Sunday, April 10, 2016

The world is tightening security around nuclear sites and controlling nuclear materials.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Yukiya Amano speaking in Vienna. Reuters. 

Starting this May, 150 countries will be forced to adopt new security measures to protect atomic materials and plants. Reuters. The agreement will also mandate cooperation to stop smuggling of nuclear materials and recover stolen materials. The agreement are an attempt to prevent a terrorist attack using nuclear weapons or dirty bombs. The measure will go into effect on May 8th and will affect 150 countries. More work is going to be done with the agreement in an effort to make it apply to all countries, including North Korea.

My Comment:
I think that this is a direct response to the attempts that ISIS has conducted aimed at both attacking nuclear power plants as well as securing nuclear materials. There is some evidence that the Brussels attackers were interested in attacking a nuclear power plant. And there was also the case of the murdered power plant security guard in Belgium last month. The killer in that case stole the guards pass card, but no attack ever developed. 

Speaking of which, whatever happened to that story? I just tried to get some follow up on that story but I was unable to find anything dated past the 26th of March, when the story broke. I was fully expecting that the police would have announced that it was unrelated to terrorism. I guess it is possible it was a motiveless killing or the investigation isn't complete, but I would have thought by know that they would have had an idea of what happened by now. Given that there hasn't been any breaks in that case as far as I know, I'm starting to suspect that there is a link to terrorism. 

ISIS seems to be very easy in using nuclear technology as a weapon. I have talked about this before, but I think they have three major ways to use this technology in an attack. The first is to attack a nuclear power plant and try to destroy containment. This would be a very hard kind of attack to pull off but it's not outside the realm of possibility. It would be a very high risk/high reward target for ISIS (or other terrorist groups for that matter), and the chances of success would be very low. But it's clear to me that ISIS wants to try it, and even a failed attack against a nuclear power plant would likely cause panic. A successful one would be guaranteed to cause panic, and could kill or sicken hundreds of people. 

The second threat is the use of a dirty bomb. Instead of a more traditional nuclear explosion, these bombs would use conventional explosives laced with radioactive materials. ISIS certainly has experience in using car bombs and other explosives, and it wouldn't be all that hard to rig up a crude device. The vast majority of deaths would be caused by the conventional explosives, while a few survivors and first responders would get sick or die before they figured out what was going on. It would also cause contamination that would be very difficult to clean up. The main effect would again be panic, which would be greatly disproportionate to the actual damage. 

The final and most serious threat is ISIS or another terrorist group gaining a complete nuclear device. Now, I seriously doubt that ISIS or any terrorist group would ever be able to make a bomb on their own. It is just too complex and expensive, and you really need state level resources to pull it off.

Of course there are several countries that are known to have nuclear weapons. It isn't inconceivable that one of them could lose control of a nuclear weapon. The article mentioned North Korea, but I am much more worried about Pakistan. They have nuclear weapons, a large population of terrorist groups, and a history of not holding onto their nuclear secrets. It wouldn't be too shocking if a group of terrorist sympathizers handed a complete nuclear weapon to a terrorist group like ISIS.  India is a lesser threat, but it is  still plausible that it could happen there too. The rest of the non-North Korean nuclear countries are a lot less likely to lose a full nuclear weapon, but anything is possible, however unlikely it is. 

Obviously, this agreement seeks to counter the threat of all three options. Tightening security around nuclear facilities is a no-brainer and keeping watch for stolen nuclear materials is something we should have always had international cooperation on anyways. And this agreement could reduce the chances of the nightmare scenario where terrorists got control of a fully functional nuclear weapon. It's the kind of thing that is so common sense, it boggles the mind that it wasn't done years ago. 

But one wonders if it might be too late. ISIS already had plans in place to attack nuclear facilities. And as far back as the fall of Mosul in June of 2014 ISIS has had control of dirty bomb materials. And though I think that the threat of a full scale nuclear terrorist attack is extremely low, we might not know about it for sure until there is a mushroom cloud somewhere... 

The North Koreans were mentioned in the article, and I am not sure why. I don't think they are that much of a threat. Sure, they could be involved nuclear terrorism, but I just can't see them doing so. If there were to do anything, and I mean anything, they would risk war and annihilation. And if they were going to use nuclear weapons, this IAEA agreement would have little relevance, especially since they haven't ratified it. And I seriously doubt that nuclear materials or weapons are at risk of being stolen in the hermit kingdom. After all, they are famous for having a docile population and a very strong security force. 

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