Commentary

A Smarter Approach To Combat Nuclear Trafficking

in Program

By Jack Brosnan: 

Recent claims by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) of a successful test of a thermo-nuclear device raise questions about the efficacy of the international non-proliferation regime. If DPRK is as isolated as it seems, how has it continued to acquire nuclear technology and materials sufficient to maintain an active nuclear program? It may be that the Kim regime (like other targets of non-proliferation controls) relies on organized and well concealed nuclear proliferation networks that traffic in nuclear goods for financial profit. Such networks represent a negative outcome of increasing globalization: criminal entrepreneurs are able to exploit the international frameworks that facilitate transfer of massive quantities of trade goods and money to conceal flows of illicit goods. The revelation of Abdul Qadeer Khan’s globally dispersed and highly sophisticated proliferation network in 2004 demonstrated the inadequacy of existing non-proliferation instruments in addressing this threat; clearly, new approaches are needed.

Increasingly globalized trade networks transport staggering quantities of goods between locales, providing ample cover for the concealment of illicit goods among their licit counterparts. Of course, in any transfer of nuclear technology or fissile material, these goods must exist in and pass through physical space, meaning that they must transit through specific geographic locations. Because proliferation networks operate on the logic of a profit motive, it is a natural assumption that specific geographic locations are chosen for use due to characteristics that facilitate movement of illicit flows. It follows that these networks share common characteristics that make them attractive to operators of illicit trafficking. Once the characteristics that are essential to the operation of proliferation networks are identified, empirical evidence can be used to identify a series of attributes that make these locales attractive to proliferators.

In its simplest form, a proliferation network that traffics in nuclear technology or fissile material requires four basic elements: a source of (likely stolen) fissile material or nuclear technology, a manufacturer of sophisticated nuclear technological components, point(s) of shipment and transshipment, and a destination at which these illicit goods will arrive. Key characteristics of “source” locales include the existence of stockpiles of nuclear technology and/or fissile material (particularly poorly protected and accounted for stockpiles), poor economic conditions that incentivize criminal behavior, and a significant degree of governmental corruption. Potential manufacturers of illicit nuclear technology are characterized by the possession of advanced manufacturing capabilities, the lack of specific export restrictions on nuclear goods, and high volumes of import/export cargo. Points of shipment and transshipment are likely to display significant levels of governmental corruption, the lack of specific export restrictions on nuclear goods, and high volumes of import/export cargo. Destination locales are characterized by membership in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (increasing the likelihood that these actors would seek nuclear goods via less visible channels), the lack of a civilian nuclear program that could be used to mask procurement of nuclear goods, and the existence of nuclear sanctions against the actor in question.

Sources and destinations of illicit nuclear goods are areas in which geographic specificity has already played a role; significant programs exist to assist in enacting improved protection of and accountancy for “at risk” nuclear stockpiles in locales like the former Soviet Union, such as the Nuclear Cities Initiative and the now defunct Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Similarly, the U.S. expends significant effort and resources to stymie the efforts of certain actors that it has identified as seekers of nuclear weapons, evidence of which can be seen in the recent nuclear agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1. This level of precision, however, lacks any focus on points of shipment/transshipment and manufacture — both of which offer critical opportunities for interdicting illicit nuclear goods before they reach their destination. As such, it is of particular importance that non-proliferation efforts focus on locales that display specific attributes that aid in illicit trafficking, namely significant levels of governmental corruption paired with high volumes of import/export cargo and advanced manufacturing capabilities paired with a lack of specific export restrictions on nuclear goods.

Pinpointing the characteristics that make networks attractive to proliferators allows both identification of “at risk” locales and precise targeting of efforts to remediate and control these risks. Rather than continuing a scattershot approach to non-proliferation or addressing specific locales after revelation of involvement in movement of illicit flows, effort and resources can be concentrated on specific high-risk locales. Some progress has been made in this direction through initiatives such as the G8 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, which targets detection of nuclear and radiological materials and devotes funds to improving border security. To date however there has not been a broadly inclusive and geographically focused non-proliferation initiative with a focus on potential points of manufacture and shipment or transshipment.  Taking a location focused approach would be a positive step forward in crafting smarter, better targeted, and more effective tools to fight illicit tracking networks.

Photo credit: (stephan) via flickr

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