Detecting and Disrupting Illicit Nuclear Trade after A.Q. Khan (published in the Washington Quarterly Vol. 33)

by David Albright, Paul Brannan, and Andrea Scheel Stricker

March 26, 2010

That countries build nuclear weapons largely on their own is a common misperception. In fact, most states have depended heavily on overseas acquisition of vital equipment, materials, and know-how to create the industrial infrastructure to build nuclear weapons, a trend that continues today. Over the next few years, several states in dangerous parts of the world, along with terrorist organizations, are expected to seek these weapons. For most of these countries and certainly for terrorists, the pathway to obtaining or improving nuclear weapons remains through illicit nuclear trade.

Governments’ ability to detect and stop this dangerous trade remains limited. Illicit nuclear trade networks remain difficult to detect, and the demand for sensitive goods by proliferant states remains robust. No one knows how many nuclear procurement operations, which are primarily aimed at outfitting proliferant states’ nuclear programs, exist. Too often, major successes in thwarting nuclear proliferation have depended on the last line of defense— military attacks, interdictions, and specialized intelligence operations. As important as these measures are, it is risky to depend on the last line of defense for U.S. and international security.

National and international security should instead rely on the first lines of defense such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), domestic and international trade controls, rigorous enforcement of these controls, diplomacy, international inspections, corporate vigilance, and early detection. Illicit nuclear trade is neither inevitable nor unstoppable, nor is it the necessary price of global business. If the international community accepts that this trade cannot be stopped, then it is indirectly accepting that more countries and groups will acquire nuclear weapons and someday use them. The United States and its international partners can act now to bolster the first line of defense against illicit nuclear trade, and prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Read the full article in the Washington Quarterly in PDF format.

To read more about the perils of illicit nuclear trade and ways to curb its deadly potential see David Albright’s new book: Peddling Peril

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