Episode 74. The Black Market for Nuclear Weapons
The collapse of the USSR brought about a period within Russia of unbridled chaos, devolving into a free-for-all amongst citizens unsure where their next meal might be coming from. Everything that could have been stolen, was stolen, and included in that were up to 400 nuclear weapons. But where did all of these weapons end up, and how secure is the rest of Russia's apocalyptic arsenal today? Will the nuclear black market be responsible for the next major terrorist attack?
Part 1: A Suitcase Full of Terror (3:56)
Robin M Frost begins our conversation with a look at the chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which included nuclear sites in former Soviet states that were widely secret from the public until the end of the Cold War.
We discuss the realistic concerns about the security of these former sites, which independent investigations have proven to be extremely lax in security and operational protocols, and how much of a risk they pose for the nuclear black market.
What has stopped non-state actors who would want to use a nuclear weapon in an attack? Frost identifies a number of factors, including the difficulty of obtaining and fashioning enriched uranium into a suitable configuration for a weapon, the difficulty of constructing the triggers necessary to detonate, and the sophisticated knowledge required to build such a weapon.
The threat of “salting” a regular explosive device with spent radioactive materials, a radiological weapon, is a much more realistic threat according to Frost and could be created using much more readily available materials kept under significantly less security across the globe.
Interestingly, the IAEA notes that organised crime in the former Soviet Union has avoided dealing in nuclear materials, with Frost speculating both fear of handling the materials, the attention that would be brought upon their
Part 2: Recorking the Champagne (27:12)
Eric Gomez asserts that nuclear safety protocols are stronger than the public consensus seems to believe, backed up through the lack of accidental denotation of nuclear weapons.
Gomez notes the abundance of “tactical nukes” in the former Soviet Union, often forward-deployed with military units, which are small in payload but highly portable and typically featuring less safety protocols (i.e. codes for activation), poses the greatest threat to international safety today. However, many of the components in those weapons have degraded, leading to a questionable potency for those weapons in the current age.
We unpack how the United States security guarantee has served as a deterrent for other countries to develop their own nuclear weapons, but also note the scale of infrastructure (allowing for easy detection) and difficulty to build nuclear weapons is a major factor in preventing the spread of nuclear nations.
Part 3: A Fortified Castle… with a Broken Screen Door (46:02)
Foeke Postma posits that security of facilities and weapons are as strong as the people that guard it, noting the abundance of data in the modern world create highly traceable individuals and reveal the location of sites, transit routes, and other highly sensitive information that can be obtained on the black market.
Postma talks about how social media accounts and fitness devices are regularly used by Open Source Intelligence operatives and journalists to uncover such sensitive information, walking us through his work uncovering how US military personnel inadvertently revealed a multitude of sensitive security protocols about US nuclear weapons and the bases at which they are stored.
Postma notes that governments and potentially non-state actors are no doubt utilising these OS opportunities to map military and intelligence networks, including current members of Russia’s GRU military intelligence service.
Part 4: Dumb Luck (1:08:27)
Andrew Futter notes that while there’s been a combination of luck and success with the security of nuclear weapons facilities, it’s not easy to assess what has been effective so far and what will need to change to continue success in the evolving security environment.
Futter notes the success of the AQ Khan proliferation network allowed for the flow of information about how to achieve a nuclear weapon program to several states with nuclear ambitions, but also demonstrates the scale of work that would be required to successfully launch such a program.
The fear of culpability is likely a major deterrent against states aiding non-state actors in the creation or use of a nuclear weapon, but Futter unpacks the possibility of a state being framed in a false flag attack, through the use of material or markers linked to that state in order to exacerbate tensions or trigger conflict.
We unpack nuclear deterrence theory and how in practice that would work in the modern day, noting that a significant amount of weaponisation would be required to be effective, as well as a certain level of overt testing and demonstration. We also talk about delivery methods and why missiles remain both preferred from a command and control perspective.
Robin M Frost
Professor at Simon Fraser University.
His research focus specialises in nuclear weapons and national defence, authoring several published works about the threat of the use of nuclear weapons by non-state actors, particularly within the post-Soviet period.
He has previously served as an intelligence analyst for the Privy Council and Department of Defence for Canada.
Director of Defence Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.
His research focuses on the U.S. military budget and force posture, as well as arms control and nuclear stability issues in East Asia.
Gomez is the coeditor, with Caroline Dorminey, of America’s Nuclear Crossroads: A Forward‐Looking Anthology.
Author, Researcher and Trainer at the award-winning investigative journalism outfit bellingcat
He has a background in conflict analysis and resolution, and is particularly interested in military and security issues.
His work can be read here.
Professor of International Politics at the University of Leicester
Professor Andrew Futter specialises in contemporary nuclear weapons issues, specifically emerging technologies and their impact on nuclear strategy, stability and arms control.
He has published extensively on this subject, including The Politics of Nuclear Weapons (2020)
The Red Line's Broken Arrows Reading List:
We’ve compiled a list of further reading to better understand the geopolitics of the nuclear black market.
The Politics of Nuclear Weapons
America’s Nuclear Crossroads: A Forward-Looking Anthology
Preventing Black Market Trade of Nuclear Technology
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This episode is dedicated to Patreon member Michael Ozdolay.