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Downer Op-Ed: Nuclear Security & Terrorism

Nuclear Security & Terrorism
By Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer

Nuclear terrorism is a dreadful prospect but a threat that is real. The September 11 attacks show that terrorists will not hesitate to inflict mass casualties in populated areas, killing themselves in the process. The only limitation on the horror they are prepared to unleash is the weaponry they can use.

And we now know that the 9/11 hijackers considered targeting American nuclear installations.

While the exercise is traumatic, none of us would find it too difficult to visualise the terrible human and economic damage from a nuclear explosion in a city. The cost would be horrific and ongoing. Fortunately, this most dangerous form of nuclear terrorism is made less likely by the difficulties terrorists would have in acquiring the necessary fissile material and expertise.

More probable is the prospect of terrorists using radioactive materials employed in medicine, science and industry to produce a “dirty bomb”. A dirty bomb would not cause mass destruction but could disperse radiation over a wide area. The psychological trauma, disruption and economic cost would still be disastrous. The global community has an obligation to take the threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism seriously.

The global community’s first line of defence against the misuse of sensitive materials and technology, whether by rogue states or terrorist groups, is the framework of arms control treaties and export control regimes built up over several decades. Foremost among these is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Regrettably, the Non-Proliferation Treaty is under unprecedented pressure. North Korea’s announced withdrawal from the treaty and its determined pursuit of nuclear weapons challenges international security like never before. And the global community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear intentions remain unallayed after two years of investigations by the world’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

On top of this, the revelation of a sophisticated international black market in nuclear materials and technology, with customers including North Korea, Iran and Libya, reminds us starkly that we must act firmly and in unity to stop nuclear weapons falling into the hands of dangerous regimes and terrorists.

Australia has a strong commitment to work with Asia-Pacific countries to combat nuclear weapons proliferation and nuclear terrorism. At the recent Asia-Pacific Nuclear Safeguards and Security Conference, hosted by Australia in Sydney, regional countries expressed their firm resolve to confront these threats.

Senior representatives from 18 Asia-Pacific countries recognised that a strong nuclear safeguards and security framework was essential to realising the benefits of peaceful use of nuclear energy. A number of practical priorities were identified including global application of the IAEA’s strengthened safeguards system, effective controls on exports of nuclear materials and technology, better protection of nuclear materials and facilities, and ensuring the effective control and protection of radioactive sources.

As the permanent member of the IAEA’s Board of Governors for the South-East Asia and Pacific region, Australia has consistently advocated practical measures that will make a difference. Australia was one of the first countries to contribute to the IAEA Nuclear Security Fund which supports international efforts to address the threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism. Australia was also the first country to conclude an Additional Protocol strengthening the IAEA’s inspection and verification powers.

Securing fissile material against acquisition by rogue states and terrorists is a vital task for the G8 Global Partnership Against Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. Earlier this year, Australia contributed $10 million to the Global Partnership. Our contribution is helping dismantle nuclear submarines decommissioned from Russia’s Pacific fleet to reduce proliferation and safety risks. We chose this project because of its direct relevance to our region.

Any nuclear security weaknesses at local or regional levels risk being exploited. As part of our commitment to regional cooperation on these issues, Australia has also set aside $4.4 million for work by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation to boost the regulatory controls and physical security of radioactive sources in the Pacific and South East Asia.

While we continue to conduct this purposeful work, we should also recognise that there are causes for optimism. The nuclear ambitions of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq have been thwarted. Libya has embraced a new future in concert with the global community as it dismantles its Weapons of Mass Destruction programs which included nuclear components. And over sixty countries now support the Proliferation Security Initiative which is countering WMD proliferation through practical measures and cooperation.

We should be quite clear about what is at stake. The world’s non-proliferation regime provides vital security benefits including the climate of confidence necessary for cooperation on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. And, of course, if all countries diligently implement the non-proliferation regime it will ensure we never have to confront that most horrible of terrorist attacks.

*Australia’s Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, opened the the Asia Pacific Nuclear Safeguards and Security Conference in Sydney on 8 November.


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