Speech

Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt gave a speech at the (GICNT) symposium on the detection of nuclear material.

Thank you Professor Clary for your kind introduction. And my thanks to the co-chairs of the Global Initiative and our partners in this event, notably Atomic Weapons Establishment, the Ministry of Defence and our colleagues from the Defence Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) in the United States.

I would first like to extend my appreciation to everyone here for taking the time from your busy schedules join us at Lancaster House to discuss one of the most important issues of our time: nuclear terrorism.

My portfolio as Minister in the Foreign Office covers 32 countries, ranging from the Middle East and North Africa to parts of South Asia. I have responsibility for our Counter-Proliferation, Counter-Terrorism and Counter-Piracy efforts. In the past year I have seen the continuous evolution of security challenges facing the UK; both conventional and non-conventional, domestic and international.

Regional conflict and instability have potential implications for wider peace and stability, which is why the UK’s National Security Strategy identified nuclear terrorism as a primary danger to Britain.

Nuclear terrorism is a real and global threat. A successful attack, no matter where in the world it came, would be catastrophic. Catastrophic for the immediate devastation and terrible loss of life, and for the far-reaching consequences - psychological, economic, political, and environmental.

Such an attack was unthinkable just a generation ago. But it is now a possibility we need to confront with the utmost vigilance.

Nuclear material is becoming more available - partly because more countries are deciding to adopt the benefits of nuclear energy. That is a sovereign right and a positive choice, and one which the UK will continue to support. We also recognise that some countries have chosen not to go down the path of nuclear energy. But this all means that we need together to ensure that, as nuclear materials and technology spread, we keep our people safe and secure.

And in today’s world of modern communication, information is spreading faster. Like nuclear energy, this brings huge benefits, but it also brings significant risks. There is more information about nuclear weapons on the internet than there ever has been.

As is the case in cyberspace, the danger is stateless in geographical space. It is impossible for any national government or police force, no matter how advanced, to contain on its own. Global smuggling networks are thriving. Criminal cells operate across borders and across continents.

So we are here today to renew our drive for the global response we need. We must prevent access to nuclear devices, materials and expertise by those who would seek to do us harm, while not impeding legitimate peaceful uses. Together we can agree and enforce the rules, secure the cooperation, and develop the capabilities and practices, to ensure that a nuclear terror attack never happens.

Our determination to tackle this issue head on is the reason why, at the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism Plenary in South Korea last year, we announced that we would host this symposium. It is a clear demonstration of the UK’s commitment to this most important of issues, and our commitment to implementing the founding principles of the Global Initiative.

Six years ago the UK joined the Global Initiative, along with 12 other countries. We were brought together through the strong leadership of the United States and Russia. Today the Global Initiative membership counts more than 85 nations and four official observers - all committed to strengthening the global capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to nuclear terrorism. Gathered at this symposium are some of the world’s leading experts on non-proliferation, counter proliferation and counterterrorism.
The more I have read about the fight against nuclear material trafficking, the more I have appreciated the real difficulties you are working to address. Detecting the radioactive signature of heavy elements in nuclear contraband is challenging, to say the least.

Your fight against nuclear terrorism has introduced me to a fascinating - and, I must admit, mysterious - world filled with Muons, Cosmic-rays, and Large Hadron Colliders.

The technology has come a long way. From its beginning in 1960s, when the Nobel prize winning physicist, Luis Alvarez, set up Muon detectors in a chamber beneath the second pyramid of Chephron in Egypt to look for hidden chambers. To the development of Drift Tubes at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and on to the creation of the gas electron multipliers. Now nuclear detection systems are being developed that only take up a cubic meter of space and can produce three-dimensional images. I do not pretend to understand fully the physics behind these technologies. And indeed, when a Muon was explained to me as a “heavy electron” I recall thinking that I did not find that description particularly illuminating!

But the serious point is that you here turn what sounds to the layperson like science fiction into tangible technologies that will help to prevent nuclear terrorism. Since the issue of illicit trafficking of nuclear material was first recognised the UK has been at the forefront of trying to combat this threat. And, of course, it was an issue very much at the forefront of our security preparations for our hosting of a successful London Olympics this summer. You will hear more about this, and about the UK’s border monitoring system, Cyclamen, later in this symposium.

Only six months ago I would not have been able to openly discuss Britain’s work on detection as I am doing with you now. But building on the UK’s commitment to openness in this area and the work that we first revealed at the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit in March, I am especially pleased that I can publicly commend and promote the UK’s Atomic Weapons Establishment, or AWE as they are known, for their work in this area. This is a rare opportunity to publically acknowledge that their work has been central to the defence of the United Kingdom for over 50 years.

For example, the creation of a broad programme that covers passive detection, active detection and Muon-based detectors is being led by AWE in partnership with the UK’s world-leading academics.

The programme is delivering a range of prototypes in each area that will allow us to advance our research on this challenging problem. A particular success is the production of a Muon-based detector using novel technologies, providing both a test bed for advanced detection methods and also arms control verification tools. Again, I know you will hear more on this later in the symposium.

In the nuclear forensics domain we have built on AWE’s excellent resources and created a dedicated world-class nuclear forensics analytical capability that will allow the UK to investigate criminal acts involving nuclear materials.

This includes the recently-opened Conventional Forensic Analysis Capability, which allows us, for the first time in Britain, to examine traditional forensic evidence, DNA, Fingerprints, and more, that is contaminated with Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive material.

Let me repeat again that it is a pleasure to be here today. I have learnt a lot in the short time I have had to discuss these fascinating issues.

Ultimately, we are here to help strengthen, widen and deepen the co-operation between our countries to stop nuclear material trafficking.

This symposium is an important contribution to this ambition. It is important not only for the security of our nations, but for the partnership that we are forging across the board to make the world a more prosperous, stable and secure place.