by the absence of nuclear security summits, and political disputes continue to impede efforts to sustain or expand cooperation in crucial areas”. 

This is extremely troubling.

It reflects that - focusing again on the United States - this agenda is not a super-priority for the Trump team and recent years have seen an erosion of congressional expertise and experience on preventing nuclear terrorism.

Beyond the shores of the United States, international cooperation on this agenda has also been stymied in recent years. 

For instance, relations between Russia and the West have chilled since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and wider activities in Ukraine, and Russian representatives did not even attend some of the NSS summits.

While the international capability to tackle nuclear terrorism may be eroding, the threat could be growing. 

In recent years, there have been a number of warning signs, including the Brussels terror attacks in March 2016 with the authorities discovering afterwards that the perpetrators had been watching a Belgian nuclear scientist who worked at the Tihange nuclear power facility with the potential aim of using material from this facility.

While some thinks tanks assert the probability of a major nuclear terrorism event is very low, consequences would be so dramatic that it remains a significant concern. 

According to the Nuclear Security Governance Experts Group, detonation of even a small handful-sized amount of plutonium could kill or wound hundreds of thousands of people in a densely populated area. 

And the ensuing chaos would probably spiral outwards, potentially overwhelming medical facilities and causing major domestic and international travel problems. 

It could also trigger a significant macroeconomic shock by undermining consumer confidence.

Given the hurdles to terrorist networks obtaining weapons-grade material, perhaps the bigger danger is a small nuclear weapon or a radiological dispersal device (a so-called ‘dirty bomb’). 

Here, the complexity of the operation is much reduced as conventional explosives would be used to spread radiation from a radioactive source. 

Only in December 2014, Mexican law enforcement authorities discovered a vehicle believed to have been stolen by thieves which contained radioactive medical materials that could have been used to power a dirty bomb.

Taken together, with the threat of nuclear terrorism potentially growing, a major effort is now needed to increase international capability to tackle this danger. 

With the collapse of the NSS process, this effort will require greater resources and funding, and may need to be anchored onto existing initiatives in other bodies, including the IAEA, so that the momentum is institutionalised as much as possible for the future.

- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

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