How Beijing can help prevent nuclear terrorism

By Hui Zhang | March 10, 2014

Like dozens of other leaders around the world, Chinese President Xi Jinping is preparing to attend the third Nuclear Security Summit, which will take place in The Hague on March 24 and 25. The summits are aimed at securing nuclear and radioactive material to prevent nuclear terrorism, and China actively participated in the first two. Speaking at the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, then-president Hu Jintao declared that "in the future, China will [take further] nuclear security measures, make sure [of] the security of its own nuclear materials and facilities, [and] improve…overall nuclear security."

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, China has indeed made strides in strengthening its system for protecting nuclear facilities and improving its so-called MPC&A—the material protection, control, and accounting of nuclear materials. To make sure that nuclear security systems are actually implemented effectively, however, the development of a strong security culture—in which the relevant individuals hold a deeply rooted belief that insider and outsider threats are credible— is imperative.

Unfortunately, many Chinese experts continue to doubt that there is a credible threat to Chinese nuclear materials and facilities. Some do endorse Chinese commitments to upgrading nuclear security, but only because they see it as necessary to comply with international requirements, not because they actually see the threat as serious; they argue that nuclear terrorism may be a problem for the United States, but is not an urgent concern for China.

One cannot count on the authorities to effectively battle a danger they do not believe is real. If those responsible for security come to understand the seriousness of the threat of nuclear terrorism, on the other hand, they are more likely to take appropriate precautions.

Underestimating the threat. Many Chinese experts believe it is unlikely that the country’s nuclear weapons will be stolen because Beijing’s arsenal is relatively small, tightly monitored, and guarded by heavily armed forces. Moreover, they argue, most Chinese warheads are stored deep underground in remote mountains, in secret locations, where it would be very difficult for outsiders to gain access. As well, they believe that the probability of terrorists gaining access to fissile material inside China and using it to make a crude nuclear bomb is very low, arguing that the technologies necessary to manufacture, deliver, and detonate such a weapon would be too difficult to obtain.

The experts also see the risk of sabotage at a nuclear power plant—which could result in a major release of radioactive material—as very low, because groups hostile to the government lack the means to conduct such attacks, and because in any case, China’s current security system should be good enough to stop any attempts.

It is likely, though, that the experts are underestimating the threat. As the number of nuclear power plants in China expands rapidly, the risk of sabotage at a civilian facility grows more plausible. The 2011 disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant may have increased terrorists’ interest in targeting power reactors in China.

China’s nuclear experts do give more credence to the possibility that terrorists could get hold of other radioactive material inside the country and use it to make a  “dirty bomb.” They recognize that there are risks inherent in the fact that China has many radioactive sources, distributed over a wide region, as well as many orphan sources outside of any regulatory control.

However, while the likelihood that terrorists might set off a dirty bomb is higher than the likelihood that they would detonate a nuclear bomb, the consequences of the latter would be vastly greater. This is why the nuclear security summit process has focused first on the security of nuclear material, such as highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium, rather than on loose radiological sources. In fact, no country—and especially not those that have nuclear weapons or weapon-usable fissile materials—can ignore the real and urgent danger of nuclear terrorism. It is essential that China’s nuclear authorities rethink the threat.

Danger from withinAs China continues to transform into a market-oriented society, it is also becoming more corrupt, which increases the possibility that staff working in military or civilian facilities might steal nuclear materials. Indeed, some Chinese experts worry that the big changes in China’s society over recent decades could also increase criminal activity in general, thus raising the likelihood of smuggling and attempted thefts.

An insider threat is perhaps the most difficult kind to deal with, because insiders are by definition those authorized to access areas containing nuclear materials. They are knowledgeable about operations, rules, policies, and regulations. They are highly trained on handling nuclear materials. And they can figure out how to defeat safety and security systems and distract other insiders and guards. One or more of these individuals could take advantage of access to perform acts of theft or sabotage, and potentially aid terrorists. Insiders could work with other personnel or outside collaborators.

HEU and separated plutonium in China’s civilian nuclear sector, in particular, could be especially vulnerable to insiders. Consider, for example, China’s civilian pilot reprocessing plant at the Jiuquan nuclear complex in Gansu province. The plant was not designed for maximum security when construction began in 1995. It shares some facilities with a previous military reprocessing plant that was not designed with an up-to-date material protection, control, and accounting system. And the amount of unaccounted-for material at the plant is higher than is considered acceptable.

Fresh and spent HEU fuel is also present at research reactors, which are located at institutes that, because of a shortage of funding, are not as well-controlled and guarded as military sites, while some of the older ones rely on outdated security and control systems. Indeed, some Chinese experts argue against stricter standards on the grounds that they will cost more. Bulk-processing facilities in particular—plants that conduct fuel fabrication, reprocessing, and enrichment—tend to have limited financial resources, often causing operators to give security a low priority. In some cases guards at enrichment facilities have turned off radioactivity detectors to avoid wear and tear on them.

The outside menace. Terrorist attacks by Chinese separatist groups, foreign organizations, or some combination thereof may also one day pose a real threat to China’s nuclear facilities. The East Turkestan movement, which seeks an independent state in the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang, has long received training, financial assistance and support from international terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda. Drawn from China’s predominantly Muslim Uighur community, the East Turkestan extremists claimed responsibility for more than 200 acts of terrorism between 1990 and 2001, and some sub-groups have been involved in the ongoing war in Syria. Over the last seven years, members of the East Turkestan movement have carried out more than a dozen attacks, many on government buildings and police stations and most involving explosives and grenades, resulting in numerous deaths.

China’s neighbors in Central Asia and Pakistan have served as safe havens for members of the movement. These countries are also home to a high level of international terrorist activity and are centers of nuclear smuggling and proliferation activities. It is possible that East Turkestan extremists could acquire fissile material or nuclear weapons from their bases in these areas, which they could also use to plan and launch attacks.         

Moreover, even if China is not itself a target, a nuclear or radiological attack in another country might still have effects in Beijing. If terrorists succeeded in detonating a nuclear bomb in any of the world’s major cities, the political and economic consequences could potentially have a dramatic effect on China’s national interests. Kofi Annan, while he was secretary general of the United Nations, warned that the global economic consequences of an act of nuclear terrorism in a developed country would push millions into poverty, creating a “second death toll in the developing world.” The 9/11 attacks resulted in the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and, later, in the controversial expansion of unmanned drone warfare in many countries; a terrorist nuclear attack could provoke a much more far-reaching reaction. In particular, if the United States were attacked with a nuclear weapon or nuclear material brought in from abroad, it might very well close its borders until it was confident that no further weapons could enter—an extraordinarily difficult, possibly infeasible reaction, but one for which there would be strong public demand. This would have a huge impact on global trade and China’s economy.

China would also be affected if nuclear weapons or weapons-usable materials were stolen within its borders and used on a target elsewhere. For example, if terrorists detonated a nuclear bomb in the United States and the material were traced to China, there would be huge political ramifications; the American public might demand action against the country that was the source of the nuclear material, even though that country’s government never intended the material to fall into terrorist hands. Even if the stolen items were never used and eventually recovered, the source country’s reputation for effective management of its nuclear assets would be affected. 

Events abroad having nothing to do with Chinese sources could also have an effect on Beijing. A Chernobyl-scale security incident, for example, wherever it occurs, would be a global catastrophe and likely doom the prospects for large-scale growth in nuclear power. This effect would be especially felt in China, which currently has the most ambitious plans for nuclear energy growth of any country on the planet. Hence, even if China is unlikely to be attacked with nuclear explosives, it is in its national interest to put strong security measures in place—keeping in mind that it is difficult to convince less-powerful developing countries to do the same unless leading nuclear states like the United States, Russia, and China are already taking action.

For China to improve its security systems, it will have to overcome the complacency that exists at all levels of the nuclear infrastructure. The regulators should call on operators to establish targeted programs to assess and improve the culture of security at their plants. Beijing should require regular training programs at nuclear facilities, not only to improve workers’ professional skills, but also to impress upon them that nuclear security is important and must be taken seriously. Staff members should not only scrupulously abide by the existing nuclear security regime, but also actively and continuously find further ways to improve it.

In short, everyone from senior experts and industry leaders to facility operators and plant employees must come to understand that the threat of nuclear terrorism is real, and to begin to change the way they think about it.  Advanced devices can provide effective security up to a point, but human choices are more important.

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