06/17/2011 03:41 pm ET Updated Aug 17, 2011

Make the Punishment Fit the Nuclear Crime

This month, the United States and partner countries tracked, harassed, and successfully deterred a North Korean ship from delivering suspected illicit missile technology to Myanmar. This coordinated effort demonstrates the international community's resolve to squeeze North Korea on its nuclear program, and prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and delivery systems. Equally as important as deterring the transfer of such lethal weapons between states is preventing nuclear material from falling into terrorist hands. This requires that potential smugglers are deterred, which requires criminal codes that take nuclear crimes seriously.

Not every country has legislation that covers all forms of nuclear crime, and some penalties are little more than a slap on the wrist. The lack of jail time sends a dangerous signal that aiding proliferation is not viewed as a serious crime.

Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan's extensive network of front companies and middlemen spanned the globe, from Malaysia, to the United Arab Emirates, and Switzerland, for example, and proliferated parts, materials, and know-how to Iran, North Korea, Libya, and possibly others. Few of those involved have suffered significant jail time or financial penalties.

A recent eastern European case further illustrates this point. In March 2010, two desperate men -- one a former businessman who had gambled away his wealth, and another a former physicist of ill health -- attempted to smuggle HEU into the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. They had hoped to sell eighteen grams of weapons-grade uranium for $50,000 per gram. While this quantity was far too small for a bomb, the promise of future deals was on the horizon. Their buyer was part of a sting operation, and they were arrested.

The smugglers' fruitless attempts to avoid detection have all the intrigue of a spy novel, but it is not the main story here: the smugglers' alleged supplier, Garik Dadayan, was a repeat offender. In 2003, Dadayan was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison when he was caught with 200 grams of HEU at the Armenian-Georgian border. His short prison stay of just a few months made a mockery of the system, and unsurprisingly, was not enough to deter his involvement in the 2010 job.

There is, however, some good news. The smugglers in the 2010 case received 13- and 14-year sentences, and Georgian officials are rightly proud of their successful sting operation. Their close work with the United States to counter nuclear smuggling is paying off. U.S.-Georgian cooperation is part of a broader U.S. effort in the region, where sources of weapon-grade material are most concentrated. Together, the United States and former Soviet states have made impressive advances in improving security over materials, and in strengthening other lines of defense such as border patrols. However, there is a long way to go in making smuggling more costly and, ultimately, less attractive.

Countries must increase the penalty for all forms of nuclear smuggling, including small quantities and scams. This is because trafficking in small amounts can be test runs for larger quantities, and scams bolster the impression that there is money to be made in the trafficking game. They also waste valuable government resources for combating real cases. Moreover, those involved in scams could one day graduate to trafficking in real material. Countries must increase penalties in a highly public manner, to affect smugglers' risk-reward gamble. The State Department's Nuclear Smuggling Outreach Initiative is working with individual countries to this end, but additional resources must be allocated as a matter of priority.

Furthermore, countries must impose universally harsh penalties. If they do not make penalties meaningful across the board, proliferators will exploit jurisdictional weakness as they seek out alternative routes, undermining the good work to date. While it is not appropriate to impose U.S. standard penalties in other jurisdictions, the international community should agree upon meaningful minimum standards and commit to enforcement, if it's to have any hope of curtailing nuclear crime.

Let's hope the recently jailed Armenians serve their full sentences, lest they perpetuate the impression that nuclear smuggling is not taken seriously. Surely nuclear smuggling deserves punishment befitting the gravity of the crime.