Fissile Material Smuggling and the Nuclear Renaissance

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There was a very scary story out of Georgia today after two Armenian men pleaded guilty during a secret trial to smuggling highly enriched uranium into the former Soviet state and trying to sell it to an undercover agent posing as a representative of Islamic radicals.

The uranium was 90% enriched, which is to say “weapons grade.” There was only 18 grams of the stuff in the initial seizure, but the men— a businessmen and retired physicist— said they could supply many kilograms more—enough to assemble a fission bomb.

Early in his presidency, Obama announced that preventing nuclear terrorism was his main national security priority. A security summit in April addressed efforts to secure all fissile materials around the globe. (See TIME’s story on the global hunt for loose nuclear material)

So why is this an environmental story? The nuclear industry has been boasting in recent years that it is on the verge of a renaissance, with scores of new countries interested in nuclear power as part of an “energy mix” to decrease greenhouse gas emissions (after their initial construction, nuclear power plants are virtually carbon-free). There’s a security concern associated with that. The nuclear fuel cycle for reactors begins by enriching uranium until it can sustain a nuclear reaction, and it ends with the production of plutonium. Both are processes that create material for bombs. There is a line between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, but it’s thinner than the nuclear industry would want us to believe.

That is why any nuclear renaissance must include strict monitoring and safeguards of the nuclear industry by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). And that, in turn, requires a strengthening of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which grants countries the rights to nuclear power if they forsake weapons aspirations. Without a strict international safeguards system, an international renaissance of nuclear technology will lead to the spread of nuclear material around the globe with many more opportunities for smuggling.

Most experts believe that the nuclear smuggling that occurs in Georgia and other former Soviet states is the result of an “insider threat”—the diversion of materials by an employee on a nuclear site. In many cases, because physical inventories are poor in the region, such theft goes completely unnoticed. This occurred in large part because Russia’s nuclear program grew up during the Cold War when secrecy, rather than international transparency, was the priority. That can’t be the case this time around.

By proving once again that a black market for fissile materials still exists, the Georgia trials illustrates that any nuclear renaissance must be accompanied with the strictest safeguards and accounting, with international oversight at every step of the process. Nuclear power can play a role in the fight against climate change. But that will be useless if the price we pay is the destruction of a city by nuclear terrorists.