There have been 1,300 nuclear-smuggling related incidents in the past 15 years, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Among those incidents, 19 involved sufficient amounts of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium to fuel either a traditional nuclear warhead or to upgrade a conventional explosive to a device that disperses radiation.
In the post 9/11 world, greater care must be taken to ensure these materials are kept out of the hands of terrorists, criminals and rogue states. Significant amounts of these materials are in former Soviet states, although they can be found in 40 nations.
When the Department of Energy's top intelligence official says the United States isn't doing enough to buy uranium and plutonium off the black market, top administration officials and members of Congress need to act.
As the technology to build bombs has become easier to obtain, it is vital that terrorists or developing countries do not get their hands on nuclear materials. Interestingly, containing these materials isn't achieved merely through intercepting them by purchasing them on the black market. It also requires that all American intelligence agencies work as one to prevent terrorist or rogue states from obtaining blueprints or weapons-grade uranium or plutonium.
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, the DOE's intelligence director, in a speech to the Washington Institute, said analysts who previously worked on separate pieces of the nuclear question are now working together in a separate unit. Congress must do more to support their work.
More should be done to enhance information sharing among ally nations, particularly as more information comes to light about nuclear technology that was secretly sold to Iran and Libya on the black market. Very small amounts of plutonium are needed to make primitive nuclear weapons. Because this material emits such low levels of radiation, it can be very difficult to detect in transit, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington.
Mowatt-Larssen's concerns are well-placed. More must be done to encourage information sharing among responsible nations and among intelligence agencies within the United States to keep nuclear materials from criminals, terrorists and rogue nations. Congress needs to give these matters the highest priority.