ALL LOOSE NUKES ARTICLES:
Graham Allison, via Economist.com.
COULD WORSE BE YET TO COME?
Whether or not Osama bin Laden has acquired nuclear weapons, Graham Allison argues that the world must respond as though he has--and without delay
AL-QAEDA'S terrorist assault on September 11th awakened Americans to the stark
reality of mega-terrorism: terrorist acts that kill thousands of people at a
single stroke. In the twinkling of an eye, possibilities earlier dismissed as
analysts' (or Hollywood's) fantasies became brute fact. President George Bush
rightly and resolutely declared war on Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and their
Yet as the American government scrambles to pursue a war for which it had not
prepared, it must, in the idiom, "go with what we've got". Assembling an
international coalition of very strange bedfellows, acquiring intelligence from
sources and by methods it had mostly neglected, and jerry-rigging defences
against the most obvious vulnerabilities, it gallops off in all directions. It
does so without a comprehensive assessment of the threats it now faces, and
lacking a coherent strategy for combating mega-terrorism.
In contrast, Mr bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network have been thinking, planning
and training for this war for most of a decade. September 11th demonstrated a
level of imagination, sophistication and audacity previously thought impossible
by the American, or any other, government. As the press has reported, just a
year ago the FBI had assured the administration that it had a "handle" on all
al-Qaeda operatives within the United States.
Even in the midst of the exhausting exigencies of the current crisis,
responsible leaders must acknowledge the possibility that much more
catastrophic terrorist acts may be yet to come. Along the spectrum of
mega-terrorism, the worst case would be a nuclear explosion in a large city.
Had al-Qaeda attacked the World Trade Centre not with a minivan filled with
explosives, as in 1993, nor with jumbo jets, but with a vehicle containing a
nuclear device, what would the consequences have been? Even a crude nuclear
device could create an explosive force of 10,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT,
demolishing an area of about three square miles. Not only the World Trade
Centre, but all of Wall Street and the financial district, and the lower tip of
Manhattan up to Gramercy Park would have disappeared. Hundreds of thousands of
people would have died suddenly.
In a 1995 WASHINGTON POST op-ed, I warned: "In the absence of a determined
programme of action, we have every reason to anticipate acts of nuclear
terrorism before this decade is out." I find no reason to revise this estimate
today. The question is whether the horror of September 11th can now motivate
the United States and other governments to act urgently not only against
al-Qaeda, but also on the well-identified agenda for action to minimise the
risk of nuclear mega-terrorism.
HOW REAL IS THE THREAT?
As the Bush administration took office in January, a bipartisan task-force,
chaired by the former Senate majority leader, Howard Baker (now ambassador to
Japan), and Lloyd Cutler, a former counsel to the president, presented a - - -
- - report card
on non-proliferation programmes with Russia. The principal finding of the
task-force is that "the MOST URGENT UNMET NATIONAL SECURITY THREAT to the
United States today is the danger that weapons of mass destruction or
weapons-useable material in Russia could be stolen, sold to terrorists or
hostile nation states, and used against American troops abroad or citizens at
home." (Emphasis added).
Think about it. Is this proposition correct, or incorrect? No serious analyst
has spent more than a day examining the evidence without concluding that "loose
nukes" are a first-order threat. Although some would argue that bioterrorism is
an equal or greater danger, both count as threats of the highest order. As Mr
Baker testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March, "It really
boggles my mind that there could be 40,000 nuclear weapons, or maybe 80,000, in
the former Soviet Union, poorly controlled and poorly stored, and that the
world isn't in a near state of hysteria about the danger."
Attempts to steal nuclear weapons or weapons-usable material are a recurring
The danger can be summarised in three propositions. First, attempts to steal
nuclear weapons or weapons-usable material are not hypothetical, but a
recurring fact. Just last week, the chief of the directorate of the Russian
Defence Ministry responsible for nuclear weapons reported two recent incidents
in which terrorist groups attempted to break into Russian nuclear-storage
sites, but were repulsed. The past decade has seen scores of incidents in which
individuals and groups have successfully stolen weapons material from sites in
Russia and sought to export it--but have been caught.
A few years ago Boris Yeltsin's assistant for national security affairs,
Alexander Lebed, reported that 40 out of 100 special KGB suitcase nuclear
weapons were not accounted for in Russia. Under pressure from colleagues, he
later retreated to the official Russian line that all nuclear weapons are
secure and accounted for, but his twists and turns left more questions than
answers. In the mid-1990s, more than 1,000 pounds of highly enriched
uranium--material sufficient to allow terrorists to build more than 20 nuclear
weapons--sat unprotected in Kazakhstan. Recognising the danger, the American
government purchased the material and removed it to Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Second, if al-Qaeda or some similar group obtained 40 pounds of highly enriched
uranium, or less than half that weight in plutonium, with material otherwise
available off-the-shelf, it could produce a nuclear device in less than a year.
The only high hurdle to creating a nuclear device is fissionable material--an
ingredient that is fortunately difficult and expensive to manufacture. But as a
former director of the Livermore Laboratories wrote a quarter of a century ago,
"If the essential nuclear materials like these are in hand, it is possible to
make an atomic bomb using the information that is available in the open
literature." An even easier alternative is a radioactivity-dispersal device
which wraps a conventional bomb with radioactive materials that disperse as
fallout when the bomb explodes.
"If you can smuggle heroin in containers, you may be able to smuggle in a
Third, terrorists would not find it difficult to sneak such a nuclear device
into the United States. Recall that the nuclear material required is smaller
than a football. Even an assembled device, like a suitcase nuclear weapon,
could be shipped in a container, in the hull of a ship, or in a trunk carried
by an aircraft. After September 11th, the number of containers that are X-rayed
has increased to approximately 10%: 500 of the 5,000 containers currently
arriving daily at the port of New York/New Jersey. But as the chief executive
of CSX Lines, one of the foremost container-shipping companies, put it: "If you
can smuggle heroin in containers, you may be able to smuggle in a nuclear bomb."
This threat has emerged because, after the cold war, the Soviet Union's nuclear
arsenal and stockpile were no longer held behind prison walls. Post-Soviet
societies have experienced a remarkable transformation over the past decade,
becoming simultaneously more free, more chaotic and frequently more
criminalised. The same dynamic that liberated individuals also undermined
systems that previously controlled some 30,000 nuclear weapons and 70,000
nuclear-weapon equivalents in highly-enriched uranium and plutonium at more
than 100 sites across Russia.
Thanks to extraordinary professionalism on the part of Russian military and
security guards, many attempts to steal weapons have been thwarted. The
security forces have been greatly helped by far-sighted co-operative
threat-reduction programmes, set up at the initiative of Senators Sam Nunn and
Richard Lugar, which have contributed almost $1 billion a year. The American
government knows of no case at present in which those who wish to make nuclear
weapons have acquired either the weapon, or sufficient nuclear materials to
make one. What must worry us, however, is what we don't know.
If Mr bin Laden and other terrorist groups have not so far succeeded in
acquiring nuclear weapons, or materials from which to assemble them, we should
give thanks for our great good fortune. If they have acquired them, most people
will quickly conclude that, under existing conditions, this was bound to
HOW SERIOUS IS THE ENEMY?
Andrew Marshall, one of the few long-term strategists at the Department of
Defence, has often warned that "If the United States ever faces a serious
enemy, we will be in deep trouble." Al-Qaeda could be that serious enemy.
There can be little doubt that Mr bin Laden and his associates want to acquire
nuclear weapons, have been seeking nuclear weapons, and would carry out a
nuclear assault were they capable of doing so. Last year the CIA intercepted a
message in which a member of the al-Qaeda group boasted of plans for a
"Hiroshima" against America. According to the Justice Department indictment for
the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, "At various
times from at least as early as 1992, Osama bin Laden and others, known and
unknown, made efforts to obtain the components of nuclear weapons." Additional
evidence from a former member of al-Qaeda describes attempts to buy uranium of
South African origin, repeated travels to three Central Asian states to try to
buy a complete warhead or weapons-useable material, and discussions with
Chechens in which money and drugs were offered for nuclear weapons.
Mr bin Laden has declared that acquiring nuclear weapons is a "religious duty"
Mr bin Laden himself has declared that acquiring nuclear weapons is a
"religious duty". "If I have indeed acquired [nuclear] weapons," he once said,
"then I thank God for enabling me to do so." When forging an alliance of
terrorist organisations in 1998, he issued a statement entitled "The Nuclear
Bomb of Islam". Characterised by a distinguished Islamic scholar, Bernard Lewis
of Princeton, as "a magnificent piece of eloquent, at times even poetic Arabic
prose," it states that "it is the duty of Muslims to prepare as much force as
possible to terrorise the enemies of God."
His FATWA, videotapes and interviews offer chilling clues to Mr bin Laden's
thinking. In a 1997 CNN interview he observed that "the myth of the superpower
was destroyed not only in my mind, but also in the minds of all Muslims," when
the mujahideen defeated the Russians in Afghanistan. In his view, "the Russian
soldier is more courageous and patient than the US soldier," and the United
States--as seen in its withdrawal from Lebanon in 1983 after the deaths of 241
marines, and its precipitous retreat from Somalia in 1993 after 18
special-forces soldiers died--is cowardly about suffering casualties. The
attack on the USS COLE in October 2000 is a powerful symbol for him: "The
destroyer entertained the illusion she could destroy anything," but found
herself immobilised by a tiny boat. In his world, "The destroyer represented
the capital of the West, and the small boat represented Mohammed."
Mr bin Laden cannot doubt that he is now at war. After the 1998 bombings of
America's embassies in Africa, according to press reports, a secret
presidential finding authorised the CIA to seek him out and kill him under the
doctrine of self-defence. The United States launched surprise cruise-missile
attacks on an al-Qaeda training camp in August 1998, but Mr bin Laden had left
several hours earlier.WHAT WILL AL-QAEDA DO NOW?
Mr Bush has declared that the United States wants Mr bin Laden "dead or alive".
As the noose tightens around his neck, al-Qaeda's efforts to terrorise America
are likely to intensify. Al-Qaeda can be expected to do everything it can to
acquire and use every mega-terrorist means within its reach.
When asked by an interviewer why his earlier claims that the battle "will
inevitably move to American soil" had produced so little action, Mr bin Laden
replied: "The nature of the battle requires good preparation." September 11th
signals not only preparation but also a campaign that puts a premium on
surprise and seeks maximum terror through dramatic effect. As al-Qaeda
concludes that the American-led international coalition may succeed in
destroying it, it will become more desperate in seeking to acquire and use all
possible weapons of mass-destruction against its adversaries.
WHAT MUST AMERICA
Preventing nuclear terrorist attacks on the American homeland will require a
serious, comprehensive defence--not for months or years, but far into the
future. The response must stretch from aggressive prevention and pre-emption to
deterrence and active defences. Strict border controls to keep out smuggled
containers will be as important to America as ballistic-missile defences.
To fight the immediate threat, the United States must move smartly on two
fronts. First, no effort can be spared in the military, economic and diplomatic
campaign to defeat and destroy al-Qaeda. Simultaneously, the unprecedented
international effort of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies must seek to
discover and disrupt al-Qaeda sleeper cells and interrupt attempted shipments
Second, the United States must seize the opportunity of a more co-operative
Russia to "go to the source" of the greatest danger today: the 99% or more of
the world's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction that
are stored in Russia and the United States. The surest way to prevent nuclear
assaults on Russia, America and the world is to prevent terrorists from gaining
control of these weapons or materials to make them.
The readiest sources of such weapons and materials are the vast arsenals
accumulated over four decades of cold-war competition. At the November summit
at Crawford, as a central pillar of what Colin Powell, the secretary of state,
has called the new "post-post-cold war" partnership, Mr Bush and Vladimir Putin
should pledge to make all nuclear weapons and material as secure as technically
possible as fast as possible. Their best course would be to follow the
recommendations of the Baker-Cutler task-force (see above). Within Russia, the
programme should be jointly financed by the United States, its allies in the
war against terrorism, and Russia.
In the fog and heat of a frustrating war against an elusive terrorist enemy, to
call upon leaders to act to prevent attacks of a kind that have not yet
occurred may seem over-demanding. But if we fail to act on this agenda now, how
shall we explain ourselves on the morning after a nuclear September 11th?
GRAHAM ALLISON is director of the Belfer Centre for Science and International
Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School and author of "Avoiding Nuclear Anarchy"
(MIT Press, 1996). He served as assistant secretary of defence in the first
See related content at http://www.economist.com/world/na/displayStory.cfm?Story_ID=842483
New York Times
Lax Nuclear Security in Russia Is Cited as Way for bin Laden to Get Arms
November 12, 2001
By STEVEN ERLANGER
VIENNA, Nov. 10 - In the last year, there have been dozens
of violations of nuclear security rules in Russia and at
least one loss of fissile material; Taliban emissaries have
tried to recruit Russian scientists, and terrorists have
tried to stake out a Russian nuclear storage site at least
twice, say senior officials of the International Atomic
Energy Agency and Western governments.
The officials detailed the incidents, citing conversations
with Russian officials and verified news reports. Despite
significant improvements in Russian nuclear security in the
1990's - some of it with American money and advice - up to
half of ex-Soviet civilian and military nuclear stockpiles
with weapons-grade material are not well protected.
Officials of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy
Agency, the United Nations body for monitoring nuclear
programs, are deeply skeptical of Osama bin Laden's claim,
in an interview published in Pakistan on Friday, that he
possesses nuclear weapons.
On the other hand, given the vulnerability of material in
the former Soviet Union, the increasing professionalism of
nuclear smuggling and the relative ease of fabricating a
primitive weapon, they cannot rule it out.
In the Kazakh port of Aktau on the Caspian shore, one ton
of plutonium and two tons of highly enriched uranium sit
near a now closed breeder reactor.
Ukraine, with 17 nuclear reactors and one research reactor,
is considered a country of "serious concern" by officials
because of its climate of government corruption and crime.
Enough highly enriched uranium to make a bomb remains at a
research reactor just outside Belgrade throughout the 1999
Just last week, Turkey announced it had broken up a gang of
smugglers who tried to sell 2.2 pounds of what appeared to
be highly enriched uranium for $750,000 to undercover
police officers, material they said they had bought several
months ago from a Russian of Azeri origin.
Officials are increasingly concerned that terrorists
willing to die could create a "dirty bomb," wrapping more
easily stolen radioactive materials used in medicine and
industry around a conventional explosive, like dynamite, to
try to make a significant area of a city uninhabitable for
Russian officials say their fissile nuclear material is
under strict and improving controls. But only 10 days ago,
in a discussion with officials at the United Nations agency
here, Yuri G. Volodin, chief of safeguards for the Russian
nuclear regulatory agency, revealed that in the last year,
there were dozens of violations of Russia's regulations for
securing and accounting for nuclear material.
Mr. Volodin noted one loss of nuclear material, which he
called of the "highest consequence." He said he could not
be more specific about the type of material or the size of
Last month, Col.-Gen. Igor Volynkin, head of nuclear
security for Russia's military, said that twice this year
Russian forces discovered stakeouts by terrorists of a
secret nuclear arms storage facility, although he did not
Also last month, an official of the Russian Security
Council, Raisa Vdovichenko, told Russian journalists that
emissaries of the Taliban had asked an employee of "an
institution related to nuclear technologies to go to their
country to work there in this field."
There is continuing evidence of efforts to traffic in
nuclear material that give many officials deep concern.
In April 2000, the police in Georgia seized, in Batumi,
several hundred fast-reactor fuel pellets, containing 920
grams - nearly a kilogram - of highly enriched uranium; in
September, at Tbilisi airport, the police confiscated half
a gram of plutonium.
The Russians say they thwarted an effort, at the very end
of 1998, by an organized gang to steal 18.5 kilograms -
more than 40 pounds - of highly enriched uranium from a
military weapons facility near Chelyabinsk in the Urals.
Still, senior officials here and in Washington do not
believe that Mr. bin Laden or even any state interested in
a shortcut to a bomb - from Syria and Iran to Iraq and
Libya - has been able to obtain the roughly 25 kilograms
(55 pounds) of highly enriched uranium required to make a
simple bomb, or the roughly 8 kilograms (17.6 pounds) of
plutonium, a much more difficult material with which to
But they also admit that they cannot possibly know for
The atomic energy agency has built a database of incidents
of nuclear trafficking since 1993 - only counting incidents
confirmed by the states involved. Of the 175 cases of
trafficking in nuclear material and 201 cases of
trafficking in medical and industrial radioactive
materials, only some 18 cases involved even small amounts
of the fissionable material needed for a nuclear bomb -
plutonium or highly enriched uranium (enriched by 20
percent or more).
Altogether in all these cases, agency officials say, there
have been seizures of about 400 grams (nearly one pound) of
plutonium and an additional 12 kilograms (26.4 pounds) of
uranium at varying levels of enrichment, equivalent to only
some 6 kilograms of uranium 235.
The most serious cases, involving large amounts of
material, took place in 1993 and 1994, when Russian, German
and Czech police officers made large seizures of very
highly enriched nuclear material manufactured in the former
Soviet Union, usually at nuclear-fuel fabrication plants.
In March 1993, in St. Petersburg, nearly three kilograms
(6.6 pounds) of 90 percent enriched uranium-238 were
seized; in August 1994, in Munich, the police seized about
360 grams of Russian-made plutonium; in December 1994, 2.7
kilograms (just over 5 pounds) of 80 percent enriched
uranium-235 were seized, part of a shipment that showed up
in smaller amounts in other places - and which officials
hope was not part of an even larger shipment, apparently
stolen from the Russian nuclear research center in Obninsk,
about an hour's drive southwest of Moscow.
For context, officials point out, Iraqi leader Saddam
Hussein had made only 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds) of
bomb-capable uranium before the gulf war broke out.
But in fact the atomic energy agency's database is only a
guide, and perhaps not even a good one. "Are we seeing half
the iceberg or only the tip?" said one official, noting
that the police consider seizures of drugs, a commodity far
easier to secure, to represent only some 10 to 20 percent
of what is shipped. Nor does the agency, devoted to
civilian nuclear energy, know much about the military
programs of states with nuclear weapons.
Friedrich Steinhäusler, a physics professor at Stanford
University and co-director of a Stanford center on the
physical protection of nuclear materials, said, "It's clear
that we're seeing a typical move toward professionalism in
this smuggling business, with increasingly fewer incidents
of significance, but of greater significance, as
professionals are probing the market."
He noted that traffickers increasingly are going south,
over traditional smuggling routes through Turkey, the
Caucasus and especially central Asia, closer to
Afghanistan, where borders are extremely long and lax.
Matthew Bunn, assistant director of the science, technology
and public policy program at Harvard University's Kennedy
School, was a Clinton White House adviser. The main source
of loose nuclear material remains the former Soviet Union,
he says, with some 600 tons of weapons- grade nuclear
material stored there outside of warheads.
The key question, he says, is to improve the security
around military and especially civilian nuclear
installations. In as many as half, he said, there are no
automatic detectors that sound an alarm if material is
smuggled out, and no security cameras where material is
"For all the work we've done with Russia, after seven
years, we still have most of the job to do," Mr. Bunn said.
"This is a serious threat, and we know how to fix it," he
said, urging that President Bush agree with Russia at the
this week's summit meeting to account for and secure all
Some safeguards put in place by the Americans in the former
Soviet Union no longer function, agency officials said -
spare parts are expensive and available only from the
United States, and sometimes guards do not bother to use
The Vienna agency is also looking for a 10 percent increase
in its own budget of some $320 million, said Graham Andrew,
the special assistant for Scientific and Technical Affairs,
to upgrade security standards around the world. He and
other officials regard a terrorist nuclear bomb to be
But the likelihood of terrorists compiling the radioactive
materials necessary to make a dirty bomb with immense
economic and psychological impact is much higher, the
The dirty bomb is an almost ideal instrument of terror, Mr.
Bunn said. It would not kill many people, but it would
terrify, and make a large area unsafe to work or live in,
possibly for decades or longer.
One official said: "Imagine a dirty bomb on the Washington
mall. Do you abandon the White House?"
from the December 05, 2001 edition - http://www.csmonitor.com/2001/1205/p1s3-wogi.html
Enough nuclear material is missing worldwide to make a 'dirty' bomb. Where is it? What is being done to prevent its use by terrorists?
By Peter Grier | Staff writer
Jamal Ahmad Al-Fadl said his role in the prospective purchase of nuclear material began with a call from a senior Al Qaeda official. A man in Khartoum, Sudan, supposedly had uranium for sale. At the time, Mr. al-Fadl was an operative in Al Qaeda's terrorist army. His job: Check out the deal.
So in late 1993 or early 1994, he met with the first contact, then another, and then another, like a job applicant passing through corporate departments. Along the way, he noticed that at least one of them appeared to have been high in the Sudanese government at some point.
Finally, one morning al-Fadl drove with two men to a house north of the city. They disappeared for a moment, and then came back with a large bag, from which they pulled a cylinder two or three feet tall. They handed him a piece of paper covered with English words al-Fadl couldn't read. He recognized one phrase: "South Africa."
The demonstration phase of the sales pitch over, al-Fadl and his contacts returned to Khartoum in their jeep. He took the paper to an Al Qaeda boss.
Osama bin Laden's operatives were impressed, or at least satisfied. They told Al-Fadl to pass the word that they would pay the cylinder's $1.5 million asking price. Then they gave him $10,000 and took over the deal themselves.
"You did great job, we going to check it, and everything be fine," Al-Fadl said he was told.
This story of nuclear shopping was offered as an aside by Al-Fadl during his testimony earlier this year in the trial of Al Qaeda associates accused of bombing US embassies in East Africa in 1998. Is it a tall tale? Maybe. Al-Fadl, a self-described Al Qaeda turncoat, is far from an unimpeachable source.
Al-Fadl also said he didn't know whether this transaction ever went through. The "uranium" in the cylinder might have been a worthless prop in a radiological scam.
But its details ring true to many nuclear experts. And the larger point is indisputable: The shadow army of terrorism, the force responsible for the deadliest day on American soil since Antietam, is trying, methodically, patiently, to acquire the most powerful weapon known to man.
The US and its allies have known that intellectually for a long time. But after seeing jetliners turned into cruise missiles, perhaps the West better understands what that really means. Among Sept. 11's effects may be a phase-shift in imaginations. Few can doubt that if Mohammad Atta had access to a nuclear bomb, he would have used it.
Once throw-weights and basing modes and other aspects of strategic weaponry were the crucial issues of US nuclear security. Now patching the holes in Russia's makeshift fissile material protections may be more important. Does bin Laden have the bomb? Is Iraq enriching uranium? How secure are Pakistan's nukes?
"And so we find ourselves, at the dawn of the new century, in a new arms race," said former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia in a recent speech. "Terrorists are racing to get weapons of mass destruction. We ought to be racing to stop them."
New terrorists, new lapses
The old expert consensus used to be that terrorist groups were not terribly serious about getting nuclear weapons. They might try chemical or biological attack, but not nukes: They are highly dangerous, extremely expensive, and difficult to acquire. And their horror would overwhelm the essentially political nature of terrorist acts. Through history, most terrorists have wanted to maximize publicity - not casualties.
That judgment had already begun to change before the events of this fall. The rise of a new generation of terrorists, their goals unclear, their commitment total, their address unknown, saw to that.
A state such as Iraq is dangerous enough. But at least the US has some understanding of its weapons programs. A nation has assets and infrastructure that presumably even a leader such as Saddam Hussein might be loath to expose to US retaliatory attack.
Al Qaeda and its ilk are different. "The problem is, we can't target them like states," says Kimberly McCloud, a researcher at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Then add new opportunity to this equation. It's possible that South Africa could be the source of weapons material. Pakistan might be a proliferation danger, too, considering it is a nuclear-capable state with long-standing Taliban ties.
But it is Russia and the former republics of the Soviet Union that are the "Home Depot" of fissile material, in the words of one expert. The collapse of the Soviet Union threw its nuclear programs into a chaos from which they have yet to completely recover.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the closed cities where the USSR's nuclear weapons were produced changed from islands of prosperity to sinkholes of poverty. The human misery this created - especially in the early years - led some scientists to attempt desperate actions. In 1992, a large group of ballistic-missile experts from the closed city of Miass tried to reach North Korea, apparently to work in Pyongyang's intercontinental-ballistic-missile projects. Authorities caught them as they sat in a plane at Moscow's Sheremetievo-2 airport, waiting to take off.
Russian authorities insist that their estimated 30,000 actual nuclear warheads have remained under adequate control at all times. But the same cannot be said for its military and civilian fissile material.
Over decades, the Soviet Union produced enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium to produce some 70,000 nuclear weapons. This was scattered at perhaps 100 sites throughout the territory of the former USSR. In the early '90s, some research sites were protected by nothing but padlocks and weeds. Dedicated scientists at times had to improvise defenses. When civil war broke out in the former republic of Georgia in 1992, scientists at one institute in Tbilisi took turns guarding 10 kilograms of weapons-grade HEU with sticks and garden rakes.
Much of this material was later moved to Britain for safekeeping. A cache of similar uranium elsewhere in the former republic met a different fate. In 1993, scientists at the Sukhumi research center in the Abkhazia region of Georgia piled cinder blocks around a building containing 2 kilograms of HEU, and fled oncoming fighting. A Russian team entered the abandoned building four years later, and found the material gone.
The Abkhazia affair remains the only confirmed case of missing weapons-grade fissile material in the world. To this day, no one knows where this HEU is. "It may be in the hands of the Abkhaz separatists, or it may have been stolen by or sold to others," says Matthew Bunn, of Harvard's Project on Managing the Atom.
Overall, there have been 14 confirmed, significant cases of trafficking in fissile material from the former Soviet Union, according to the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
The good news is that most of the cases date to the early and mid-'90s, before Russia stabilized and a US effort to help guard its material took off.
The bad news is that there may be more significant cases the world doesn't know about. Most of the confirmed incidents took place in Europe or what used to be the western USSR. Yet a glance at a map shows that southern Russia, and the former republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, etc., are the logical place for a Middle Eastern group such as Al Qaeda to go nuke shopping.
The US has been involved in cooperative programs with Russia to control its loose nuclear weapons and material for years. Since 1991, US money has paid for the deactivation of more than 5,000 Russian nuclear warheads. It has provided security equipment for dozens of facilities, helped construct a secure storage facility for fissile material, and paid for science and technology centers intended to provide ex-weapons scientists the means to work on civilian research.
"These programs have made tremendous progress," notes Jon Wolfsthal, an associate
But much more may need to be done. Almost half of Russia's fissile material is stored in facilities that have not received US-funded protection upgrades. Russia continues to add to its stockpile of plutonium - not for military purposes, but because the reactors that produce the material also produce desperately needed electricity.
Earlier this year, a Department of Energy advisory group headed by former US Sen. Howard Baker and former White House counsel Lloyd Cutler surveyed the US effort - and found it wanting. The programs need a broader mandate, and they need more money, concluded the group.
"The most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States today is the danger that weapons of mass destruction or weapons-usable material in Russia could be stolen or sold to terrorists or hostile nation-states," concluded the Baker/Cutler study.
That was written before Sept. 11.
Al Qaeda and the black market
There is one point about Al Qaeda's nuclear program on which most experts agree: It does not yet have an actual atomic weapon. If it did, the chances are it would have exploded by now.
It's less certain whether the group has any radioactive material at all. Al Qaeda has been a player in fissile-material markets for years, according to intelligence reports.
In the early '90s, it allegedly scoured Kazakhstan for USSR-era material, in the belief that the high percentage of Muslims in this former Soviet republic might open doors. Apparently, the group came up empty.
Since then, Al Qaeda may have been snared by its share of scams. They were dealing, after all, in a back alley of world commerce that makes drug-dealing look both honest and inexpensive.
At least once, Al Qaeda operatives have been offered low-grade uranium reactor fuel unsuitable for weapons use without further enrichment. Along with other potential buyers, Al Qaeda also may have fallen for the widespread "red mercury" fraud. Clever criminals pitch this element as a crucial component of the Soviet weapons program.
"In the case of Al Qaida, the 'red mercury' turned out to be radioactive rubbish," concluded Gavin Cameron, a professor of politics at Britain's University of Salford, in a paper on terrorist nuclear-proliferation activities.
Al Qaeda may have been gullible, but at least the group was subtle. Contrast their approach with that of the apocalyptic Japanese religious group Aum Shinrikyo, whose members were responsible for the release of sarin nerve gas in five Tokyo subway trains on March 20, 1995.
In the early 1990s, Aum actively recruited adherents from Russia's nuclear design facilities, as well as student physicists from Moscow State University. It purchased property in Australia from which it planned to mine natural uranium for enrichment - an arduous task beyond the resources of most nations. In 1993, Aum representatives sought a meeting with then-Russian Energy Minister Viktor Mikhailov for the express purpose of discussing the purchase of a nuclear warhead. (The meeting was denied.)
But Al Qaeda's and Aum Shinrikyo's nuclear dealings share at least two similarities that experts find worrisome. One is ample funding. At the height of its influence, Aum had an estimated net worth of $1 billion, obtained largely from co-opting the assets of its members. Al Qaeda's operations have bin Laden's personal fortune - inherited from his construction-magnate father - as seed funds.
The second similarity is persistence. Following Aum's path, Al Qaeda has apparently mounted a multinational, many-leveled effort to enter the nuclear club. In recent years, there has been a steady trickle of reports from experts in Europe and the Middle East who say they have been contacted by bin Laden associates and asked for help obtaining fissile material.
Last year, a Bulgarian businessman said he had met bin Laden himself, and had been offered a role in a complex deal to transship nuclear waste to Afghanistan via Bulgaria. This month, Gul Nazir, head of organic chemistry at Kabul University, said he had turned down offers from Taliban delegations to provide substances that could be used to help make chemical weapons and mine uranium.
Then there's the curious case of Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood. An architect of Pakistan's nuclear program, he has traveled back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent years, allegedly to advise the Taliban on the construction of food-processing plants.
At least one expert believes a radiological attack of a sort was part of Al Qaeda's original plan for Sept. 11. In a speech delivered to a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in early November, Mr. Cameron of the University of Salford said that it is likely that the target of the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 was a US nuclear facility.
The hijackers' intentions are essentially unknowable, he admits, because they were stormed by heroic passengers, leading to the plane's crash in rural Pennsylvania. But the plane made a sharp turn near the Pittsburgh area, and rapidly lost height, before the passengers acted. Combined with unspecific FBI warnings about threats to power plants, this evidence may point to the terrorists' intended destination.
"It now appears that one of three nuclear reactors in southern Pennsylvania - Three Mile Island, Peach Bottom, or Hope Creek, Salem - may have been the real target," Cameron told the IAEA.
When scientists conspire
On Dec. 18, 1998, an official of Russia's successor agency to the KGB, the Federal Security Service (FSB), said that agents under his command had broken up a conspiracy by employees of a major nuclear facility in the Chelyabinsk region to steal 18.5 kilograms of weapons-usable material. If it had gone through, the theft would have caused "significant damage to the [Russian] state," local media quoted FSB Maj. Gen. Valeriy Tretyakov as saying.
In the US, experts reeled.
Chelyabinsk is home to some of Russia's most important nuclear facilities, including a nuclear-weapons assembly and disassembly plant at Trekhgorny, and a weapons-design lab at Snezhinsk. If a group of insiders at one of these sensitive sites had decided to steal fissile material - well, that would be a highly serious matter. Furthermore, the material involved was apparently not some useless radioactive slurry. It was weapons-usable - meaning 18.5 kilograms might be enough to make an entire nuclear weapon.
This incident is not included on most lists of the most important nuclear trafficking incidents, for the simple reason that it was quashed in its initial phases. But it remains one of the most troubling apparent cases of attempted proliferation of all - because it matches almost exactly the US nightmare scenario for a fissile-material theft.
It wasn't ancient history. It occurred in 1998, after many facilities in the region had received US money for protection upgrades. It involved lots of stuff. And it involved a conspiracy of the knowledgeable.
"Multiple insiders are the hardest thing for any security system to address," says Mr. Bunn of the Managing the Atom project.
Consider the ramifications. Russia has a "three-man rule" in regard to its nuclear weapons. Individuals are forbidden from working alone on warheads, as are twosomes.
But if two scientists are in cahoots, they might be able to overpower the third. To guard against this, security might have to institute a four-man, or even five-man rule. Perimeter guards might need to be doubled. The cost and complexity of protection systems escalates exponentially.
And what would be the genesis of such a conspiracy? Perhaps a group of disillusioned scientists or guards would try such a thing on their own, but that may be unlikely, given the difficulties of marketing the stuff. It's more likely that such a theft might come in response to an enticing overture. Such as Saddam Hussein, perhaps, offering enough money for everyone in the group to buy a South Seas island.
"What I worry about is state intelligence agencies contacting these people," says Scott Parrish, an analyst at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute.
If the Chelyabinsk conspiracy is the No. 1 worrisome incidence of potential trafficking in nuclear material, the Prague seizure might be judged No. 2.
In December 1994, an anonymous tip led Czech police to a marked car. In it, they found 2.7 kilograms of HEU enriched to 87.7 percent. The amount and purity of the recovered material was highly troubling. Worse, in two instances in 1995, Czech authorities recovered small amounts of additional HEU that appeared to be from the same source.
This suggests that there is a stock of weapons-grade HEU out there, of unknown quantity, in unknown hands.
New worries about so-called "dirty bombs," conventional explosives used to spread deadly radioactive material over a wide area, are also making some incidents of trafficking seem important in retrospect.
Earlier this year, for instance, the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported the seizure of 5 kilograms of cesium 137 from Chechen rebels, who were allegedly loading the material into mortar shells. Most experts do not consider this incident confirmed, but the Chechens have threatened to use radiological material before. And cesium 137 is nasty stuff. Its radiation was the cause of many of the fatalities associated with the Soviet-era explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear plant.
In fact, once worries about dirty bombs multiply, the potential sources of dangerous material rapidly multiply as well. Radioactive material is used in many medical and industrial applications. Eastern Europe and the nations of the former Soviet Union even used trace amounts of plutonium in smoke detectors. "I used to joke that if Saddam Hussein placed an order in Russia for 500 million smoke detectors, we should get worried," says Dr. Parrish of the Monterey Institute.
What the U.S. is doing
Preventing a nuclear terrorist attack on the US will require a comprehensive effort far into the future, say US officials. It will be one part - arguably the most important part - of the overall commitment to homeland defense.
More narrowly, it may necessitate redoubled cooperation with the most likely source of loose nukes in the world: Russia. Warming relations between President Bush and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, today offer a window of opportunity for such an intensification, say its advocates.
There is a decent foundation of mutual effort to build on. Initiated by Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana and former Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia in 1991, the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program has grown into a $1 billion-plus effort overseen on the US side by the Departments of Energy, State, and Defense.
"These programs have achieved impressive results for a relatively minor investment," says Stephen LaMontagne, a nuclear analyst at the Council for a Livable World Education Fund.
CTR funds pay for the destruction and dismantling of Russian ballistic missiles and submarines, for instance. Last year, $57 million of US funds went toward completion of the first wing of the Mayak Fissile Material Storage Facility, which will ultimately have the capacity to protect 6,250 dismantled warheads.
The Department of Energy's Material Protection, Control, and Accounting program has so far improved physical security at 13 Russian Navy nuclear sites and 24 civilian nuclear installations. But there are some 58 more Russian nuclear sites that need security upgrades, according to DOE figures. A program to blend HEU down into less dangerous civilian reactor fuel is moving slowly. Efforts to replace three Russian nuclear reactors that produce both desperately needed energy and plutonium have stalled in a swirl of politics.
And the Bush administration, in its first crack at drawing up a national-security budget, has slashed the funding of much of the non-proliferation effort. Bush's budget took $100 million out of the Department of Energy's side of the effort, alone.
The needs, according to the Secretary of Energy's advisory board task force headed by Mr. Baker and Mr. Cutler, include: a real strategic plan; a high-level position within the White House devoted to the issue, perhaps within the National Security Council; more money, and more urgency. Concludes the report: "There is a clear and present danger to the international community as well as to American lives and liberties."
Copyright ©© 2001 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.