Obtaining a Nuclear Weapon

A blog post in two parts.

I. Detecting the production of weapon-grade materials Gas centrifuges are currently the most common method of enriching Uranium. However, nations such as Iraq and the Soviet Union have tried other enrichment methods (such as EMIS or thermal diffusion).

Question: How much effort should the IAEA spend trying to detect non-centrifuge enrichment methods? In other words, given the relative complications of EMIS and thermal diffusion, do you think any nations would still try these methods?

II. Preventing weapon-grade material from falling into the wrong hands.
Preventing countries from enriching Uranium-238 is a key component in the limiting of nuclear proliferation. However, as mentioned in next week’s readings, one can circumvent complicated process of enriching Uranium/plutonium by purchasing or stealing materials– a plan of action that a terrorist group might take. Ensuring that a nation’s U-235 is kept in safe hands is just as important as preventing that nation from enriching Uranium in the first place. Nations have engaged in belligerent rhetoric against their neighbors, but nuclear war has been avoided (at times, narrowly avoided) through careful political maneuvering. A terrorist group, however, would be unlikely to bother with diplomacy or the threat of mutual annihilation. Therefore, it is important to identify which nations are most likely to have their nuclear arsenals stolen (or, alternatively, to sell Uranium/plutonium to terrorists). It is important to note: just because a nation has a less-secure nuclear arsenal does NOT mean that terrorists will definitely get their hands on that arsenal.

Question: Zimmerman and Lewis provide the example of a corrupt Sudanese official who sold fake nuclear materials to al-Qaeda. Which other nations do you think are at “risk” of having nuclear materials stolen or selling nuclear materials to terrorists? Is this risk high or low? — David

3 thoughts on “Obtaining a Nuclear Weapon

  1. The IAEA should still spend considerable effort trying to detect enrichment through EMIS and thermal diffusion. Although these methods are often ineffective, EMIS and thermal diffusion do possess one significant advantage over gas centrifuges: they are less likely to be detected by international observers. In Unmaking The Bomb, the authors point out that Iraq was able to maintain the secrecy of its nuclear program for a considerable amount of time “because few expected any country would use [that]… process.”

    Regimes attempting to acquire nuclear weapons are often willing to incur extraordinary costs to reach that goal. North Korea has maintained a nuclear weapons program while many of its own people remain impoverished and starving. Iran did not back down in the face of onerous economic sanctions from the international community. The IAEA should expect that any extra energy, resources, or effort associated with these methods would not deter nations seeking to maintain the secrecy of their programs. Moreover, although these methods have been tried before with varying degrees of success, according to Unmaking The Bomb, “all of those countries that have built new enrichment plants since the 1980s have chosen centrifuge technology.” Technology could have advanced during the last 30 years to a point where such other methods are now more viable.

    If they acquire a nuclear weapon, Iran would be a very high risk of providing nuclear weapons to terrorists due to their location in a volatile region, inexperience with operating a nuclear program, and history of aiding terrorist groups (such as Hezbollah). Even if they do not sell weapons to terrorists directly, Iran might not possess the knowledge (or willpower) to store and safeguard their weapons properly, thereby allowing them to be easily stolen by terrorists.

  2. To answer the second question, I think the reading explicitly states or alludes to three general categories of countries that could pose a security risk related to nuclear materials being sold to or stolen by terrorist groups. First, as mentioned by Zimmerman and Lewis, are rogue states like Iran and North Korea (particularly the latter at the current point in time) that, desiring foreign currency, would see their governments voluntarily selling enriched uranium to terrorists. Second are states like Sudan or Pakistan, which, having weak government capacity, widespread corruption and possibly sympathy for the terrorists’ aims, could see government officials underhandedly selling away fissile material or even be subject to theft given their relatively lax security measures. Finally, as alluded to by Zimmerman and Lewis, are the states of the former Soviet Union, where that same theft or corruption potential is combined with massive and aging nuclear infrastructure in states with weak capacity like the Ukraine, or for that matter, Russia’s own fleet of decommissioned nuclear submarines rusting away in the Barents Sea near Finland.

    As far as whether the risk is high or low, the conditions have changed somewhat since the Zimmerman and Lewis article was published – most notably, Osama bin Laden is dead, and perhaps with him the drive and international reach to successfully create a nuclear weapon. As bizarre as it might seem to think about, $10 million to make a nuclear weapon might have been feasible in the years following 9/11 but by 2015, it could be that the donors have dried up with the competing funding drive from ISIS and rival rebel groups in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Comparatively speaking, $10 million is an astronomical amount more than financing 9/11 (at $500,000). Furthermore, who’s to say that the Al Qaeda “brand” hasn’t gone somewhat stale with the relatively low profile the organization has had in the West over the past decade. While clearly they had enough funding to be scammed by the Sudanese, given the timeline in the article, it would seem that a nuclear bomb could be fabricated relatively efficiently. If the last noticed attempt was over 10 years ago, perhaps they have moved on. Overall, I would categorize the risk as being relatively low, but there is always random chance.

  3. In regards to the level of risk, I think the takeaway here is that the likelihood of terrorists obtaining enough fissile material to build a bomb is low but still consequential. Zimmerman and Lewis point out that the terrorist in question must possess substantial financial backing and organizational complexity, as well as an strong preoccupation with ratcheting up the body count — indeed, the authors limit known terrorist actors with this profile to al Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo (9). Still, as data from the IAEA suggests, the threat is very much real: widespread interest in the acquisition of fissile material abounds, with eighteen seizures of stolen plutonium or weapons-usable uranium on record during one year (Zimmerman 8). As states increasingly begin to enter into the nuclear sphere, and nuclear technology grows increasingly understood and available, the threat of nuclear escalation at the hands of non-state actors looms ever larger—especially as related to the regimes of questionable motive/stability that Zimmerman and Lewis mention, i.e. Iran, North Korea, and Sudan (9-10). In the foreseeable future, fissile material will only grow less secure, and thus more coveted. For all the failed plots to obtain the material needed to construct a workable nuclear weapon, the sheer stakes of one success, though improbable, demand increased preventive measures and vigilance.

Leave a Reply