There has been general consensus among academicians that terrorists cannot be deterred. Terrorists with apocalyptic-mindsets believe that the world order is in disarray. Hence, they must bring it to an end by violence. Post 9/11, there has been a growing awareness among world leaders of the need to prevent, deter and deal with the threat of nuclear terrorism. Nuclear forensics is one such modality by which terrorists may possibly be deterred.
Nuclear terrorism occurring has very low probability but should it happen the consequences would be catastrophic. Post nuclear attack, however, there would be an urgent need to determine the origin of the nuclear device and who was responsible for carrying out the act. This is necessary not only for fixing the responsibility but also to assess the likelihood of a follow-up nuclear attack. But, obtaining actionable information could require months or more after an explosion. Michael May, Jay Davis and Raymond Jeanloz in their article, ‘Preparing for the Worst’ have called for establishing an international data bank of existing nuclear explosive materials to facilitate the process of attribution. An international database, effectively combined with international cooperation and transparency, can reduce delays and accelerate the attribution process.
Policy makers believe it is essential to develop a credible attribution strategy. Nuclear forensics can help them to develop essential inputs for tracing the sources of smuggled nuclear and radiological materials. The attribution assessment would be premised on the remnant debris of a nuclear attack. A nuclear explosion will leave behind crucial evidence like physical, chemical, isotopic and other data from the debris samples that scientists collect from or near the blast site. Scientists can calculate the age of the material from the remnants based on the half-life of the isotope and the ratio of the amount of the parent isotope to the amount of the radioactive decay samples. These isotopic signatures are as significant as fingerprints for the type and operating conditions of a particular reactor.
Nuclear forensics can increase the chances of failure for the terrorists wishing to carry out an act of nuclear terrorism. However, a terrorist group may not be deterred by the possibility of being discovered after an act of nuclear terrorism by nuclear forensics or attribution likelihood. They might claim responsibility for committing this act since it will mark their triumph in terms of strategic success and technological capability. For apocalyptic-minded terrorist organizations, it is failure, not discovery, which is the main deterrent. Nuclear forensics increases the chances of failure for terrorists by intercepting the fissile materials and tracing it to its original source and possibly to the group involved. That would close the source of fissile material supply, adversely affect its weapons capability and endanger the terrorist organization itself.
Nuclear forensics can also be useful in deterring the financiers and collaborators of terrorism who are significant for any terrorist organization. Timely interception of illicit nuclear materials or crucial information can effectively help in tracing the materials to the criminals involved. For this to succeed, a credible attribution modality needs to be strengthened with human intelligence, law enforcement investigations and effective interdiction methods being in place to detect specific terrorists and their objectives. It is also important to communicate the assessment to terrorists and their collaborators. They must be convinced that stringent action will be taken once they are detected. Mere house arrest or fine, as happened in Pakistan cannot be accepted any longer.
Nuclear forensics is also useful for reaching negative conclusions. Terrorists can acquire nuclear materials from a particular country and use it in another target area. Post atomic explosion investigations will detect the state where the nuclear materials originated as the culpable country leading to international condemnation and punishment. This possibility should encourage nuclear-capable states to improve the safety and security of their nuclear materials.
A successful nuclear forensics and attribution process has to be premised on a comprehensive nuclear database. But a major difficulty in developing this capability lies in the mindset of political leaders who believe that sharing nuclear secrets is tantamount to compromising their military secrets. Michael May and his colleagues have suggested that this can be dealt with by having a system of challenge inspections in place that can verify encoded or hashed data in the event of a post nuclear explosion investigation. This can also help exclude states from suspicion in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.
The threat of nuclear terrorism is a reality that cannot be ignored any longer. With increasing nuclear collaboration between China and Pakistan, it is important to have an effective nuclear forensics modality in place. It can prove to be a valuable tool for deterring terrorists.