Avoiding Catastrophic Nuclear Terrorism: Lessons Learned

NTI sponsored a “tabletop exercise” that simulated a crisis involving seizures of kilogram-quantities of weapons-usable nuclear material. Involving prominent Russian and US experts, this simulation demonstrated that there are significant but removable barriers to effectively and safely managing the crisis. These barriers are so serious that they could lead to significant delays in the two governments’ ability to act and ultimately could compromise successfully thwarting the detonation of a terrorist nuclear device.

The report--available in Russian and English--outlines the scenario, observations and findings and recommendations from the exercise. It also includes a paper addressing the legal basis for US-Russian cooperation in response to a nuclear smuggling incident.

From the Foreword by Sam Nunn and Igor Ivanov: 

A terrorist armed with a nuclear weapon is the world’s greatest threat to peace, prosperity, and security. A nuclear attack would be instantly catastrophic for every nation. The trust and confidence essential for global commerce and peaceful diplomacy would likely
collapse. Many citizens and governments could take panicky, perhaps violent steps to regain a sense of safety; and paradoxically, the world would become more unpredictable, impoverished, and insecure overnight.

A terrorist nuclear attack is the most difficult threat to deter. While opinion differs on the likelihood, all experts agree that such an attack is possible, and as the consequences would be so severe, the threat demands the full attention of the world’s leaders.The Nuclear Security Summit, hosted by President Barack Obama in April 2010, led to an important global commitment to secure vulnerable and dangerous
nuclear materials within four years. This was a vital advance in preventing nuclear terrorism.

But there is another sphere of the threat that we must address.

If authorities in any country were to detain smugglers and seize a dangerous quantity of nuclear bomb-making material, what would be the best, most efficient international response if we hope to prevent a nuclear attack? Are we prepared to take that response?

These questions are especially salient for Russia and the United States—the world’s two nuclear superpowers. Both countries have suffered deeply from terrorism over the last decade. Both countries are targets for terrorist groups seeking nuclear weapons.

Prompted by these realities and determined to test and improve our readiness for a nuclear crisis, former high-level national security officials from Russia and the United States, as well as journalists and nuclear security specialists, met in Moscow in May 2011 to convene a Nuclear Smuggling Exercise sponsored by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI).

Participants were confronted with a hypothetical but plausible scenario: A Russian-Tajik team seized a shipment of eight kilograms of at least 75 percent enriched uranium at the Afghan-Tajik border, not enough by itself to build a nuclear weapon but potentially enough to make a bomb if matched with other shipments of comparable size. One day later, a U.S. Navy vessel, alert to the Russian seizure, boarded a ship in the Mediterranean Sea and seized another shipment of highly enriched uranium (HEU) of the same quantity.

During the exercise, the U.S. and Russian teams strategized separately and then together about the best steps to take in those circumstances. We discussed procedures for measures such as notifying the respective presidents, alerting international partners, testing the material to confirm type and purity, and trying to identify the origin of the HEU, both to shut down the supply and make more
targeted efforts to interdict other shipments. The teams also strategized about what information should be made public and how, in order to build trust and prevent panic.

The purpose of the exercise was to understand the challenges the United States and Russia would face in their efforts to cooperate in a nuclear crisis and produce recommendations on how to deal with them.

The exercise was successful, not because it went smoothly but because very valuable lessons were learned. It highlighted the ways in which our joint response, if tested now by a real threat, might fail to prevent an attack. It pointed out flaws in our current posture—issues of habit, procedure, and approach that would interfere with efforts to share information, coordinate work, and act
together to respond to a threat.

In our exercise, there was no catastrophe, no nuclear attack. Yet, as we discussed questions such as what information the two nations should share, how they should do the forensics testing, and who would get the data, it became clear to all the participants that Russia and the United States are a long way from being fully prepared to effectively cooperate on an operational level in the case of a nuclear terrorism event. During our exercise, while we were struggling, the clock was ticking. In an actual case, time could run out.

So we must make time now to answer these questions, script an optimal response, and rehearse together what to do in a nuclear crisis. The security of the world and the quality of our future may depend on it.



December 7, 2011

Findings and recommendations from an NTI-sponsored “tabletop exercise” simulating a crisis involving seizures of kilogram-quantities of weapons-usable nuclear material. The report is in Russian and English.

Robert E. Berls, Jr., PhD
Robert E. Berls, Jr., PhD

Senior Advisor for Russia and Eurasia

Igor S. Ivanov
Igor S. Ivanov

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Russia

Sam Nunn
Sam Nunn

Co-Chair, NTI

Page Stoutland, PhD
Page Stoutland, PhD

Vice President, Scientific and Technical Affairs