The Threat of Nuclear Terrorism

Rose Gottemoeller
Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security 
The Citadel's Intelligence and Security Conference "Achieving a Higher Degree of National Security"
Charleston, South Carolina
September 18, 2015

(As Prepared)

Good Morning. Thank you, Dr. Book, for the introduction. It is a great honor to be at a conference sponsored by The Citadel and I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak to you about a difficult topic, the threat of nuclear terrorism.

I have two Citadel alumni staffers with me today, my Senior Military Advisor Marine Colonel Phil Boggs and Neil Couch, former Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and current Deputy Director of the Strategic Stability Office in the Department of State. I am also a Bulldog, but by way of Georgetown University, so we all have that in common. Neil just flagged the fact that The Citadel was named the Number 1 Public College in the South by US News & World Report for the fifth consecutive year. Congratulations!

I am honored to be speaking at this Conference on Intelligence and Security. As I mentioned, I would like to drill down on one topic in particular: the threat of nuclear terrorism. It’s a topic that strikes fear into the hearts of people around the globe, but I find that people are not aware of all that we can do to combat this threat. In fact, while nuclear terrorism is the most immediate and extreme danger facing our nation, it is also a preventable threat.

I’ll explain how, but first let me outline the threat.

During the Cold War, efforts to maintain strategic stability and deterrence helped to prevent the use of nuclear weapons. Today, the threats we face do not lend themselves to the classic understandings of nuclear deterrence. As President Reagan’s former Secretary of State George Shultz has said, "If…the people who are [perpetrating] suicide attacks…get a nuclear weapon, they are almost by definition not deterrable."

In a multipolar and asymmetric world, the constraints that held back nuclear conflagration for so long are straining at the seams.

There are two primary pathways by which terrorist groups could acquire a nuclear weapon: by directly acquiring a nuclear weapon itself from a nuclear weapons state’s arsenal, or by acquiring enough nuclear materials to construct an improvised nuclear device.

The successful detonation by a terrorist group of even a crude and improvised nuclear device in a major city could result in the deaths of thousands and have significant, if not unfathomable, economic and political global consequences.

Recognizing this threat, President Obama has made preventing nuclear terrorism one of the United States’ top foreign policy priorities, labeling it in his 2009 Prague speech “the single most important threat” to U.S. national security. This President and this Administration have backed up that assessment with the most concerted diplomatic effort to address nuclear security threats worldwide ever undertaken within the international community.

The fundamental task at hand is to prevent terrorists from accessing nuclear weapons or the fissile material that goes into a nuclear weapon. Without the material, which a terrorist organization cannot produce on its own, the threat is eliminated.

A cornerstone of this effort has been the Nuclear Security Summit process. The Summits are head-of-state-level events, attended by over 50 countries and international organizations. World leaders convene to discuss the risks of nuclear terrorism and commit to addressing those risks. To date there have been three Nuclear Security Summits, the first held in Washington in 2010, the second in Seoul in 2012, and the third in The Hague in 2014. The President will host the fourth Summit in Washington early in 2016.

As an expert who has worked on these issues for my whole career, I’ll admit that fissile material control and risk reduction is a little “in the weeds” for heads of state. Fortunately, that has not been a problem at all. The leaders involved in the Nuclear Security Summits have really done their homework and are finding critical and creative solutions to this global problem. They have also committed their countries to pragmatic tasks to advance nuclear security.

The Summit process is advancing the twin goals of enhancing the international nuclear security architecture, and strengthening efforts to better secure vulnerable nuclear materials. Participants make nuclear security commitments at the Summits in the form of a Work Plan, Communiques, national statements, and joint statements. Participants also share the results of their efforts at the Summits in their national progress reports. If you are interested, you can find them all on the State Department website.

These efforts are bearing fruit. The number of countries and facilities with Highly-Enriched Uranium (HEU) and Plutonium – the key materials in nuclear weapons - is decreasing and the quantities of these materials have been substantially reduced. Security practices and procedures at nuclear sites and in transit are improving and countries across the globe are better prepared to counter nuclear smuggling. In short, nuclear security measures are stronger worldwide.

While the 2016 Summit is expected to be the last in its current format, we look forward to working with Summit participants and all states on continued nuclear security efforts. International organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN, the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and INTERPOL will continue to facilitate this cooperation.

When it comes to nuclear terrorism, we are safer now than we were five years ago, but more remains to be done. The United States will continue to work with international partners to ensure that dangerous nuclear materials are accounted for and secured worldwide. Unending vigilance is required if we are to ensure that terrorist groups who may seek to acquire these materials are never able to do so.

Working toward this end, the United States puts its money where its mouth is. We are the largest national contributor to the IAEA’s Nuclear Security Fund, providing more than $70 million since 2010. These funds support cost-free experts, mission and technical visits to Member States, the development of nuclear security guidance and best practices, and the Incident and Trafficking Database.

The State Department’s Counter Nuclear Smuggling Program (CNSP) is also working with key international partners to strengthen capacity to investigate nuclear smuggling networks, secure materials in illegal circulation, and prosecute the criminals who are involved. Countries such as Georgia and Moldova are to be commended for their recent arrests of criminals attempting to traffic HEU; significant progress has been made in this area. Unfortunately, continued seizures of weapon-usable nuclear materials indicate that these materials are still available on the black market.

In fact, in many countries, it is not illegal to possess or traffic dangerous radioactive or nuclear materials. In some countries where it is illegal, their existing criminal code does not allow for the adequate prosecution or sentencing of the criminals convicted of doing so. To help fill these gaps, CNSP helps countries amend their criminal code to incorporate the necessary provisions and allow for sentences that serve as both punishment and deterrent to these crimes. CNSP also conducts workshops and exercises with the police, prosecutors, and judges who handle these unique cases in order to ensure they are able to hold these criminals accountable.

A key piece of any criminal prosecution is ensuring that evidence is properly handled, analyzed, and presented in court. It’s not different for nuclear and fissile materials, but this kind of evidence presents a unique challenge to law enforcement and technical experts – the challenge being that such material is radioactive. CNSP works with countries to build their analytical capabilities to meet courtroom requirements for the law and of course, for nuclear safety. This type of analysis belongs to a field known as nuclear forensics, and the United States is at the forefront of its study.

Similar to traditional forensic science, nuclear forensics aims to link materials, people, places, and events. Forensics can be aided when we are able to identify known characteristics and features of nuclear materials or devices. The United States has even developed nuclear forensic capabilities to identify where seized nuclear or other radioactive materials or a radiological dispersal device - also known as a dirty bomb – may have originated or who may be responsible. Such capabilities incentivize countries to make sure any material they have is locked down and secure. They would never want to be associated with a terrorist nuclear incident.

Multilaterally, the United States continues to Co-Chair with Russia the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), which is a voluntary partnership of 86 countries and five official observers committed to strengthening global capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to nuclear terrorism. Despite the terrible crisis that Russia created in Ukraine, our continued working relationship with Russia on the GICNT demonstrates our mutual concern over the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Over the past two years, the GICNT has held 15 multilateral activities, including workshops, tabletop exercises, and other practical activities that help partners address difficult and emerging nuclear security challenges.

GICNT has even held a mock trial focused on introducing nuclear forensic evidence in the courtroom to prosecute terrorist acts involving the use or unauthorized possession of nuclear or other radioactive materials. It underscored the need for countries to adopt strong legal provisions criminalizing these illicit acts before an incident occurs, reinforcing and complementing the work the United States has already been doing in this area. It also highlighted the challenges of communicating scientific conclusions in judicial proceedings.

By focusing on the “human element” of nuclear security, the State Department’s Global Threat Reduction (GTR) program seeks to reduce the risk that non-state actors or proliferant states could develop an improvised nuclear device. While “guns, gates and guards” are an important aspect of nuclear security, GTR focuses on making sure that the staff at a nuclear facility are trustworthy and report suspicious activity. It is this human reliability factor that makes all the difference in nuclear security.

Developing a nuclear security culture is especially important in countries around the world that are now developing the underlying technical and human infrastructure. GTR works with nuclear technical organizations around the world to support the vetting of staff working to diminish the risk that an employee sympathetic to – or coerced by – terrorist groups, could divert nuclear materials or expertise.

There are also global legal structures that help reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism.

Back in June, the U.S. Congress enacted long-sought implementation legislation for the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT), an amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, and the Protocols to the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation. It is a mouthful, I know and the news of this Congressional action was certainly not a trending topic on Twitter.

Nevertheless, with enactment of this legislation, the United States was now in a position to move forward to ratify these important treaties. I will be depositing our instrument of ratification for the ICSANT at the United Nations next week. This legislation was also significant in its bipartisan support: it is important for our national security that nuclear security remain a high-priority, non-partisan issue on Capitol Hill.

The United States knows that nuclear security efforts are never "finished." As long as nuclear and radioactive materials exist, they require our utmost commitment to their protection, control, accounting and disposition.

With that, I will close, so we have time for questions, but I want to leave you with a final point. Nuclear terrorism is an absolutely terrifying phenomenon – an unthinkable danger looming over our cities, our families, our children. We have to be aware of this danger and we have to be aware of the fact that we can prevent it from ever happening.

The nonproliferation efforts I have mentioned today are all critical to our safety, as is our continued work on arms control and disarmament. The smaller the amount of weapons and materials, the smaller the risk. It’s just that simple and when it comes to international security, simple is rare. So nuclear disarmament is a goal that is manifestly in our national interest. It is the way, once and for all, to deal with nuclear terrorism. Thank you.