U.S., Russia Should Intensify Joint Fight Against Nuclear Terrorism: Report

Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
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Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
Oct. 2, 2013, 4:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — Former top Rus­si­an and U.S. of­fi­cials con­tend in a new re­port their coun­tries should do more to counter feared nuc­le­ar-ter­ror­ism at­tacks by be­ing will­ing to share sens­it­ive tech­nic­al data and to help oth­er na­tions im­prove their fis­sile-ma­ter­i­al-pro­tec­tion stand­ards.

The “Steps to Pre­vent Nuc­le­ar Ter­ror­ism” doc­u­ment — re­leased Wed­nes­day and jointly pro­duced by Har­vard Uni­versity’s Belfer Cen­ter for Sci­ence and In­ter­na­tion­al Af­fairs and the Rus­si­an Academy of Sci­ences’ In­sti­tute for U.S. and Ca­na­dian Stud­ies, or ISKRAN — has the back­ing of prom­in­ent re­tired U.S. and Rus­si­an mil­it­ary and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials.

The re­com­mend­a­tions are in­ten­ded to in­flu­ence plan­ning for next year’s Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit in the Neth­er­lands, which is slated to be the second-to-last gath­er­ing of its kind and thus one of the fi­nal high-pro­file op­por­tun­it­ies to se­cure con­crete com­mit­ments by na­tion states to im­prove their nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity.

“As the world’s two greatest nuc­le­ar powers, the United States and Rus­sia have the greatest ex­per­i­ence and cap­ab­il­it­ies in se­cur­ing nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als and plants and, there­fore, share a spe­cial re­spons­ib­il­ity to lead in­ter­na­tion­al ef­forts to pre­vent ter­ror­ists from seiz­ing such ma­ter­i­als,” the re­port reads.

The 34-page doc­u­ment re­com­mends es­tab­lish­ing dif­fer­ent sub­groups with­in the frame­work of the U.S.-Rus­sia Bi­lat­er­al Pres­id­en­tial Com­mis­sion, which Pres­id­ent Obama and then-Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Dmitry Med­ve­dev es­tab­lished in 2009 to strengthen bi­lat­er­al co­oper­a­tion.

The new sub­groups would fo­cus on, among oth­er things, co­ordin­at­ing ac­tions between the U.S. and Rus­si­an gov­ern­ments if there is an emer­gency in­volving a cred­ible nuc­le­ar ter­ror­ist threat, and also de­vel­op­ing guidelines for the bi­lat­er­al shar­ing of nuc­le­ar-forensics-re­lated in­form­a­tion.

The re­port fur­ther sug­gests Wash­ing­ton and Mo­scow re­cruit oth­er na­tions to join them in vol­un­tar­ily mak­ing new com­mit­ments to height­en pro­tec­tion stand­ards for nuc­le­ar war­heads, highly-en­riched urani­um and plutoni­um.

Mat­thew Bunn, a nuc­le­ar ex­pert who co-au­thored the re­port, sug­ges­ted any agree­ment on new vol­un­tary stand­ards could be an­nounced at the up­com­ing nuc­le­ar sum­mit.

Na­tions in­ter­est­ing in ad­opt­ing these heightened nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity stand­ards but lack­ing the re­sources to im­ple­ment them on their own might be able to re­ceive fin­an­cial as­sist­ance from oth­er na­tions par­ti­cip­at­ing in the nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity sum­mit pro­cess, Bunn said in an in­ter­view.

The re­port calls for Rus­sia and the United States, which to­geth­er hold the vast ma­jor­ity of the world’s fis­sile ma­ter­i­al, to fur­ther con­sol­id­ate their stock­piles of HEU ma­ter­i­al and plutoni­um “to the ab­so­lute min­im­um re­quired to sup­port the on­go­ing mil­it­ary and ci­vil­ian uses of these stocks.”

Bunn, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fess­or of pub­lic policy at Har­vard Uni­versity, said while im­prove­ments have been seen in re­cent years in the se­cur­ity of nuc­le­ar stock­piles held world­wide, there is still more that can be done.

“You shouldn’t think of it as something you flip a switch and it’s done, rather it’s something that re­quires … con­tinu­al im­prove­ment,” Bunn said.

Arms-con­trol ex­perts in in­ter­views were gen­er­ally sup­port­ive of the Belfer-ISKRAN re­port’s re­com­mend­a­tions.

“Pretty much any­thing to get the U.S. and Rus­sia work­ing to­geth­er to pre­vent nuc­le­ar ter­ror­ism is a good idea be­cause it’s one of the things that the two coun­tries agree on,” said Tom Col­lina, re­search dir­ect­or at the Arms Con­trol As­so­ci­ation, who briefly com­men­ted to Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire on the re­port’s re­com­mend­a­tions.

Miles Pom­per, a seni­or re­search as­so­ci­ate at the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies, said he found the re­com­mend­a­tions to be strong and note­worthy be­cause of their en­dorse­ment by well-re­spec­ted former mil­it­ary and se­cur­ity pro­fes­sion­als in both na­tions.

The ques­tion, however, is “will the two gov­ern­ments ac­tu­ally be will­ing to un­der­take this — par­tic­u­larly on is­sues such as forensics and in­vent­or­ies that re­quire a lot of trans­par­ency and co­oper­a­tion and could prove dip­lo­mat­ic­ally em­bar­rass­ing,” Pom­per said in an e-mail.

Pom­per said he was par­tic­u­larly ap­pre­ci­at­ive of the re­com­mend­a­tion for form­ing a bi­lat­er­al sub­group to en­cour­age the shar­ing of in­form­a­tion re­lated to nuc­le­ar forensics — a field that en­com­passes a range of tech­nic­al cap­ab­il­it­ies that can de­term­ine where a par­tic­u­lar amount of nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­al was pro­duced. It is hoped that rogue act­ors would be de­terred from car­ry­ing out a nuc­le­ar ter­ror at­tack if they know the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity pos­sesses the sci­entif­ic skills to trace back the source of the bomb ma­ter­i­al.

“The forensic sug­ges­tions are ex­cel­lent and hope­fully spur ac­tion,” Pom­per said. “But it is not clear if the Krem­lin would be will­ing to im­ple­ment them giv­en that in the past a sig­ni­fic­ant por­tion of smuggled HEU ap­pears to have come from Rus­sia and there is a lot of leeri­ness about provid­ing in­form­a­tion about forensic sig­na­tures.”

Of­fi­cials en­dors­ing the new re­port in­clude re­tired U.S. Cent­ral Com­mand head Army Gen. John Abizaid, former U.S. Stra­tegic Com­mand lead­er Air Force Gen. Eu­gene Habi­ger and pri­or head of the main Rus­si­an army’s dir­ect­or­ate of in­tel­li­gence, Gen. Valentin Ko­ra­bel­nikov.

The re­com­mend­a­tions were based on the find­ings of a 2011 U.S.-Rus­sia joint as­sess­ment on the nuc­le­ar ter­ror threat, also co-pro­duced by the Belfer Cen­ter and ISKRAN.

The re­port’s au­thors were in­flu­enced in part by the res­ults of a 2011 tab­letop ex­er­cise in Mo­scow in­volving former U.S. and Rus­si­an mil­it­ary, po­lice and dip­lomacy of­fi­cials. The sim­u­la­tion was aimed at learn­ing wheth­er the United States and Rus­sia have the abil­ity to ef­fect­ively co­oper­ate in re­spond­ing to a nuc­le­ar ter­ror­ism crisis.

The ex­er­cise found sig­ni­fic­ant dif­fer­ences in how the Rus­si­an and Amer­ic­an sides ap­proached the crisis in polit­ic­al and prac­tic­al terms.

“These dif­fer­ences were due to cul­tur­al factors, dif­fer­ent per­cep­tions of the threat of nuc­le­ar ter­ror­ism, as well as dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to in­ter­ac­tion with the me­dia and the pub­lic,” the re­port reads. “For ex­ample, ex­perts from Rus­sia ini­tially pre­ferred more re­strained and cau­tious steps, where­as their Amer­ic­an coun­ter­parts at once per­ceived the situ­ation as a full-blown nuc­le­ar crisis.”

The sim­u­la­tion also showed that de­term­in­ing the ori­gin of il­li­citly smuggled nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­al that could be used in a bomb would re­quire both na­tions to swap ex­tremely sens­it­ive in­form­a­tion such as labor­at­ory data on seized atom­ic sub­stances. However there are no bi­lat­er­al pro­ced­ures in place to guide such ex­changes.

Cor­rec­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this art­icle erred in its de­scrip­tion of the 2014 Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit in the Neth­er­lands; an­oth­er such sum­mit has been planned for 2016 in Wash­ing­ton.
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