The revelation that FBI and local law enforcement officials in Eastern Europe have repeatedly foiled smugglers of nuclear material destined for the Middle East was both frightening and reassuring. The world’s nuclear arsenals, research facilities, and waste sites remain a prized attraction for those eager to get nuclear weapons, weaponizable materials, and other radioactive material, like cesium, which could potentially be used to contaminate conventional bombs and turn them into “dirty” bombs.
How do you stop them? Rigorous policing is a given, as is serious international cooperation. This trio of RAND researchers, originally commissioned by the U.S. Air Force, are optimistic: they stress that they’ve entitled their study “Denying Armageddon” not “Delaying” it. They urge a multi-level approach in controlling nuclear technology/materials, manipulating the black market in the same way investors and scam artists manipulate legitimate markets, and monitoring aspiring nuclear actors.
In this same issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science dedicated to “Confronting the Specter of Nuclear Terrorism,” Bonnie Jenkins argues that the past may be prologue. A carrot (diplomacy, aid) and stick (sanctions, military intervention) approach has traditionally been used to enforce nuclear non-proliferation, albeit not perfectly. These may not work against non-state actors, although they may be effective against states that support such rogue, terrorist factions.
Jenkins, however, postulates that understanding and addressing the motivations of non-state actors is just as important. Taking a leaf from the economist and anti-communist W.W. Rostow, her solution is a more holistic approach to stay one step ahead of those who seek nuclear weapons “as a weapon of choice to achieve their goals.”
The terror inherent in a nuclear or, perhaps more likely, dirty bomb, is obvious: the actual damage of such an attack might be less than the fear and panic it would arouse amongst the victims. But from the day the nuclear genie was released from its bottle 70 years ago, the struggle has been to keep it from ever being used again—something we have yet to overcome.