The trafficking of nuclear technologies and materials has been a worrisome issue since the early 1950s but after 9/11 it emerged as a global threat. This threat is totally different today because of the widespread dissemination of technological expertise and nuclear-weapons-related knowledge.
Illicit trade refers to trade not authorised by the state in which it originates and is imported by other states in contravention of international law. In October 2013, a Washington-based think tank, Institute for Science and International Security, released a report that indicated that more than half a dozen countries were ‘illicit nuclear trade suppliers of concern’.
The report further argued that in the absence of immediate measures to control exports, countries like Brazil, Turkey, Russia, Argentina, and portions of Eastern Europe could also become potential suppliers of sensitive nuclear commodities.
Preventing the unauthorised spread of classified information related to nuclear technology is also a difficult challenge because terrorist organisations like Al-Qaeda are likely to gain access to sensitive information that could be helpful in their quest for nuclear capabilities. More recently, newly emerging threats like industrial espionage and cyber-theft have enhanced the chances of leakage of sensitive information critical to the development of nuclear weapons.
Furthermore, these days many dual-use technologies are imported under legal cover and later put to use in the development of nuclear weapons. Such trafficking of nuclear materials involves not only fissile material but other technologies like centrifuges used for enrichment purposes as well. Despite many US-led efforts to secure nuclear materials from vulnerable sites across the globe, mitigating the problem of illicit nuclear trade remains a long haul.
Since the early 1960s, almost all states that have nuclear power status have achieved it using illegal smuggling methods to obtain necessary nuclear material and technology. Over the next five to ten years, the problem may become worse because of the increasing number of actors involved in nuclear black-market trading. Several more countries are striving to acquire nuclear capability and those that already possess nuclear weapons are working to improve them. States with nuclear weapons are expected to continue procuring from abroad to modernise their nuclear arsenals.
Nuclear smuggling networks have become increasingly interconnected and sophisticated. Countries that have developed secret nuclear weapons programmes are acquiring nuclear subcomponents and ‘dual-use goods’ to operate nuclear facilities on their own. Control of dual-use goods is extremely difficult because suppliers can easily be misled into believing that these items will be used only for civilian purposes.
Over the past two decades, even in countries like the US and Japan that have very strict export control regulations, shadowy networks of nuclear proliferators have tricked suppliers into selling sensitive material and technologies. In order to hide their final destination, illegal procurements are routed through many other countries, also known as ‘turntables’, with weak or nonexistent export controls.
Some developed countries like South Korea and Japan also have the potential to pose a serious challenge to the nuclear non-proliferation agenda because these countries possess enough technological expertise, fissile material and scientific capacity to build nuclear weapons within a short span of time. So there must be a strong policy to discourage additional countries from building uranium enrichment or plutonium separation facilities and making agreements to the effect of establishing nuclear weapons free zones. That remains the most effective way to achieve the desired outcome.
Another related problem is that developing countries do not give the required priority to strengthening export control laws because of the lack of awareness regarding the threats posed by illicit nuclear trade. The International Atomic Energy Agency and the international community led by the US must pay attention to this issue and impress upon other countries to make and strictly enforce export control laws.
One of the serious challenges faced by current export control regimes is the lack of universal methods to detect nuclear trafficking. A well-established early detection mechanism can go a long way in preventing illicit nuclear trade. The US and other major nuclear powers must work to develop a cooperative mechanism to interdict illicit nuclear trade.
The UN Security Council and other multilateral export control regimes can play their role, rendering it almost next to impossible for proliferant states to obtain sensitive goods. Coupled with these initiatives, a ‘Universal Standard against Illicit Nuclear Trade’ must be created to measure and improve compliance efforts by various countries.
This benchmark should provide certain incentives to states willing to curb illicit smuggling and pressurise unwilling states to comply with the export control guidelines. Legal processes in all countries should also be strengthened to effectively prosecute and punish people involved in the business of nuclear smuggling.
The ultimate goal of these measures should be to construct insurmountable obstacles against illicit procurement networks and nuclear smugglers, minimising the chances of a state or non-state actor being in a position to illegally proliferate nuclear technology. The international community must join hands to conclude legally binding ‘arms control treaties’ stigmatising the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Last but not the least, progressive efforts need to ensure that the FMCT and the CTBT enter into force before the 2015 NPT Review Conference; this can more adequately save the world from the dangers of nuclear weapons.