Speaking in Prague earlier this year, President Barack Obama set the ambitious goal of securing all of the world’s vulnerable nuclear materials within four years. Along with that, Obama pledged continued leadership in the effort to thwart underground trade in nuclear materials and to detect and intercept them in transit.
In the years since the end of the Cold War, the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration has fielded 950 radioactive portal monitors to 213 sites in 13 countries, most in Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia, according to the agency. But if the United States and its allies hope to catch smuggled nuclear materials before their enemies accumulate enough to construct weapons, they must rely less on technology and more on old-fashioned, intelligence-led investigation, experts say.
Speaking recently at a conference hosted by George Mason University’s Terrorism, Transnational Crime, and Corruption Center in Arlington, Virginia, researcher and center Director Louise Shelley called the radiation-detection devices “brilliantly engineered but fatally flawed,” in that they can be defeated by bribing their operators.
Further, the networks that serve the black market demand for nuclear material are far more complex than the criminal syndicates of the West, according to Shelley and fellow speaker Michael Bronner, a journalist who investigated a 2006 sting operation in which Georgian authorities arrested four men—three Georgians and a Russian—who tried to sell 100 grams of highly enriched uranium to an undercover agent.
Whereas most criminal organizations, like the Mafia, have military, pyramid-style structures, more and more smuggling networks operate with a loose, network-style structure.
Investigators now find networks driven not just by underworld figures but by people of high social standing. Shelley pointed to three Ukrainians arrested this year trying to sell eight pounds of low-potency radioactive material as plutonium. The New York Times identified the men as a legislator and two businessmen.
The trade often relies on the help of corrupt military and security personnel looking to enrich themselves. They live in a region that Bronner describes as lawless and bankrupt—financially and morally—after nearly two decades of violence. The perpetrators in the 2006 scheme included a security guard who went straight back to work at Georgia’s National Parliament after one aborted sale attempt.
Bronner suspects the corrupt guard’s badge may have helped him and a coconspirator pass a Georgian border checkpoint with the contraband, although he notes that enriched uranium—the primary fuel for nuclear fission weapons like early atomic bombs—is not highly radioactive and can thus be shielded from detection within other mildly radioactive materials like kitty litter.
The most successful intelligence-led interdiction efforts are founded in good old-fashioned police work. For example, in Turkey, police have used informants, surveillance, and undercover agents to arrest 67 people on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) smuggling charges in the post-Soviet era.
Turkish National Police Maj. Mahmut Cengiz, a doctoral candidate at George Mason, said that technology remains a critical supplement to police work.
Cengiz divides smugglers into two groups: well-connected professionals and small-time crooks. Often the former hire the latter to serve as couriers. He also notes that while pros use connections and bribes to circumvent scanners, technology may catch or deter an amateur.
The U.S. government trains allies in WMD interdiction, including officials in Georgia. Bronner learned that CIA and FBI specialists directly trained the Ministry of Internal Affairs agents who led the successful 2006 sting. But to fully stop the flow, experts say, more must be done.