Is NAFTA Prepared to Manage Cross Border Threats?

Stimson Spotlight

By Johanna Mendelson Forman and Brian Finlay -- In the 20 years since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, by President George H.W. Bush, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Mexican President Carlos Salinas, much of the controversy surrounding that treaty has not come to pass. Indeed, NAFTA has become a cornerstone of our trading relationship in the hemisphere, lowering prices for consumers, creating new supply chains, and spreading prosperity.

As we look ahead to the next 20 years a recent incident in Mexico-the theft highly radioactive Cobalt 60 from a hijacked medical transport van-underscored a gap that remains a problem for policy makers on all sides of the border:  inadequate safeguards that prevent criminals and terrorists from obtaining and transporting radioactive material that could be used in a so-called "dirty bomb."

NAFTA' s Annex 602.3 reserved the right of states to the "exploration, exploitation and processing of radioactive materials, the nuclear fuel cycle, the generation of nuclear energy, the transportation and storage of nuclear waste, . . . and the regulation of their application for other purposes. " Unfortunately, this right does not come with attendant responsibilities. At present, there is no international agreement mandating safety and security standards for radioactive materials-in the Americas or globally. With drug cartels and other criminals operating in Mexico, the hypothetical threat of transshipping radioactive products that could be made into a dirty bomb are no longer scenarios, but a reality that could negatively impact the security of all three nations.

The renewed interest in a transportation corridor to move goods across national boundaries, it is essential that we address these security gaps. A recent report by 88 governments concluded that the existing, voluntary "code of conduct" over radiological sources developed by the IAEA in 2003 should become mandatory. But progress toward meeting this objective has not been commensurate with the threat.

Mexico, the U.S. and Canada must work collectively to find ways for mechanisms to prevent such thefts and lead the way for the international community. In the recent robbery, the stolen material was in sealed container, but the thieves opened it, purportedly out of curiosity to see what loot they had found. This was no pot of gold, but a deadly mistake that will eventually kill the robbers by radiation poisoning. But what if these men had opened the canister in a public place exposing innocent civilians to deadly Cobalt 60?  Or what if they had been successful in crossing the US border and managed to open it here?

In an age when threats to national security know no boundaries, preventing the illicit acquisition and movement of radioactive materials will require new rules. And while NAFTA originally reserved the right to create such rules to individual governments, the nature of today's threats no longer can accept self-regulation as a prevention tool.

With the construction of a new superhighway from Mexico through Texas and northward, the result of funding from the Federal Highway bill passed last year, we may face a whole new range of threats that were at one time only the concern of the state, but now must be the concern of the neighboring states too.   As our borders become more lines of demarcation for the purpose of free trade, we must also take seriously that these borders may no longer protect our respective citizens from the dangers that lurk in even the most innocent of efforts. 

There are simple steps that we can take along with our North American partners:

  • Translate the current voluntary Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources into a regional mandate;
  • Strengthen national regulatory infrastructures to help ensure that these materials are under the most strict supervision;
  • Ensure robust training for regaining control of "orphan sources" when they escape the controlled supply chain;
  • Because these materials are used primarily in the civilian sector, initiate robust professional trainings on the security implications of their illicit diversion.

Radiological materials are not the equivalent of nuclear materials used for weapons.  But the potential dangers they pose in the wrong hands means it is inexcusable for us to not mandate their proper care.  As policy makers today consider 20 years success of NAFTA, they must also take action to close a gap in the treaty that could ultimately spell disaster for any of the parties in an age when individuals, and not states, gain control of dangerous materials.

Johanna Mendelson Forman is a Senior Advisor with the Managing Across Boundaries Initiative at the Stimson Center.  Brian Finlay is Managing Director at the Stimson Center.

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Photo credit: US Army via flickr