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Key actions to reduce nuclear security risk in the Black Sea region

Nuclear security in the Black Sea region: Contested spaces, national capacities and multinational potential
The Black Sea and surrounding landmass from above. Photo: Flickr / Stuart Rankin.

The most high-profile nuclear smuggling cases since the breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991 have occurred in the Black Sea region. With external assistance, a governance framework helped bring the large volume of nuclear and other radioactive materials, as well as radioactive sources and waste, under regulatory control. In light of recent developments in the region, issues of border management are at the forefront of international observation and concern.

Worry over nuclear smuggling is combined with the fear that nuclear and radioactive materials could be used in mass-impact terrorist attacks. In the past 10 years, the nuclear security agenda has expanded to take account of new risks such as the targeted use of poisonous materials in terrorist attacks and the vulnerability of critical facilities to cyberattacks.

The wider Black Sea region contains both a high degree of nuclear security risk and rich experience in efforts to cooperate on risk reduction. Given that some of the most significant known cases of illicit nuclear trafficking have taken place in the wider Black Sea region, it is important to understand whether recent events, including the conflict in and around Ukraine, have increased existing nuclear security risks or created new ones.

The new SIPRI Policy Paper Nuclear Security in the Black Sea Region: Contested Spaces, National Capacities and Multinational Potential suggests that most countries in the region have not significantly changed their assessment of national nuclear security risk. However, recent mass-impact terrorist attacks in Europe have created a heightened sense of awareness around the need to protect both critical infrastructure and the public against a range of nuclear-related threats.


Assessing the new nuclear security concerns in Ukraine

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, Ukraine has lost situational awareness regarding the location and movement of nuclear material and radioactive sources. The destruction of equipment and infrastructure during conflict has been one factor degrading the quality of nuclear security. The loss of facilities and personnel that played an important role in national nuclear security training and in equipment repair and maintenance have also contributed to the deterioration. As a result, specific and serious nuclear concerns regarding both land and sea domains are emerging in the region.

Russia and Ukraine have long been the two major nuclear security stakeholders in the wider Black Sea region. The breakdown in their cooperation has had a disturbing effect both locally and within wider regional frameworks for information sharing to reduce the risk of various forms of illicit trafficking, including nuclear. Ukraine has faced the challenge of reconstructing and adapting the legal and administrative elements of its nuclear security regime in emergency conditions. Moreover, the process of adaptation has taken place as responsible authorities have lost or been denied access to state territory, including long stretches of the border. The relationship between the two states remains tense, and additional crises—not excluding further escalation in conflict—means that there could be additional threats to national and regional nuclear security regimes.

The contested space that has opened in eastern Ukraine is not unique in the region; there are other examples. While existing knowledge on how to identify and mitigate nuclear and radiological security risks in contested spaces is an issue that needs further investigation, isolated success stories—such as Moldova’s experience in removing radioactive sources from Transnistria—already exist. Without minimizing the obstacles ahead, specific nuclear-related successes can be building blocks for a broader cooperation to promote effective nuclear security in the region.


Organizing for success: Key actions to reduce nuclear security risk

Despite conflict and ongoing tension within the wider Black Sea region, avoiding nuclear security risk is a shared interest among states. International organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) can provide frameworks that can help translate shared interests into practical measures that would be of mutual benefit, including regaining regulatory control over radioactive sources in contested spaces. Closer involvement of the IAEA and the OSCE, perhaps in a joint initiative, would be a useful framework for a range of collaborative efforts. A systematic investigation of options to improve radiation protection and reduce nuclear security threats in contested spaces in the Black Sea region is needed.

The systematic organization of existing knowledge in the region could promote a sustainable regional nuclear security regime based on local resources. Mutual assistance among stakeholders within the region could be used to repair and maintain equipment, train personnel and organize exercises in ways that are tailored to local conditions. All states could develop a register based on functions and responsibilities, rather than institutional affiliation or job titles, to clearly specify who is responsible for what within the nuclear security regime. This catalogue would help to maintain awareness, minimize functional overlaps, and facilitate mutual assistance and cooperation even after frequent events of governmental restructuring.

Furthermore, all nuclear security assistance should be analysed to identify good practices and to assess impact, including a greater focus on how to make best use of the human capital created through assistance and cooperation. Tracking the future progress of trained personnel and the ways in which assistance proved useful in their career development would help consolidate and sustain the expert community.

It is encouraging that almost all of the countries in the wider Black Sea region have made significant progress in developing national-level planning documents defining how they would respond to nuclear security incidents. However, these plans still need to be tested and further upgraded through a systematic programme of national and, wherever possible, international exercises to ensure that they would function as expected when faced with a real contingency. The plans have been developed on a national basis, guided by key international institutions and important partnerships with countries outside the region. However, there has been relatively little discussion of their content among the states within the region.

Where viable, countries should work to develop national, bilateral or regional capabilities to follow up where a nuclear security breach is detected. Beyond simply responding to an illicit trafficking event, the supply chain should be investigated to fully understand what has happened and identify as many of the actors engaged—knowingly or unknowingly—as possible. This practice is necessary to help prevent future nuclear security incidents.

As nuclear security response planning matures, the next logical step would be to consider a regional dialogue to see how far national response plans could be harmonized, particularly between neighbouring countries.


Dr Ian Anthony was the Director of SIPRI’s European Security Programme.