Uranium Seizure in Iraq Sheds New Light on Abysmal Nonproliferation Budget

Iraq’s ambassador to the U.N stated in a July 8 letter to U.N Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that roughly 88 pounds of uranium compounds had been seized by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) after the group took control of the city of Mosul. The nuclear material was being used for scientific research at a university in Mosul. Any loss or theft of enriched uranium, plutonium or other types of radioactive material is potentially alarming, as terrorist groups could try to use them to fashion a crude nuclear device or a “dirty bomb.” Fortunately, the IAEA reported last Thursday that the material in question was low grade (either natural or depleted uranium), and thus useless for terrorist groups seeking to make a nuclear bomb or a dirty bomb. Furthermore, it is not clear whether the incident demonstrates a genuine interest by ISIS in acquiring nuclear material for a bomb, or whether the group simply looted whatever happened to be present at the university. While many in the international community will be tempted to exhale a sigh of relief and focus their attention on the next crisis that will inevitably plague the region, the incident deserves attention because it sheds light on the larger and more important issue of nuclear security. As Matthew Bunn pointed out in an excellent piece in the National Interest last week, the Islamic State’s newly found control over huge swaths of strategic territory in Iraq and Syria has opened the floodgates for the creation of a safe haven for hostile groups and countries to train and plot attacks. He notes that for having a giant, lawless playground—as the situation in Iraq and Syria is certainly shaping up to be—makes a huge difference in terrorists’ ability to execute a really complicated plot, such as building a nuclear bomb. Such concerns do not exist in the realm of impossibility or fantasy. Al Qaeda’s interest in carrying out a nuclear or radiological attack on a Western target has been well documented. Al Qaeda operatives have made repeated attempts to buy nuclear material for a nuclear bomb, or to recruit nuclear expertise—including two extremist Pakistani nuclear weapons scientists who met with bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to discuss nuclear weapons. Today, ISIS or others who seek sanctuary in the group’s territory may well try and take advantage of the region’s chaos to go down a similar path. At a time like this, we should be grateful that the Obama administration’s stated policy is to keep wayward nuclear weapons and radioactive material out of the hands of terrorists, right? Well. Not really. Unfortunately, in its Fiscal Year 2015 budget request, the Administration shocked many by running completely contrary to its stated non-proliferation priorities. The White House made it overwhelmingly clear through its request that it would not accelerate the securing of nuclear and radiological materials around the globe despite the growing need to do so. Overall, the FY 2015 budget request cut $534 million in funding (relative to the enacted Fiscal Year 2014 funding level) for nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear terrorism prevention programs at the Department of Defense and the National Nuclear Security Administration. Some of the most critical and effective threat reduction and non-proliferation programs, such as the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) and the International Materials Protection and Cooperation (IMPC) program, were slashed nearly eighteen percent. This is the third year in a row the NNSA budget submission has put core nuclear and radiological material security programs on the chopping block. This year’s deep cuts to non-proliferation are particularly incomprehensible given President Obama’s statement a few months ago that “loose nukes” were the main thing keeping him up at night. So while the uranium seizure in Iraq last week was not a nuclear threat in and of itself, the incident once again underscores the need to make securing dangerous nuclear material around the globe—particularly in those areas of the world beset by instability and conflict—a top priority.