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Preventing Nuclear Smuggling

In the post-Cold War era, the global black market for nuclear technology has proliferated at alarming rates, and the international community is taking action. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there were more than one thousand confirmed cases of illicit nuclear trafficking or incidents of such materials outside legitimate control between 1993 and 2006.
Armenia has become the latest country to help fight nuclear proliferation. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian finalized an anti-nuclear smuggling agreement in Washington on July 14. The plan — outlined in twenty-eight steps — presents a detailed approach for the Armenian government to prevent, detect and respond to the illegal trading of nuclear materials. Ten of the twenty-eight steps involve ongoing efforts that need completion, while the remaining eighteen represent new initiatives.

This marks the fifth joint action plan carried out by the Nuclear Smuggling Outreach Initiative, the NSOI. The NSOI is a U.S. program that assists countries with a high smuggling threat to counter underground nuclear trafficking. It has previously partnered with Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Georgia, and the Kyrgyz Republic. And it seeks to conduct similar bilateral agreements with twenty additional at-risk countries. More information on the NSOI is available at

Detecting the smuggling of nuclear materials is a complicated task. According to a 2002 study by Harvard University, for example, about four kilograms of plutonium – roughly the size of a soda can – can potentially be enough material for a bomb. With millions of trucks, trains, ships, and planes crossing international borders daily, discovering pirated nuclear materials requires extensive and cooperative efforts. Due to the vast scope of nuclear proliferation, the NSOI is just one of many programs launched by the U.S. and other countries to combat the problem.

In 2003, authorities in Georgia -- Armenia’s neighbor to the north -- arrested an individual attempting to smuggle six ounces of highly enriched uranium into Armenia. The new anti-nuclear smuggling agreement will help the U.S. and Armenia prevent nuclear materials from falling in the hands of those who would use them for harm.