MOSCOW. (Vladimir Orlov, director of the PIR Center, for RIA Novosti) - A key issue on the global agenda is how to stop international terrorists from gaining access to weapons of mass destruction and their components, including weapons-grade materials.
The UN General Assembly approved the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, proposed by Russia in 1998, on April 13 this year. It is the first legally binding document on international terrorism adopted after 9/11; it will be open for signing in September.
The convention represents a major step forward and answers many important questions. How can acts of nuclear terrorism be prevented? How can the consequences of acts that could not be precluded be dealt with? What is the mechanism for returning fissionable materials to the countries from which they were stolen?
Some people say that it is no use discussing a non-existent threat, that it can only fan fears and compound the effect of Chernobyl with the 9/11 effect. Terrorists effectively use conventional explosives, such people say, and civilian planes are their WMD.
Terrorists cannot and will not have to spend tens of millions of dollars and conduct complicated research and engineering projects, such people argue, when they can effectively blackmail states and public opinion at the cost of thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.
I do not agree with this view. Major terrorist networks want to stage attacks that will provoke disasters and are working on such plans. The "terrorism show" will not tolerate repetitions, and so their masters are working on new scenarios, trying to plot beyond the bounds of the imagination of countries and their security services, and possibly even Hollywood. And they want more fame than the Hollywood stars. The mass fear of the word "radiation" is a guarantee that a terrorist attack will be reported on CNN breaking news, which may be more important for the terrorists than the number of victims.
Russia and the other official nuclear powers, as well as India, securely protect their nuclear weapons against unsanctioned access. But there is at least one nuclear state, Pakistan, where the safety of nuclear weapons is questionable and questioned, at least by me.
The standards of the physical protection of nuclear power facilities, above all nuclear plants and warehouses of fissionable materials, are an issue of even more serious concern for dozens of states. The most attractive and potentially the easiest way for terrorists would be to occupy or try to blow up such a facility, using the assistance of local staff members, be they recruited or planted.
Members of the Russian state agencies write in their book, Superterrorism: A New Challenge of the New Century, that "subversive operations at nuclear facilities, the radioactive pollution of the air by aerosols, and radioactive contamination of water sources can result in numerous casualties and provoke an environmental catastrophe with lasting effects."
But I am worried about the illegal trade in nuclear materials, which has receded into the shadows of late. Statistics show that nuclear materials have been stolen by single agents or security services, which did it to provoke potential buyers. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the probability of a nuclear bomb being built from stolen materials is negligible: no more than 2% of the amount of uranium and plutonium necessary for creating a nuclear charge has been stolen in the past decade.
Indonesia's representative at the UN, Mr. Prayono Atiyanto, said quite correctly that the adoption of the Nuclear Terrorism Convention would reduce the risk of individual terrorists or terrorist groups trying to get hold of nuclear materials or facilities.
Yet the current text of the Convention is a result of many compromises, and it does not cover the issue of armed attacks against nuclear facilities. But the protection of peaceful nuclear facilities from an aggression in states that respect the provisions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty is becoming an increasingly important, though independent, issue.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.
Vladimir Orlov, the founder and director of the PIR Center, is a prominent expert on nuclear non-proliferation and export control, with a wealth of research and journalistic experience. His professional interests include studies of the outlook of the international non-proliferation regime; assessment of international programs of assistance to Russia in lowering the threat of WMD proliferation; and studies of new threats to international security, including WMD terrorism. He is the chief editor of the magazine Nuclear Control, a leading scientific publication on issues of international security. In January 2004, became a professor at the Geneva Center for Security Policy (GCSP).
The PIR Center for Policy Studies in Russia is an independent non-governmental organization established in April 1994 and headquartered in Moscow. The PIR Center specialties include research, education, information, publishing and consultations, spotlighting international security, monitoring of weapons (above all nuclear ones), and WMD non-proliferation.