Vann Van Diepen
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
Remarks at the INCIPE Conference on Non-State Actors and Nuclear Proliferation
Madrid, Spain
November 19, 2010

(As delivered remarks)


Good morning. I’d like to open by giving a special thanks to INCIPE for organizing this conference, which addresses one of the most pressing security issues the world currently faces. It’s a pleasure to be invited to speak to you and to participate on this panel along with Miguel, Gonzalo, and Oleg.

As you know, our three nations currently lead the efforts of the 82 country Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. Russia and the United States serve as the Co-Chairs of this initiative, while Spain has stepped into the newly-created leadership role of Implementation and Assessment Group Coordinator. We could not have asked for a more committed and engaged partner to lead this important new arm of the Global Initiative. All of us in the GICNT applaud Spain for its sustained leadership in nonproliferation across a broad range of activities, and in nuclear security in particular.


The United States considers the use of a nuclear device by a non-state actor one of the most grave threats facing the world. The starting point of this threat is terrorism itself. Along with the well-recognized "globalization" of many human activities, the last two decades have shown a shift from concrete and geographically specific terrorist threats toward the growth of less centralized but highly motivated and highly capable terrorist networks operating in all regions of the world. Although most terrorist groups rely on traditional means, almost any of them would use weapons of mass destruction if they acquired them, and al-Qa’ida has clearly demonstrated interest in nuclear weapons. This "demand factor" is of greater concern in light of problematic nuclear activities in nations such as Iran and North Korea and known instances of nuclear smuggling, creating a potential point of intersection between proliferators of knowledge and materials, and those terrorist actors ready and willing to put them to use.

Finally, the threat is shaped by the nuclear technology itself. The most dangerous end of the spectrum, nuclear devices, requires a critical mass of fissionable material, a chokepoint that provides a critical handle to deal with the issue that does not exist in other areas of WMD terrorism. On the other hand, there are surprisingly large amounts of fissile material in many locations not all of which are under the best security, and the technical capability to employ such material in a device is now much more diffuse.

And these limits are even less present at the other end of the nuclear terrorism spectrum, radiological dispersal devices, RDDs or "dirty bombs". Unlike a nuclear device, RDD assembly requires much less expertise and no fissile nuclear material; a terrorist could package radiological material -- that is more widely available and mostly used in medical or construction applications -- with conventional explosives to scatter radiological debris over a wide area. While this certainly poses less of a hazard than a nuclear device, it would still require significant decontamination and cleanup activities, and would generate substantial panic and fear which is why RDDs are commonly referred to as "weapons of mass disruption".

It is impossible to know the likelihood of a terrorist nuclear event. There are simply too many factors at play, but I think what we can all agree on is that a) the risk is there; b) it affects all countries both directly and indirectly; and c) our focus and energy should be directed towards what we can do to thwart the ambitions of potential nuclear terrorists.


Which brings me to the reason that we’re all here today; what specific actions can the concerned international community, take to combat this threat? From our viewpoint, the answer lies in implementing President Obama’s vision for a world without nuclear weapons, including strong multilateral engagement and an extraordinary level of effort to address comprehensively the shared threat of nuclear terrorism.

To that end, the President announced a four-year effort to secure all vulnerable material worldwide, and hosted a Nuclear Security Summit in April 2010 with leaders from 47 nations as well as the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the European Union. All present endorsed a Summit Work Plan and Joint Communiqué, pledging to strengthen nuclear security and reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism.

And that’s where real gains will be made, through the forging of partnerships, because no one nation can adequately address the global threat posed by transnational terrorism. We must bolster existing institutions such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations, to ensure that these organizations continue to have the appropriate structure, resources, and expertise needed to carry out nuclear security-related activities.

And we also need to enhance the efforts of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism and the G-8-led Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction to share expertise and best practices so that all nations can build and enhance their organic capabilities to effectively prevent and respond to incidents of nuclear trafficking.


In conclusion, nuclear terrorism is a high-consequence global threat we are heartened to see that the international community has recognized and has begun seriously to grapple with. The outcomes of the Nuclear Security Summit and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference, as well as UN Security Council Resolution 1540 before that, show a real commitment. It’s now up to us to move down the path together – Spain, the U.S., Russia, and all responsible nations -- and use the tools at our disposal, tools like the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, to build and enhance our individual and collective capabilities to combat nuclear terrorism. And I look forward to the discussion of that topic in the next panel.

Thank you once again to INCIPE for bringing us together to discuss this important topic.