Skip to content

Can illicit nuclear trade be stopped?

Some two-​​dozen coun­tries have pur­sued or obtained nuclear weapons over the last 50 years, sev­eral of which have engaged in illicit trade to acquire advanced nuclear tech­nology. In the next five to 10 years, coun­tries including China, India, Pak­istan, and North Korea are expected to con­duct illicit trade to either main­tain or improve their nuclear arsenals. The growth of Iran’s nuclear pro­gram, mean­while, will depend on its ability to illic­itly acquire so called “dual-use” items—products that could be used for either mil­i­tary or peaceful purposes.

Those data are part of a 2013 report on illicit nuclear trade by the Insti­tute for Sci­ence and Inter­na­tional Secu­rity, a Wash­ington, D.C.-based non­profit insti­tu­tion focused on stop­ping nuclear proliferation.

David Albright, its founder and pres­i­dent, dis­cussed the find­ings at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity last Wednesday. His 90-​​minute lec­ture, “The Future World of Illicit Nuclear Trade: Mit­i­gating the Threat,” was spon­sored by the Insti­tute for Secu­rity and Public Policy, the School of Crim­i­nology and Crim­inal Jus­tice, and the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties.

Albright, a glob­ally rec­og­nized expert in nuclear pro­lif­er­a­tion, noted that stop­ping the illicit trade of nuclear com­modi­ties would be dif­fi­cult but not impos­sible, saying, “Illicit trade is likely to con­tinue unless fairly stren­uous mit­i­gating efforts are undertaken.”

To reduce the threat, he advo­cated for building aware­ness of illicit traf­ficking, strength­ening export con­trols, and orches­trating sting oper­a­tions against nuclear traf­ficking agents. “We couldn’t find any country committed to sting operations against dual-​​use smuggling schemes,” he said, “but it’s a very effective tool for uncovering smuggling networks.”

Indeed, illicit trade net­works do exhibit a range of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, espe­cially in the ordering process. According to the ISIS report, pro­lif­er­a­tion enti­ties that try to acquire nuclear goods and ser­vices from the open market often leave vis­ible traces of the type of items they are seeking and their end-​​users. “Com­pa­nies and gov­ern­ments can detect these traces,” Albright said, “and that can be a powerful vul­ner­a­bility when com­pa­nies are willing to turn over that information.”

In the Q-​​and-​​A ses­sion, Albright was asked whether non-​​state actors such as al-​​Qaida have the where­withal to pro­cure nuclear mate­rials and build secret nuclear facil­i­ties. “They would have to learn a lot of things that aren’t in the public domain and get the equipment to make the bomb itself,” he said, adding, “We don’t want to allow ter­ror­ists to set up a ter­ri­tory where they have years to work.”

Albright also responded to a ques­tion about the via­bility of cyber­at­tacks against nuclear facil­i­ties, including the Obama administration’s reported 2012 attack on Iran’s nuclear plants. “I wouldn’t say they are a last resort,” he said, “but they are additional tools that are used.”

– By Jason Kornwitz

More Stories

Photo of the Capitol Building at night

High stakes for politics, SCOTUS in 2018

Photo of the crashed truck that was used in the October 31st attack in Manhattan.

Weaponizing Language: How the meaning of “allahu akbar” has been distorted

Northeastern logo

Why I love studying Spanish