Nuclear and Radiological Security

“ … [We] must ensure that terrorists never acquire a nuclear weapon. This is the most immediate and extreme threat to global security. One terrorist with one nuclear weapon could unleash massive destruction. Al Qaeda has said it seeks a bomb and that it would have no problem with using it. And we know that there is unsecured nuclear material across the globe.”

— U.S. President Barack Obama speaking in Prague on 5 April, 2009

Weapons-usable nuclear and radiological materials pose a major threat to global security wherever they are at risk of being stolen or subjected to unauthorized access. This risk is particularly high in the countries of the former Soviet Union (FSU), especially Russia, which inherited vast quantities of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, as well as other dangerous radiological  materials at the end of the Cold War.

Due to the pressing threat posed by the possibility of terrorists acquiring dangerous nuclear or radiological materials, securing and disposing of these materials remains a high priority for Canada and its international partners, and is a key objective of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction.

The Threat

Well-financed terrorist groups are known to be seeking nuclear weapons with an intention to use them against particular countries, including Canada and its allies. A relatively simple improvised nuclear device could be constructed using open source blueprints and a mere 15 to 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or 4 to 8 kilograms of weapons-usable plutonium for a slightly more sophisticated device. In Russia alone, there are approximately 600 tonnes of HEU, and 100 tonnes of plutonium; significant quantities also remain in other countries of the FSU. This material is often poorly protected.

Similarly, highly radioactive materials could be used to construct a radiological dispersal device (RDD) or dirty bomb. These sources are easily found and relatively easy to acquire, and documents describing their construction have been found recently in a number of conflict zones.

There have also been a few startling incidents of attempted nuclear trafficking, including a case in Georgia in 2008 in which authorities seized weapons-usable HEU. Adding to these concerns are the revelations about the deep level of penetration and extensive global reach of the A.Q. Khan proliferation network, a group responsible for the illegal transfer of nuclear materials and expertise to North Korea, Iran, Libya and perhaps beyond.

Canadian security is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain that protects nuclear and other radioactive materials. If a terrorist group was able to obtain the material, it could theoretically construct at least a crude nuclear device. Given the continued vulnerability of these materials, it is not surprising that several recent reports maintain that there is a high probability that a group may commit an act of nuclear terrorism somewhere in the world in the near future.

Canada's Approach to Preventing Nuclear Terrorism

Since 2002, Canada’s Nuclear and Radiological Security program has developed a holistic strategy to address the threat of nuclear terrorism built around five pillars:

  1. physical protection of nuclear materials
  2. safe and secure transportation of nuclear materials
  3. radiological security
  4. preventing illicit nuclear trafficking
  5. reduction of nuclear materials

Pillar 1: Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials

Canada supports projects to improve the security of nuclear materials in Russia and other countries of the FSU. The principal focus of Canada’s Nuclear and Radiological Security Program is to help strengthen the physical protection at facilities that house these materials in order to reduce the risk of theft or unauthorized access. 

Canada is currently implementing projects to upgrade physical security at nine nuclear facilities in Russia. This work includes, for example, building security fences, entry control points and vaults, as well as installing cameras, key card access controls and vehicle barriers. Since 2002, Canada has successfully completed critical physical protection upgrades at two facilities housing weapons-usable nuclear materials in Russia, bringing them into line with international physical protection standards. Through the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) and the Nuclear Security Fund (NSF), Canada is also funding a variety of physical security projects in other countries of the FSU.

Also, through the IAEA, Canada has funded measures to ensure the long-term sustainability of physical protection, including several international training courses and upgrades to the training laboratories and test beds at Russia’s main physical protection training centre, the Interdepartmental Special Training Center (ISTC), located in Obninsk. There, operators and inspectors of physical protection systems at nuclear facilities from all over the FSU and beyond receive practical training against attack, sabotage or theft of nuclear materials. Canadian GPP physical protection specialists also frequently teach courses at the Obninsk ISTC. 

Pillar 2: Safe and Secure Transportation of Nuclear Materials

Nuclear materials are most vulnerable during transportation, when there are fewer layers of protection and back-up response units are often far away. Canada has successfully completed projects to provide the means for the safe and secure transport of these materials in Russia, including providing special cargo trucks. Canada is also currently implementing additional projects in this area, with a focus on providing specially armoured railcars for the safe and secure transportation of dangerous nuclear materials.

Pillar 3: Radiological Security

Radioactive sources have been used as small power sources and in medical applications for decades; however, it is critical that these radioactive materials be properly accounted for and secured. If stolen, these materials could be used to make an RDD (“dirty bomb”). Vulnerable “orphaned sources” in Russia and the FSU pose considerable security risks, and Canada is working with its partners, particularly Russia and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), to eliminate this threat by recovering and securing these radioactive sources.

Canada has worked with Russia to develop a strategic master plan for the removal, securing, replacement and ultimate disposal of all remaining radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), highly radioactive power sources used to power navigational devices, in Russia. In addition, Canada has contributed $9 million to the DOE’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative to dispose of such nuclear generators along Russia’s coastline. Through the IAEA, Canada also funds a variety of projects that recover radiological sources in other countries of the FSU.

Pillar 4: Preventing Illicit Nuclear Trafficking

The prevention of illicit nuclear trafficking constitutes the  “second line of defence” against nuclear terrorism by detecting and intercepting nuclear materials as they are moved through international borders.

In order to maximize existing work in this important area, Canada has contributed approximately $10 million to the DOE’s Office of the Second Line of Defense to implement security upgrades at key border crossings in Ukraine. In December 2008, the Canadian-funded radiation detection system was commissioned for Kyiv’s Boryspil International Airport. Canada also funds several border security projects in other countries of the FSU through the IAEA.

Pillar 5: Reduction of Nuclear Materials and Plutonium Disposition

The key to preventing nuclear terrorism over the long term is to decrease the overall quantity of proliferation-significant nuclear material in existence. To this end, Canada contributed $9 million to help shut down the last Russian weapons-usable plutonium producing reactor in Zheleznogorsk by 2010. Canada will also support efforts to dispose of 34 tonnes of plutonium declared in excess by Russia.

In the short term, Canada is working with Russia to help secure nuclear materials that are ultimately destined for disposition.