Cpl. Laura Gauna/U.S. Marine Corps

New Report Says Russia, U.S. Must Do More to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism

A new report says Russia and the United States should work together to prevent terrorists from getting access to nuclear weapons. By Rachel Oswald

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.