From The Gathering Storm Blog

Last week, a group of nuclear weapons specialists issued ominous warnings before members of the U.S. Congress that terrorist groups like al-Qaida could launch a massive nuclear attack on the United States and currently there is little to deter or defend against such a strike.

Sidney Drell, an arms control specialist and physicist at Stanford University, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee the United States has entered, what he calls, a “dangerous time.”

“I view us on the precipice of entering a new and more dangerous nuclear era with the spread of technology, which means, in particular, the enrichment of uranium, which makes it possible for more societies to enter the nuclear club,” he said. “That raises the danger of nuclear weapons getting in the hands of terrorist groups and others unrestrained by the norms of civilized behavior as we know it and therefore these weapons become more likely to be used.”

“If we discover that a country has purposely transferred fissile material or a nuclear weapon to a terrorist group, we ought to be telling them in advance that we will treat them as though they were the one who launched the attack and they should expect devastating retaliation,” he added.

All well and good. But how would you know what country fissile material or a nuclear weapon came from? Though our first response would be to nuke someone – anyone – the reality is that we couldn’t take such drastic action without confirming where the nuclear material came from.

There is a way and it was used to some extent in a Tom Clancy novel The Sum of All Fears.

The procedure is called Nuclear Attribution.

Since the beginning of the atomic age, the fear of a retaliatory attack has kept many a nuclear nation from getting too close to the launch button. But with nuclear terrorism now the paramount threat and rogue regimes able to peddle the necessary ingredients on the black market, the classic deterrence of reprisal is no longer an adequate defense.

That’s led security experts to devise a new strategy: Hold states directly accountable for leaks or illicit sales of fissile material. How? Nuclear attribution.

Using sophisticated techniques such as radiochemical analysis, scientists can determine the isotopic fingerprint of elements like uranium and plutonium, even after they have been used in a detonated bomb. Then, by isolating telltale trace contaminants and using traditional law-enforcement methods, analysts can narrow down the range of original sources, providing in the process a kind of “birth certificate” for nuclear material. They could then know whether the material used in a bomb might have come from, say, North Korean or Iranian facilities.

The information needed for such an investigation has been going on for some time.

For a decade, an informal international working group of scientists and law-enforcement personnel have been meeting to share forensic techniques. The methods, however, are only half the equation. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the European Commission, and the United States have been gathering databanks of “nuclear fingerprints” from different sources, against which they can match forensic samples. Having a thorough log of the world’s fissile material would be an invaluable tool in fighting nuclear terrorism.

We inform the nuclear nations that we will track the nuclear attributes of the bomb or nuke materials in the case of a dirty bomb back to its source and respond to that country or countries accordingly. Such an announcement, in the case of North Korea, was actually made by President Bush.

Directly after North Korea tested a nuclear bomb, President George W. Bush invoked nuclear attribution directly when he warned that “the transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and [it] would hold North Korea fully accountable of the consequences of such action.”

But there’s a rub.

But in order for attribution to be truly effective, states will have to work together to develop policies that hold accountable all states with nuclear facilities, not just rogue regimes in Pyongyang or Tehran. What happens, for instance, if the material used in a nuclear terror attack is traced back to France or Russia? Even countries that aren’t charter members of the “axis of evil” don’t always adequately track or report lost, stolen, or smuggled nuclear materials. Eighty percent of seizures of nuclear material cannot be matched with recorded thefts, according to the IAEA. But for nuclear attribution to work as a deterrent, all countries, even the United States, must be held liable for the harm done from their wayward nuclear material.

That doesn’t mean that Moscow or Paris should be blown up in retaliation for a nuclear blast set off in the United States by terrorists. But countries could be held legally responsible for monetary damages. The families of victims can be compensated and properties rebuilt. The cost would be enormous but repaid over time. Such a policy would not be entirely without precedent—consider Libya’s payments for the 1988 airline blast over Lockerbie, Scotland—but it would be an incentive for states to keep their nuclear stocks more secure, or avoid nuclear capabilities altogether.

So is nuclear attribution the solution to deterrence?

But the prospects for this kind of multilateral coordination may not be bright: Countries are loath to give up their own nuclear information, including how they may have covertly obtained data on other countries’ programs.

The currents state of deterrence is no longer effective now that rogue regimes and terrorist organizations may get nuclear weapons for their use. Though not perfect, nuclear attribution of a new form of deterrence. But deterrence doesn’t work if you don’t state ahead of time your intentions. Time could be running short. It’s a national security policy issue that should be addressed now.
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