Co-Founder, Co-Chair, and Strategic Advisor
NATO’s Black Dawn: Now in rehearsal, the unthinkable
LJUBLJANA, Slovenia — On Tuesday, we will conduct an exercise called Black Dawn before NATO's Parliamentary Assembly. In this simulation, a jihadist terrorist network acquires nuclear material, constructs a crude nuclear devic, and detonates the bomb outside the gates of NATO headquarters.
More than 300 representatives from NATO countries will witness a fictionalized account of this almost unthinkable tragedy: hundreds of thousands of casualties, severe global economic disruptions, and untold environmental and societal suffering in Brussels and across Europe. Out of this nightmare scenario, two fundamental truths are clear: Catastrophic terrorism can and must be prevented, and Europe can and must do more to prevent it.
Though fictional, the Black Dawn scenario is based on real-world facts. Radical terror groups continue to plot attacks against targets in Europe and the United States and take a special interest in technologies that can inflict mass casualties, including nuclear weapons. The key ingredient needed for an atomic bomb, highly enriched uranium, is stored and used at civilian research reactors across the globe, including more than 50 sites in and around Europe, and many of these are poorly secured. The hardest part of building a crude nuclear device is obtaining the nuclear material.
We can emphatically affirm that on both sides of the Atlantic, we have not done enough to prevent this scenario, from upgrading security at nuclear materials sites in Russia to converting excess weapons-usable uranium and plutonium to peaceful energy sources.
Since 1993, the United States has financed efforts to work with Russia to lock down, destroy or relocate vulnerable materials. Despite some impressive work, progress has been far too slow in recent years. For example, in 1994 the United States recognized the imminent threat posed by vulnerable stocks of highly enriched uranium when it removed a cache of the weapons-usable material from Kazakhstan. In the decade since, progress cleaning out other vulnerable stocks has proceeded at a glacial pace, with repatriation of material from only seven additional sites.
Last year, the United States established the Global Threat Reduction Initiative to consolidate and accelerate its programs, but even the most optimistic estimate places completion well into the next decade. Russia too has many people working on this effort
and they have stepped up their financial commitments. Russia is an essential partner in these global efforts.
European countries and the EU have also taken steps to help secure dangerous materials. However, as the Black Dawn terror exercise illustrates, Europe must do much, much more.
First, it must fulfill its past promises. At the 2002 Group of 8 summit, European members and the EU pledged, along with Japan, to raise $10 billion over the next decade to secure or destroy vulnerable materials for nuclear, chemical and biological weaponry. Three years later, they are about $3 billion short. Turning these pledges to real money will make the world safer.
Europe must also get its own neighborhood in order. Significant amounts of dangerous materials are stored in and around Europe. Europe must put priority on comprehensively identifying all materials and providing state-of-the-art security.
Finally, Europe should be a leader in fully developing multilateral instruments for reducing the threat of catastrophic terrorism. European nations should elevate the role of the EU by supporting a substantial increase in the share of the budget devoted to these programs. European countries should also more generously support effective programs undertaken by international organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency's Nuclear Security Fund, and partnerships, like the U.S.-Russia-IAEA Global Threat Reduction Initiative.
At a time when trans-Atlantic relations are recovering from a difficult period, the United States and Europe must recommit themselves to jointly confronting common security challenges. No priority is more urgent than preventing terrorists from acquiring bomb- ready nuclear material for use
in Brussels or Washington, Paris, Moscow or London. Both the United States and Europe must do more to prevent such a scenario, both at home and in trouble spots across the globe.
The Black Dawn terror scenario shows the need for truly urgent attention by leaders of the highest level. Only such commitment can reduce the risk of this fiction becoming a reality.
Sam Nunn, a former U.S. senator, is co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Pierre Lellouche is a member of the French National Assembly and president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest on nuclear and biological threats.
The U.S. nuclear budget comprises a variety of programs associated with nuclear weapons, nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear security, and legacy environmental and health costs.
Nuclear and radiological security aims to ensure nuclear and other radioactive materials are secure from unauthorized access and theft, and that nuclear facilities are secure from sabotage.