Sunday, March 03, 2002

Loose Nukes

"It's going to be worse, and a lot of people are going to die," warns a U.S. counterterrorism official. "I don't think there's a damn thing we're going to be able to do about it." This, it seems to me, is the relevant quote from the Time magazine story that kicks off the new week.

What makes the Time report on loose nukes credible? According to a bipartisan nuclear non-proliferation task force report:

Such threats are not hypothetical. Consider the following:

• In late 1998, conspirators at a Ministry of Atomic Energy (MinAtom) facility in Chelyabinsk were caught attempting to steal fissile material of a quantity just short of that needed for one nuclear device. The head of MinAtom’s nuclear material accounting confirmed the attempted theft and warned that, had the attempt been successful, it would have caused “significant damage to the Russian State.”

• Early in 1998, the mayor of Krasnoyarsk-45, a closed Russian “nuclear city” that stores enough HEU for hundreds of nuclear weapons, wrote to Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Lebed warning that a social explosion in his city was unavoidable unless urgent action was taken. Nuclear scientists and other workers in the city remained unpaid for several months, and basic medical supplies could not be purchased. General Lebed, a former National Security Advisor to President Yeltsin, had earlier proposed to Moscow that his region take responsibility for the nuclear forces and facilities on its territory, pay salaries for these military officers and atomic workers, and take command of the structures. The Russian Government has never agreed to the proposal.

• In December 1998, an employee at Russia’s premier nuclear weapons laboratory in Sarov (formerly Arzamas-16) was arrested for espionage and charged with attempting to sell documents on nuclear weapons designs to agents of Iraq and Afghanistan for $3 million. The regional head of the Federal Security Bureau, when reporting the case, confirmed that this was not the first case of nuclear theft at Sarov and explained that such thefts were the result of the “very difficult financial position” of workers at such defense enterprises.

• In January 2000, Federal Security Bureau agents arrested four sailors at the nuclear submarine base in Vilyuchinsk-3 on the Kamchatka Peninsula with a stash of precious metals and radioactive material they had stolen from an armored safe in their nuclear submarine. After the sailors’ arrest, investigators discovered at their homes additional stashes of stolen radioactive material and submarine components containing gold, platinum, silver, and palladium.

These are a sample of dozens of actual incidents. Imagine if such material were successfully stolen and sold to a terrorist like Osama bin Laden, who reportedly masterminded the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and is the chief suspect in the recent attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole.

Indeed. The best thumbnail sketch of the nuclear non-proliferation crisis was written by Graham Allison, a former Pentagon official, for The Economist last fall, shortly after the September 11 attacks. Unfortunately, it costs $2.95 if you are not a subscriber to the magazine or to It is well worth reading and basically conforms with the view of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Task Force. Which is this:

“....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.”