Friday, November 29, 2013
29 November: Navigating nuclear traffic
The seizure of a kilogram of uranium and 90 ecstasy tablets in Durban, South Africa on 14 November presents an intriguing illicit trafficking case. A joint operation between the Durban Organised Crime Unit, Crime Intelligence, the Department of Minerals and the Department of Energy resulted in the arrest of two men in their early 20s, who now face charges of being in possession of drugs and uranium. Incidents of uranium smuggling are very rare, and this is one of only five confirmed seizures of smuggled uranium in South Africa in the past 20 years.
The seizure is made more interesting given that, after conducting tests, the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (NECSA) confirmed that the uranium was probably not from Africa but from a country where enrichment was currently taking place.
Over 17 countries currently operate enrichment facilities, including the United States, China, France, Russia, North Korea and Iran. Early reports suggested that the source of the uranium may have been an African mine.
There are four countries in Africa that currently produce uranium – Malawi, Namibia, Niger and South Africa – but many more countries are in the process of uranium exploration, including Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The seized uranium, or ‘yellowcake’, had a 0,38% uranium-235 content, which is below the average 0,7% found in natural uranium and 90% below weapons-grade material. It thus posed no real threat other than possible poisoning. This type of uranium is used for industrial purposes and is found in material used in the construction of ship hulls and in airplanes. It is not of high value, despite criminals’ misconceptions. While it is not known what the sellers’ (and potential buyers’) intentions were for the uranium, the perception among the general public that uranium is a dangerous material could, according to Noel Stott of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), ‘be exploited for its fear value’.
Incidents such as the one described above, although relatively minor, highlight the importance of implementing international, regional and national nuclear security measures. The current nuclear security framework is comprised of a number of conventions and agreements that cover physical protection of nuclear materials, preventing access to materials by non-state actors and the suppression of acts of nuclear terrorism.
This framework was the main topic of discussion at a workshop on ‘Strengthening Africa’s nuclear security, disarmament and non-proliferation agenda’, hosted by the ISS and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) from 20–21 November in Cape Town. The workshop provided participants with the opportunity to discuss nuclear security within an African context; thereby sharing experiences from the continent, including illicit trafficking of nuclear materials and the market for natural uranium, as well as identifying possible areas of cooperation, especially in the field of education and training. An important conclusion of the workshop was an acknowledgement that the implementation of the nuclear security framework, although the primary responsibility of individual states, requires a globally coordinated approach.
If it is officially confirmed that the materials seized in Durban came from outside of Africa, this only emphasises the need for countries to work together better in applying international, regional and national nuclear security measures. Most of the attention of countries outside of the African continent is placed on the potential proliferation risk posed by uranium mining and related activities in Africa. However, the possibility of the illegal movement of nuclear materials from other parts of the world to Africa should not be ignored. African states have an important role to play in global debates on nuclear security, not only as non-nuclear weapon states but also as producers of nuclear materials and potential targets of armed non-state actors.
Given the globally shared vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, it is important that the nuclear security framework be contextualised within the broader nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation architecture. Many countries, especially those with nuclear weapons, may argue that nuclear security should not be linked to disarmament. However, some countries such as Brazil and South Africa are publically declaring their support for this idea, and it is certainly worth debating.
In July this year, at an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear security conference, the statement made by South Africa included a paragraph arguing, ‘[W]e cannot strengthen global nuclear security as long as nuclear weapons exist. Progress is therefore required on nuclear disarmament in line with international commitments we have all undertaken, especially in the context of the NPT.’ According to South Africa, the IAEA international conference took place within this overall framework of common objectives and commitment to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, and this should be the global community’s shared vision.
At the same IAEA conference, Brazil supported South Africa’s view, stating that in order ‘to be consistent and ultimately effective, nuclear security must be articulated within the international community’s broader efforts to promote the goals of nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and the advancement of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy’. Both statements were met with some resistance, especially from states that do not view the current nuclear security framework as being selective in its scope.
However, there seems to be support for a broader approach to nuclear security, which should include a comprehensive view of the root causes of the challenges associated with nuclear security (in other words, nuclear security should cover all nuclear materials, including civilian and military sources). How this can be achieved without compromising national security will probably be the biggest challenge, especially given that the implementation of nuclear security measures is the responsibility of individual states.
In addition, this broader approach should not inhibit the legitimate right of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty member states to pursue peaceful uses of nuclear technology. There is a perception that the current nuclear security regime is steadily increasing obligations on states before they can gain access to peaceful uses of nuclear technology. This is a worrying trend. Although all states acknowledge that safety and security measures are vital in ensuring nuclear technology is used responsibly, states should not be unfairly restricted when many depend on these technologies to assist them in achieving their developmental goals. Therefore, the key challenge for the international community is finding a balance.
Cases like the one in Durban might be rare, but as more and more states pursue peaceful nuclear activities, there will be an increase in the risks and responsibilities to take into account. It is essential that all states work together in order to develop and implement appropriate nuclear security measures in order to curb the illicit trafficking of materials, and to ensure the safety and security of citizens around the world.