Humanity likes to play with fire, and that is one of the reasons why nuclear weapons are stored in the arsenals of the official and unofficial nuclear powers, which could destroy the planet several times over. Just one of them in the hands of unscrupulous terrorists, the consequences would be unimaginable. An international collection of samples should reveal the origin of the explosive device, at least in retrospect. Since the nuclear bomb test in North Korea (which has since been definitively verified by radioactive trace elements in the air), fear of the use of nuclear weapons has increased again. However, the danger does not only emanate from unpredictable states such as North Korea or Iran – provided that one day they actually make the step from enrichment to the finished warhead.
In fact, security experts and politicians fear the uncontrolled transfer of fissile material or functional bombs to terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda. Be it out of ideological affinity, as in the case of the Pakistani nuclear researcher Abdul Qadeer Khan, who wanted to fuel the dream of the Islamic bomb and at least passed on the necessary technology to third countries, or be it through theft from a poorly secured depot in Russia or Pakistan: nuclear bombs in in the hands of terrorists or even a corresponding attack would plunge the world into chaos.
Raymond Jeanloz from the University of California at Berkeley and his colleagues Jay Davis and Michael May are therefore calling for the establishment of an official and, above all, comprehensive database of nuclear fissile material - a kind of library of the nuclear weapons industry. If the worst comes to the worst, it could then be used to look up the sources from which the bomb could have come, in order to at least prevent possible second attacks. Such collections already exist today, for example at the Institute for Transuranium Elements (ITU) in Karlsruhe or at the International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA in Vienna, but they are poorly equipped and by no means quick to react.
The required transparent and, above all, internationally recognized database - for example under the care of the IAEA or the United Nations - should not have such a lack. A depot would be desirable in which the chemical and physical characteristics of plutonium and highly enriched uranium samples as well as weapons-grade material produced from them would be stored. In addition, it should have the technical requirements to handle, analyze, compare and finally assign incoming samples in the shortest possible time. Internationally recognized techniques are already being developed and used by the scientists at the ITU as part of a working group dealing with the prevention of smuggling of fissile material.
However, the structure of the physical sample documentation is likely to be more difficult. It can be assumed that many states initially refuse to take this step because they do not want to disclose military or economic secrets - for example in the form of patented special procedures. However, the more nations deliver, the greater the pressure on the remaining secretive will increase, according to the calculations of the three researchers. In view of the current political calamities with Iran and North Korea, however, it seems doubtful whether the feared loss of reputation alone will be enough to convince pariah states.
Jeanloz and his comrades-in-arms therefore propose far-reaching control options on the spot, as are already possible today with various disarmament agreements. The - unannounced - inspection of weapons factories, for example, provides for the International Chemical Weapons Convention and is also part of the most recent IAEA protocol for the inspection of nuclear facilities, which not all signatories have agreed to. Pressure to cooperate could continue to be exerted through export licenses for nuclear technologies: States that are open to the database could therefore refuse to supply the relevant goods if the recipients do not provide test samples to the collection in return.
So many hurdles are piling up, but the effort to create an international database is definitely worth it, according to the authors of the appeal. If one day the traces of so-called dirty bombs - conventional explosive devices laced with radioactive material - or real nuclear weapons could be traced back to their place of origin, this alone could prevent governments from wanting to pass them on to terrorist groups and even prevent them: if these states ought to do one fear a devastating counterattack. Even the danger of theft could perhaps be reduced in this way: After all, no state wants to admit the vulnerability that nuclear bombs have been stolen from its own stocks.