Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

Bunn, Tobey, and Roth on Nuclear Smuggling

May 20, 2015

By Nickolas Roth

Matthew Bunn, William Tobey, and I have a new op-ed in The Hill’s Congress Blog, “Don’t weaken our defenses against nuclear smuggling.” We wrote it in response to proposed legislation that would prohibit funding for fixed radiation detectors to catch nuclear smugglers – both for installing new ones and even for maintaining the ones U.S. taxpayers have already paid billions to install. We argue:

  • A balanced program to defeat nuclear smugglers must include strong security to keep material from being stolen in the first place, effective law enforcement and intelligence work, and interdiction efforts and border controls backed by both fixed and mobile radiation detectors.  These elements work together, reinforcing each other’s effectiveness.
  • In addition to detecting stolen radioactive and nuclear material, fixed radiation detectors deter smugglers from using official borders, limiting their options and making them easier to catch. 
  • The United States has invested billions putting in place a network of thousands of fixed radiation detectors in more than fifty countries. Cutting off funding now would mean abandoning partners across the world, after years of painstaking diplomacy – and would undermine the investment already made, reducing the chance that existing detectors would continue to be used effectively. 
  • As much of the nuclear and radiological material smuggled to date has come from Russia—a country with hundreds of tons of nuclear weapons material spread across dozens of facilities—detecting smuggling from Russia is vital. It became even more important last year, when Russia halted nearly all work with the United States on improving the security of its nuclear stockpiles, increasing the risk of nuclear theft and smuggling. 
  • Beyond Russia, there is radiological material located at thousands of inadequately protected sites in more than a hundred countries.  These vulnerabilities, combined with the rise of groups like the Islamic State who are bent on mass violence and terror, make deliberately weakening defenses against nuclear smugglers recklessly negligent.   
  • The proposed end of funding for fixed radiation detectors would send precisely the wrong message as the United States prepares to host a global nuclear security summit in 2016.
For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Bunn, Tobey, and Roth on Nuclear Smuggling.” Nuclear Security Matters, May 20, 2015, https://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org/publication/bunn-tobey-and-roth-nuclear-smuggling.