The Fear of Nuclear Proliferation

Stephen DeAngelis

August 08, 2008

One widely broadcast political advertisement being used by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama asserts that nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists is the most serious security threat facing the United States. For good reasons, preventing a nuclear detonation anywhere in the world is high on the list of almost everyone’s security concerns. The consequences of such a detonation go far beyond the loss of life that would result. Beyond the concern about radioactive material for a so-called dirty bomb or, even worse, a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorists, the proliferation of nuclear weapons has remained in the headlines thanks to so-called “rogue nations” like North Korea and Iran. The topic again made headlines in late July when a Japanese company suspected of selling equipment that could be used to build nuclear weapons was raided by police [“Japan police raid company, suspect nuclear exports,” by Jay Alabaster, Washington Post, 31 July 2008].

“Police raided the headquarters of Horkos Corp., a maker of machining tools and construction equipment, and several other sites in the city of Fukuyama, about 370 miles southwest of Tokyo, said police spokesman Ryoji Manda. The company is suspected of exporting equipment without obtaining government authorization, he said. In 2004, Horkos exported several ‘machining centers’ to South Korea, from where they could then have been sold to other countries, Japanese media reported. The equipment is highly precise and can be used to make components for centrifuges that enrich uranium for use in nuclear bombs.”

The raid underscores the challenges involved with preventing nuclear proliferation. The Horkos Corporation was not suspected or accused of selling nuclear weapon components directly to a so-called rogue state. It sold machines to an ally nation. Its “transgression” was selling that equipment without permission. The first-line defense of nations trying to prevent nuclear proliferation is trying to prevent the components necessary to begin a nuclear program from ever reaching states interested in developing “the bomb.” It is a difficult and tedious intelligence challenge. Sometimes the information that components have been secured by undesirable states is only learned after the fact.

“In 2006, Japanese police arrested the president and other employees of Mitutoyo Corp., and the company later admitted it broke the law in a case involving the export of precision three-dimensional measuring devices. Japanese news reports said the International Atomic Energy Agency had earlier discovered Mitutoyo-made machinery at nuclear-related sites in Libya during inspections.”

Although the article didn’t say, it is likely the machinery by Mitutoyo wasn’t sold directly to Libya (even if they knew that is where it would eventually end up). Like the Horkos machinery the Mitutoyo equipment was probably sold initially to a legitimate third party. The most infamous black market for nuclear program components was run by the Pakistani scientist who is credited with developing Pakistan’s nuclear weapon program. Four years ago, his operation was uncovered and he was placed under arrest. The extent of his operation is still be being discovered [“Officials Fear Bomb Design Went to Others,” by David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, New York Times, June 2008].

“Four years after Abdul Qadeer Khan, the leader of the world’s largest black market in nuclear technology, was put under house arrest and his operation declared shattered, international inspectors and Western officials are confronting a new mystery, this time over who may have received blueprints for a sophisticated and compact nuclear weapon found on his network’s computers. Working in secret for two years, investigators have tracked the digitized blueprints to Khan computers in Switzerland, Dubai, Malaysia and Thailand. The blueprints are rapidly reproducible for creating a weapon that is relatively small and easy to hide, making it potentially attractive to terrorists. The revelation this weekend that the Khan operation even had such a bomb blueprint underscores the questions that remain about what Dr. Khan, a Pakistani metallurgist and the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, was selling and to whom. It also raises the possibility that he may still have sensitive material.”

Governments interested in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons are concerned by this because Khan is a national hero in Pakistan and the Pakistani government has hinted that it wants to release him. The fear is that Khan will re-start his operation if released.

“Pakistani officials insist that Dr. Khan, as the leader of a uranium enrichment program, had no weapons access. But this is the second weapons design found in his smuggling network. The first was for an unwieldy but effective Chinese design from the mid-1960s that Libya acknowledged obtaining from the Khan network before it surrendered its bomb-making equipment in 2003. Both the new and the old designs exploit the principle of implosion, in which a blast wave from a sphere of conventional explosives squeezes inward with tremendous force to compress a ball of bomb fuel, starting the chain reaction and the atomic explosion. A nuclear official in Europe familiar with the Khan investigation said the new design was powerful but miniaturized — using about half the uranium fuel of the older design to produce a greater explosive force. … Nuclear experts said a warhead built from the new design was small enough to fit atop a family of medium-range missiles that derive from North Korea’s Nodong class of missiles. Those missiles include Pakistan’s Ghauri and Iran’s Shahab. All are about four feet wide, and any warhead atop them must, by definition, be smaller.”

Rising oil, natural gas, and coal prices have raised new fears about nuclear proliferation because dozens of nations are becoming interested in exploring nuclear power as an alternative energy source [“Spread of Nuclear Capability Is Feared,” by Joby Warrick, Washington Post, 12 May 2008].

“At least 40 developing countries from the Persian Gulf region to Latin America have recently approached U.N. officials here to signal interest in starting nuclear power programs, a trend that concerned proliferation experts say could provide the building blocks of nuclear arsenals in some of those nations. At least half a dozen countries have also said in the past four years that they are specifically planning to conduct enrichment or reprocessing of nuclear fuel, a prospect that could dramatically expand the global supply of plutonium and enriched uranium, according to U.S. and international nuclear officials and arms-control experts.”

Although oil-rich Middle Eastern countries claim that their nuclear power programs are aimed at ensuring their energy future beyond the oil era, arms control experts suspect security concerns are also involved.

“For some Middle Eastern states with ready access to huge stocks of oil or natural gas, such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the investment in nuclear power appears to be linked partly to concerns about a future regional arms race stoked in part by Iran’s alleged interest in such an arsenal, the officials said. … Although the United Arab Emirates has a proven oil reserve of 100 billion barrels, the world’s sixth-largest, in January it signed a deal with a French company to build two nuclear reactors. Wealthy neighbors Kuwait and Bahrain are also planning nuclear plants, as are Libya, Algeria and Morocco in North Africa and the kingdom of Jordan. Even Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, last year announced plans to purchase a nuclear reactor, which it says is needed to produce electricity; it is one of 11 Middle Eastern states now engaged in starting or expanding nuclear power programs. Meanwhile, two of Iran’s biggest rivals in the region, Turkey and Egypt, are moving forward with ambitious nuclear projects. Both countries abandoned any pursuit of nuclear power decades ago but are now on course to develop seven nuclear power plants — four in Egypt and three in Turkey — over the next decade.”

The country of most immediate concern, of course, is Iran.

“Although U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Iran halted its research into making nuclear weapons five years ago, the Islamic republic still seeks to make enriched uranium with centrifuges at its vast underground facility at Natanz. It is now operating about 3,000 centrifuges and plans to increase the number to 50,000.”

All of this highlights the conundrum that will continue to confront the world as it continues to develop and the demand for electricity increases. Nuclear power is a proven and efficient alternative energy source and, once the challenge of radioactive waste is solved, its widespread use should help reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses. But within every peaceful nuclear power program lies a nascent nuclear weapons program. That is why a vigorous international inspection program will be necessary to ensure that peaceful nuclear programs remain peaceful. The other concern is the safe and secure transport and sale of nuclear material that could be used by terrorist organizations if it fell into their hands. To counter this challenge, governments have established sensor systems and intelligence networks [“Interdicting Nuclear Smuggling: Second Line of Defense Program,” by Micah Zenko and Matthew Bunn,, last updated by Micah Zenko on 20 November 2007].

“The Second Line of Defense program at the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) seeks to interdict illicit trafficking of nuclear and radiological material through airports, seaports, and border crossings in Russia and other key transit states. It strives to do this by helping states install and use radiation detection equipment at these sites, and providing associated training and support. Since 2003, the Second Line of Defense program has consisted of two components: the ‘Core’ program that focuses on putting radiation detection in place at border crossings, mid-sized seaports, and airports in Russia, other former Soviet States, Eastern Europe, and other key countries; and the Megaports Initiative that equips major international seaports shipping cargo to the United States with radiation detection equipment.”

The first line of defense, of course, is secure handling and storage of nuclear material so that it never makes it to the black market. In addition to the Second Line of Defense Program, the U.S. has established several other initiatives.

Customs Container Security Initiative. On January 17, 2002, U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner announced the Container Security Initiative (CSI), a series of bilateral agreements to identify and pre-screen high-risk shipping containers from the twenty foreign ports that collectively account for 90 percent of shipping traffic into the United States, before such containers even start their trip to the United States. Part of the CSI consists of examining U.S.-bound selected containers that are assessed as high-risk for chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear material, as well as potentially dangerous dual-use items. The Second Line of Defense program has agreed to contribute its expertise in supplying radiation detection equipment to foreign countries for screening for radiological and nuclear material. …

“Secure Freight Initiative In December 2006, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and DOE announced the first phase of the Secure Freight Initiative (SFI). The Initiative complements and coordinates with DHS’s Bureau of Customs and Border Protection’s Container Security Initiative (CSI) and DOE’s Megaports Initiative. Under the joint work-plan, either the host government or DHS pays for the non-intrusive imaging systems while DOE deploys the radiation portal monitors. The SFI works to integrate the data and images provided by the DOE monitors and the non-intrusive imaging systems. All of the data is provided to the host government. Any data that concerns U.S.-bound containers is provided to on-site U.S. CSI systems, and the CBP National Targeting Center (NTC) in the United States. If the DOE-provided radiation monitors set off an alarm from scanning a U.S.-bound container, U.S. and host country personnel are notified at the same time, providing some degree of oversight for the effectiveness of U.S.-funded equipment and training.”

The challenge of preventing nuclear proliferation and the illicit marketing of nuclear material is never-ending. Once the nuclear genie was let out of the bottle, there is no putting it back in, despite calls by politicians to do just that. Therefore, preventing proliferation is a challenge that requires significant cooperation between governments and between commercial organizations and governments. If, as predicted, the use of nuclear power becomes more common (and I think it should), the challenge will only grow. We should look at this as an opportunity for international cooperation and collaboration rather than an intractable challenge. Wringing one’s hands has never helped the world move forward.