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Can illicit nuclear trade be stopped?

Some two-dozen countries have pursued or obtained nuclear weapons over the last 50 years, several of which have engaged in illicit trade to acquire advanced nuclear technology. In the next five to 10 years, countries including China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea are expected to conduct illicit trade to either maintain or improve their nuclear arsenals. The growth of Iran’s nuclear program, meanwhile, will depend on its ability to illicitly acquire so called “dual-use” items—products that could be used for either military or peaceful purposes.

Those data are part of a 2013 report on illicit nuclear trade by the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit institution focused on stopping nuclear proliferation.

David Albright, its founder and president, discussed the findings at Northeastern University last Wednesday. His 90-minute lecture, “The Future World of Illicit Nuclear Trade: Mitigating the Threat,” was sponsored by the Institute for Security and Public Policy, the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and the College of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Albright, a globally recognized expert in nuclear proliferation, noted that stopping the illicit trade of nuclear commodities would be difficult but not impossible, saying, “Illicit trade is likely to continue unless fairly strenuous mitigating efforts are undertaken.”

To reduce the threat, he advocated for building awareness of illicit trafficking, strengthening export controls, and orchestrating sting operations against nuclear trafficking agents. “We couldn’t find any country committed to sting operations against dual-use smuggling schemes,” he said, “but it’s a very effective tool for uncovering smuggling networks.”

Indeed, illicit trade networks do exhibit a range of vulnerabilities, especially in the ordering process. According to the ISIS report, proliferation entities that try to acquire nuclear goods and services from the open market often leave visible traces of the type of items they are seeking and their end-users. “Companies and governments can detect these traces,” Albright said, “and that can be a powerful vulnerability when companies are willing to turn over that information.”

In the Q-and-A session, Albright was asked whether non-state actors such as al-Qaida have the wherewithal to procure nuclear materials and build secret nuclear facilities. “They would have to learn a lot of things that aren’t in the public domain and get the equipment to make the bomb itself,” he said, adding, “We don’t want to allow terrorists to set up a territory where they have years to work.”

Albright also responded to a question about the viability of cyberattacks against nuclear facilities, including the Obama administration’s reported 2012 attack on Iran’s nuclear plants. “I wouldn’t say they are a last resort,” he said, “but they are additional tools that are used.”

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