The P[b(j)] of Proliferation

The September 2006 issue of The Annals of The American Academy of Political and Social Science published, naturally, by The American Academy of Political and Social Science, had a special issue CONFRONTING THE SPECTER OF NUCLEAR TERRORISM (Oh dear, all caps; be afraid, be very afraid).

Anyway, one article, ‘A Mathematical Model of the Risk of Nuclear Terrorism’, by Matthew Bunn, ran the numbers, literally, for measuring the global risk of nuclear theft and terrorism. Warning, you may want to reach for your former algebra books before reading further.

Let’s see:

Number of plausible nuclear terrorist groups, N[n] = 2Yearly probability of an acquisition attempt by a particular group, P[a(j)] = 0.3Probability of choosing an acquisition attempt based on outsider theft, P[o(j)] = 0.2Probability of choosing an acquisition attempt based on insider theft, P[i(j)] = 0.3Probability of choosing to attempt to purchase black market material, P[b(j)] = 0.3Probability of choosing to attempt to convince a state to provide material, P[s(j)] = 0.2Probability that an outsider theft attempt will succeed, P[os(j, k)] = 0.2Probability that an insider theft attempt will succeed, P[is(j, k)] = 0.3Probability that a black market acquisition attempt will succeed, P[bs(j, k)] = 0.2Probability that an acquisition attempt from a state will succeed, P[ss(j, k)] = 0.05Probability of being able to convert acquired items to nuclear capability, P[w(j, k)] = 0.4Probability of delivering and detonating bomb once a …

But what does this have to do with the nuclear black market? I’m glad you asked. The ‘P[b(j)]’, as Bunn puts it, is a not insignificant factor:

The probabilities of black market acquisition attempts

Trying to buy nuclear weapons or materials from the nuclear black market appears to be an especially common choice for terrorist groups seeking nuclear capabilities. Both Aum Shinrikyo and al Qaeda have pursued this method of acquisition (Bunn, Wier, and Friedman 2005). Based on the historical record, therefore, P[b(j)] appears to be fairly large. The probability of success in acquiring nuclear weapons or materials on a nuclear black market, P[bs (j, k)], can be broken into two component probabilities: the probability of a potential seller coming into possession of such goods and the probability that the seller and the buyer will succeed in finding each other and making the transaction.

The principal source of black market nuclear material is likely to be nuclear theft, by outsiders or insiders not directly connected to terrorist groups. n11 Numerous cases of theft of weapons-usable nuclear material, apparently with the intention of selling the stolen nuclear material on the black market, have occurred. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA; 2005) has documented eighteen seizures of stolen HEU or separated plutonium confirmed by the states concerned. More incidents have occurred, but the states in question have not been willing to confirm them.

Improved nuclear security measures would reduce the probability of additional thefts of HEU and plutonium in the future. But undetected nuclear thefts that may have occurred already pose an additional challenge. None of the documented seizures to date are suspected to have involved nuclear material stolen long before. Nuclear workers in the former Soviet Union who may have stolen nuclear material a decade ago and squirreled it away for a rainy day are now making a living wage, suggesting that if they did not sell this material before, they may not now. On the other hand, if improved security measures make it more difficult to steal nuclear material, already-stolen material could become more valuable. Overall, these factors suggest that the fraction of the black market problem arising from already stolen nuclear material is small-but it is probably not insignificant.

Would-be sellers obtaining a nuclear weapon or the materials to make one is only the first step. They would then have to make contact, and succeed in closing a transaction, with buyers from a terrorist group-a task that is not likely to be easy. None of the known cases involving stolen HEU or plutonium appear to have involved a real buyer or come close to a successful transaction. This may be the product of selection bias; it could be that competent thieves connected to buyers are the ones who do not get caught and whose cases are therefore unknown. If selection bias only distorts the picture modestly, however, the known cases suggest that the problem of making the connection between potential buyers and sellers-with the risks each faces that the other may be a scam artist, killer, or government agent-is a major barrier on this path, and the chances of success in such a transaction are relatively low (Bunn and Wier 2004, 27). The 20 per cent chance of successful black market acquisition may seem too high given the large number of past attempts to pawn off worthless items as nuclear bomb material. But the commercial availability of hand-held devices that can confirm the presence of HEU or separated plutonium in a container suggests that sophisticated buyers will become less susceptible to scams over time.

How could the probability of successful black market acquisition be further reduced? The measures for preventing outsider and insider theft already discussed apply in this scenario as well. Additional measures should be taken to make the barriers to successful transactions between buyers and sellers even higher than they already are. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies could run additional stings and scams, posing as either buyers or sellers of nuclear material, to catch participants in this market, collect intelligence on market participants, and increase the fears of real buyers and sellers that their interlocutors may be government agents. Well-publicized anonymous tip hotlines, rewards, and similar measures could encourage conspirators or those they try to sell to or buy from to report to the authorities. All potential source states and likely transit states should have units of their national police force trained and equipped to deal with nuclear smuggling cases, and other law enforcement personnel should be trained to call in those units as needed. Current efforts to establish radiation detection at key border crossings may also reduce the probability of a successful black market acquisition, forcing smugglers to pursue riskier routes (Wier 2002).

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