Preventing Nuclear Smuggling in the Land of Genghis Khan

By Scott Roecker

April 17, 2023

IMAGE: Mongolia border crossing. Photo by aocole on Flickr, used under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Countering nuclear smuggling is a multifaceted challenge that requires a wide range of tools to effectively combat threats. Since 1993, there have been dozens of reports of nuclear materials—the kind you can use in a nuclear weapon—being diverted from nuclear facilities. This loose nuclear material is somewhere, and we need many tools—including law enforcement, intelligence entities, and equipment—to be able to find and interdict that material. Those best at tracking down material possess a combination of understanding smuggling routes and technical savvy.

My involvement in countering nuclear smuggling began when I started working in the US Department of Energy’s Second Line of Defense program in 2008. It was a well-intentioned but perhaps poorly named program designed to provide key partner countries with the technical capacity to identify and take possession of lost nuclear materials. In the US nomenclature, the “first line of defense” is at a nuclear facility, and the “second line of defense” is at the US border. Our partners around the world imagined that the first line of defense was the US border and that they were our second line of defense. The program has since changed its name to Nuclear Smuggling Detection and Deterrence in response to this criticism.

I was the program manager for a group of countries in Central and South Asia, including Mongolia. Mongolia is surrounded by countries with significant quantities of nuclear materials and with long borders of all types of terrain, including mountains, deserts, and grassy plains. It is also one of the most remote countries in the world, with little infrastructure outside the capital of Ulaanbaatar. Five border crossing sites were identified in 2006 for our initial cooperation, centering on the main artery through the middle of the country—the famed Trans-Mongolian Railway that links Moscow with Beijing. This included providing equipment and training to the border sites, including stationary radiation portal monitors and handheld devices.

When I began leading our cooperation with Mongolia, it was my task to determine whether additional work should be conducted at other entry points around the country. In the south is the Gobi Desert, with hundreds of large trucks crossing the border in support of China’s search for resources from various mines in Mongolia. In the west are the breathtakingly beautiful Altai Mountains, shared by China, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia. In the north, there is a series of lakes and cross-community engagement among small ethnic groups, including the Tuvan throat singers, on either side of the border. Finally, in the east are grasslands that support a wide range of animals, including the graceful and speedy gazelle.

Our initial survey included sites to the north and west of the Trans-Mongolian Railway. It would take us more than three weeks to drive across the beautiful landscape dotted by sheep and goats around every turn. Our caravan of three Toyota 4Runners would depart early each morning and travel for 10-plus hours along the maze of dirt roads that make travel possible across the vast steppe of Mongolia. There are no road signs along these long dirt highways, so we relied on a compass and discussions with nomads feeding their flocks to successfully navigate across the country.

One of the more memorable stops occurred a little over a week into the trip. We were met by the local head of the Mongolian Nuclear Energy Agency on the border of the small aimag (province) of Uvs, named for the shallow and salty lake that is a resting stop for thousands of migrating birds. The first order of business was for all of us to take a swim in a small nearby lake to cool off from the hot summer’s day. But the real purpose of this activity was to begin to build a relationship between the two governments. We swam around this lake while horses drank water from its shores. Our host brought us something to drink to help build the personal connections between the teams: we took turns taking sips of vodka from a coffee cup that floated in the lake, each of us making a toast to our new friendship.

He joined us as we did surveys at each of the international border crossings to Russia. Along the long border with Russia are some crossings that are open to anyone and some that are only open to Russian or Mongolian citizens, often open only for a few hours each day. These remote outposts were rarely visited by Western officials, and it was our task to do a scoping survey of the border crossing, including background radiation measurements, in order to have the necessary information to install radiation-detection equipment at the sites deemed appropriate.

We considered many factors when evaluating which sites were the best suited for cooperation, but there were three primary considerations. First, there needed to be infrastructure ready to support the technology required to detect nuclear material passing through the border. Consistent power supply was always a concern, so in certain instances, we were able to utilize solar panels to ensure continued operation of the equipment. Second, we took into account the amount of traffic that passed through in any given day. We know from instances of smuggling drugs and other contraband that smugglers prefer to blend into the normal flow of traffic. Third, the personnel at the site needed to be able to access the training required to operate the equipment. Based on these factors, most sites in Mongolia were not suitable for deployments.

As our journey across the country came to a close, we ended in the city of Khovd. There, our Mongolian colleagues did the traditional slaughtering of a sheep in honor of our cooperation. They also invited us to play a game of Mongolian volleyball, which is quite different than what you see on beaches in the United States. Instead, everyone stands in a circle and hits the ball around until someone misses it. When that happens, you have to crouch in the center of the circle, and people take turns spiking the ball on you, and the only way out is to catch one of these spikes. Needless to say, I only participated in one round of this sport!

The US team departed Khovd by air. We had visited the airport earlier in the tour as one potential site for providing radiation-detection equipment. It was ultimately not chosen because of the infrequency of international flights (which were limited to several each year to the Middle East to deliver planeloads full of goats and sheep). The scene at the airport was unlike anything I had ever seen. Multiple grandparents were handing children to random strangers boarding the plane to Ulaanbaatar with promises that their parents would be waiting on the other side for the child. There was also a solar eclipse that occurred in that region, which brought in a herd of western tourists. The small plane struggled to gain altitude with the elaborate camping supplies of Westerners and small Mongolian kiddos on the laps of strangers. We barely cleared the small fence around the airport and safely made it back to Ulaanbaatar.

In summer 2009, we did another three-week journey to the east and south, repeating the work we did the year before. Cultural events ranged from a hike up “Man Mountain” in the far east to watching tarantulas battle to the death as a prelude to dinner in the Gobi. Across these two journeys, the team was able to survey the most promising border sites for the installation of the equipment. Shortly after that trip, I was offered a new position in a different office, so, unfortunately, I did not get to see the completion of the installation of the equipment at the border sites that were chosen to partner with. But I left this experience with a new appreciation for the generous nature of our Mongolian partners and their commitment to helping prevent nuclear materials from being smuggled across their vast and beautiful territory.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Stanley Center for Peace and Security or any other agency, institution, or partner.



Scott Roecker
Vice President of Nuclear Materials Security, Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI)

Scott Roecker is the vice president of Nuclear Materials Security at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). Before joining NTI, Roecker worked in the US government for more than 15 years at the National Security Council and National Nuclear Security Administration.

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