Preventing nuclear terrorism: Australia's leadership role

Tanya Ogilvie-White, David Santoro

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

    Abstract

    No country can afford to be complacent about the risk of nuclear and radiological terrorism. Even countries with minimal or no nuclear infrastructure could fall victim to groups who succeed in procuring materials from poorly secured foreign facilities for use against prestige targets. Although they should be kept in perspective, Australia faces internal and external risks in this area. Its nuclear infrastructure is modest for a country of its size, but Australian nuclear facilities do exist and at least one domestic group has shown interest in targeting them. While the absence of a land border makes Australia less vulnerable to external threats, its busy ports and proximity to weakly governed spaces in Southeast Asia, where nuclear infrastructure is growing and security culture lagging, mean that the potential for external attacks also needs to be taken seriously. Moreover, a nuclear or radiological incident in Southeast Asia would not be without consequences for Australia. Because, so far, no successful nuclear or radiological terrorist attacks have been conducted anywhere in the world, the risks can appear abstract and overblown. They aren't. If terrorists were able to overcome the still relatively significant challenges involved in the fabrication and successful detonation of an improvised nuclear device, the consequences could be catastrophic. Of course, much more likely would be an attack involving a radiological dispersal device, which would be far less lethal, but would have important health effects and cause major social and economic dislocation. Australian nuclear experts are well aware that they can't guarantee that such attacks will never occur at home or abroad—the risks will exist as long as nuclear technologies remain a part of our lives. But they're also conscious of the steps they can take to make nuclear and radiological terrorism less likely. Over the years, they've honed their expertise and transformed Australia into a world leader in nuclear security practices, both in securing materials and facilities at home and in helping to build nuclear security capacity abroad. They've learned key lessons along the way, including how to successfully transfer critical skills to neighbouring states, how to help national and international organisations develop and improve nuclear security mechanisms and guidance, and how to build international consensus on the need to take nuclear terrorism risks seriously. These are vitally important activities with implications for Australia's national security, for that of its near neighbours, and for the rest of the world. Yet they're not valued as much as they should be in Australia's decision-making circles. A lack of publicity for Australia's nuclear and radiological security work means that most Australians, including many in the political and strategic realms, don't fully appreciate the nature of global nuclear and radiological threats or the extent to which Australia's expertise and outreach efforts are respected and relied upon around the world (as are Australia's efforts in nonproliferation and disarmament). This helps explain why one of Australia's flagship projects—the Regional Security of Radiological Sources Project—was recently cancelled. There's a disconnect between Australia's nuclear security champions, who operate in the official and non-government sphere, and Canberra's political elite. The new Abbott government should address this problem by launching a nuclear security strategy that would require a modest financial output (about $2 million per year) and yet reap significant national, regional and international rewards. The strategy should consist of three main initiatives: • Relaunch the Regional Security of Radiological Sources Project. This project was the most advanced of its kind and proved extremely successful in all respects, so much so that the US National Nuclear Security Administration and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) saw it as
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1-24
    JournalAustralian Strategic Policy Institute: Special Report
    Volume1
    Publication statusPublished - 2014

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