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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

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