How Can We Avoid Nuclear Catastrophe? "There is a real risk of ISIS getting a dirty bomb"

Unconfirmed reports today suggest that North Korea has detonated a nuclear device. The country’s new agency reported the test as a success, while western analysis of the shockwave suggests that the device may have “fizzled”-that is, the bomb core may not have undergone fission. North Korea’s test is cause for profound concern and in the coming days the most important reaction will be that of China, on which North Korea depends. It is also a stark reminder that the science of fission and the technological knowhow to harness its power in a weapon is widely understood-and for sale. North Korea acquired its nuclear technology from the AQ Khan network, named after the Pakistani metallurgist who during the 1990s sold nuclear secrets to the highest bidder. As the piece below explains, these black market nuclear salesmen still exist–and there are present-day organisations that are willing to pay.

Jay Elwes is Deputy Editor of Prospect

To remark that Russia-U.S. relations are at their lowest point since the Cold War is to commit the sin of cliché but not of inaccuracy. Over the past 18 months or so a revanchist Moscow has invaded Ukraine and stolen Crimea from it, made threatening noises toward Europe’s NATO-member Baltic States and entered the Syrian civil war to prop up the country’s sadistic dictator Bashar Al-Assad. One has no choice but to return to the Cold War to find Russian and American interests so completely at odds with one other.

In its way, the Cold War provided security, or at least a clear understanding of strategic stability. The world was a bipolar one, controlled by two superpowers and the balance of power was understood (erroneously) to be equal. This meant that each of the two states was restrained by its own perceptions of the other’s strength. Widescale invasions or military undertakings such as the 2003 Iraq War were simply impossible by either side for fear of escalation. On the downside, the world lived with the near perennial fear of nuclear Armageddon.

The end of the Cold War was supposed to end all that, and for a while it did. The USSR collapsed and the U.S. became the sole hegemon. No one had any interest in an arms race. But Russian President Vladimir Putin, energized by an irredentist neo-Eurasianism is changing all that. Finland, the UK, Norway, Poland and Sweden have, in recent times, all been victims of veiled and not-so-veiled nuclear threats from Moscow.

And the threats have been taken seriously. Last month I attended the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe in Washington DC, led by its President Dr Moshe Kantor, where I heard former British Secretary of State for Defense, Des Browne articulate unequivocally the degree of European concern. “On the borders between NATO states and Russia, we are seeing daily brinkmanship behaviour [such as Russian Jets flying close to NATO states airspace] which could accidentally lead to a level of confrontation and incident that would be unthinkable between two nuclear-armed entities,” he said.

Russian behaviour is clearly not merely confined to words. Nor alas, to brinkmanship. According to former U.S. Secretary of Defense, William Perry, who also attended the conference, the world is “on the brink” of a new nuclear arms race. “Russia,” he said “is already in early stages of this–in long term discussion to rebuild its Cold War arsenal at a cost of a trillion dollars.”

Amidst all of this, for the first time in over twenty years Russia and the U.S. are not holding any negotiations over nuclear proliferation issues–to the detriment of an increasingly unstable world. The last treaty between the two, the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) was signed in 2010, and while it is expected to last until 2021, events have moved on significantly over the last half a decade. The nuclear issue needs re-visiting. Urgently.

This is for political as well as security reasons. It is in the nuclear sphere that improved relations between the U.S. and Russia are most clearly achievable. Despite all their differences there is undoubted common ground between Russia and US in a shared desire to keep WMDs out of terrorist hands. A danger that is, by all accounts, proximate. According to former Senator and Chief Executive Officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Sam Nunn, who also spoke, “there is a real risk of ISIS getting a dirty bomb. How can this be prevented? We need to fight international terrorism, the main leader of which is ISIS. We must do everything in our power to prevent radioactive materials ending up in hands of terrorists and it is the responsibility of the U.S. and Russia to do this.”

This is because between them the two countries account for 90 percent of the world’s nuclear materials. Under UN resolution 1540 every state is obligated to protect its nuclear weapons and general nuclear materials, in part to prevent these eventualities. The U.S. and Russia, as the two states with the most nuclear materials and most extensive nuclear infrastructure, are best placed–if they can work together–to help countries protect their own nuclear stock, and prevent it from falling into the hands of terrorist groups.

We live in an era where WMD’s are no longer the preserve of nation states, where, in many countries, especially the former Soviet republics, nuclear materials can be found on the black market. Indeed, according to Nunn, the materials needed to make a dirty bomb are located all over the planet. The nuclear sphere needs policing more than ever and Russia and U.S. are best placed to do it.

And if the worst ensued, the need for the two to be on the same side would only increase. “A dirty bomb is very likely to happen,” Nunn said. “It may be inevitable–and if the US and Russia aren’t working together at that time it will be a serious problem.” As well as prevention there is also the deeply unsettling thought of cleanup.

At a time when ISIS has risen to become the most sophisticated terrorist force in history, the need to protect nuclear materials has never been greater. Dialogue is needed; intelligence sharing is a must; a realisation of the scale of the problem must be present throughout the chain of command on both sides. But the resolve to tackle the problem seems to be lacking. Both sides are growing farther apart with Putin seemingly unwilling to listen to reason on issues across the geopolitical spectrum.

As Nunn concluded: “even when tensions are high the U.S. and Russia must work together–we are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe, and cooperation is losing.”