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Loose Nukes

The Race to Secure Nuclear Material

By Simon Marks

Russian Icon

Photo by Reese Erlich/©2001

This report is part of "Security Check: Confronting Today's Global Threats," a radio documentary produced by the Stanley Foundation in association with KQED radio.

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At Washington's Dulles Airport, workers try hard to spot trouble among the airport's 2.5 million visitors and 5 million pieces of luggage that pass through each year.

Trouble can come in many forms, but what if one of these bags contained some highly enriched uranium or some of the other ingredients needed to make a small but potentially deadly nuclear device?

A catchy phrase for this scourge is "loose nukes"—radiological components that experts worry are rattling around the world ready to be sold by criminal creeps to organized terror groups.

The threat of nuclear material on the loose is clear, but how to rein it in is clearly not.

Real Risk

Once called simply "Laboratory Number 2," the Kurchatov Institute in northwest Moscow was founded in 1943 to fulfill one simple goal: develop a Soviet nuclear bomb. It succeeded, and the institute—named after Igor Kurchatov, one of the architects of the Soviet Union's nuclear program—still holds these weapons today.

That worries Robert Berls, director of the Moscow office of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nongovernmental organization jointly founded by businessman Ted Turner and veteran Democratic Party Senator Sam Nunn.

Berls says that even at Kurchatov, just miles from the Kremlin and the seat of Russian power, there is a real risk that nuclear and radiological materials could fall into the hands of terrorists.

"It's a relatively open facility, and a group of terrorists could, I think, easily break into that facility if they tried hard enough," Berls said. "And God forbid if they were ever to get to those research reactors, what damage they could do and the horror that could be unleashed on Moscow."

Minds at Ease?

Visitors to the Kurchatov Institute are treated to a grand display of security. Special Forces drive around in a troop carrier that has been converted to monitor levels of radioactive contamination in the event of an incident. And a promotional video has been produced for visitors, designed above all to set minds at ease. It demonstrates, among other things, how the protection system can be activated if there is an emergency situation.

"Fortunately," says the woman in the video, "this is only a simulation of the danger. But we never know."

Some evidence suggests that terrorists have actually discussed the possibility of launching an attack against the Kurchatov Institute, leaving many to consider the dangers of such an attack every day. After all, attacks have become all too common in Russia in past years.

Securing the Reactor

On October 26, 2002, Russian troops stormed the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow to end a siege that had begun three days earlier. Fighters from the breakaway Russian region of Chechnya took over the building and held 900 theatergoers and performers hostage for four days. In an effort to subdue the fighters and save the hostages, Russians forces pumped a still-unidentified narcotic gas into the theater—killing the Chechen hostage-takers, but also 129 of their captives.

While that very public military operation was under way at the theater, Russian officials were busy at the Kurchatov Institute, according to Pavel Felgenhauer, a leading Russian military analyst.

"A friend of mine, a person who I know rather well, he worked at Kurchatov," Felgenhauer said. "He was called in immediately to the facility as the tragedy in the theater was evolving to close down the biggest reactor."

The Russians, Felgenhauer said, received clear indications that the group that had taken over the theater had debated attacking the institute as well.

"So they acted immediately," he said. "They closed down that reactor, they removed a lot of radioactive material.... So when the Russian authorities see real dangers of nuclear facilities being captured several miles from the Kremlin, they act."

"They act because the threat is serious," he added with a laugh. "So they found the money and they found that capabilities to diminish the threat at last inside Moscow."

Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister and the country's former ambassador to the United Nations, confirms that security at the institute was indeed tightened as the Dubrovka Theater siege unfolded.

"Had we not been concerned at that time that terrorists might target the Kurchatov Institute, we would be irresponsible, right?"

"We have to think of these things," he said. "All of these sites are under extra-precautionary measures, under extra protection. For obvious reasons I cannot go into the details," he said.

Russian AS15 Rockets photo

Photo by Simon Marks

While Russian officials recognize that their nuclear material could become a target for terrorists, more could be done to secure the material to guard against an unfortunate event

Preparing for the Worst

A series of terrorist incidents, including the Beslan school siege in southern Russia last year, have underscored the possibility of an attack on Russian nuclear facilities. Russian authorities concluded that if fighters from Chechnya—or others pursuing a cause—were sufficiently desperate to lay siege to a school, they would probably also be willing to attack, raid, or besiege a nuclear site.

The outcome of the school siege was not reassuring. Russian troops stormed the building and at least 340 people were killed in the shootout, 170 of them children.

Alexander Pikayev, of Moscow's Institute of World Economy, has written extensively on the problems of securing and safeguarding Russia's nuclear arsenal.

"I would say it's simply a matter of luck," he said. "Simply a matter of luck because, especially in 1990, the situation was so poor that one should be surprised that the worst-case scenario wasn't realized."

Since the fall of the USSR, western governments have worried about nuclear weapons kept in insecure conditions and guarded by unmotivated 17-year-old Russian conscripts. Pikayev smiled wryly when asked whether the image was accurate.

"Probably this image of a 17-year-old guard who neglects his duties is a little bit of [an] exaggeration," he said. "We may speak about 18-year-old people, because it's recruitment age in Russia."

What governments overseas are correct to be worried about, he says, is the disposition of Russia's nuclear stockpile. Not just the warheads themselves, but the fissile material from those that have already been dismantled, some of which he believes have fallen into the hands of terrorists and organized criminal gangs.

"There were cases that criminal gangs used radioactive materials for killing some businessmen," Pikayev said. "For instance, they implanted radioactive uranium into [the] armchair of one businessman. He died because of that, because of radiation."

Pikayev realizes the importance of securing all, not some, nuclear material.

"You cannot say, 'well, 50 percent is okay. The situation in 99 percent of facilities is okay.' Because even if there is a situation in one facility, which contains probably less than 1 percent of the dangerous nuclear materials, the amount of that nuclear material might be enough to make a bomb. So this is still dangerous."

The Nuclear US-Russian Relationship

Both the US and Russian governments have been only too happy to invite reporters to witness the dismantling of elements of the nuclear stockpiles. Missiles are broken apart, the fissile material is recovered, and their parts are melted down for scrap.

A US congressional initiative headed by Republican Senator Richard Lugar and his Democratic colleague, former Senator Sam Nunn, has played an important role in this process. In 2004 alone, the initiative succeeded in deactivating 312 Russian nuclear warheads. It sounds impressive. But, warned Felgenhauer, it can create a score of new problems to resolve.

"Decommissioning means that they're dismantled, but the material that they're composed of didn't disappear. That means it's stored somewhere," said Felgenhauer. "Most likely [it is] stored in less secure conditions than it was when it was a nuclear warhead. So dismantling nuclear weapons is good, but that means that the material is less secure as a result. It's not an easy situation, and it's made worse by a mutual lack of trust, by ambiguity over the direction in which US-Russian relations might develop."

The US-Russia relationship—already in trouble over President Vladimir Putin's rollback of democratic reform in his country—has not been particularly fruitful when it comes to the issue of securing Russia's nuclear stockpile, though you wouldn't know that from the public pronouncements following February's summit between Presidents Putin and Bush.

"We produced a lot of positive results at this meeting," Bush said, speaking on February 24, after the summit. "We agreed to accelerate our work to protect nuclear weapons and material, both in our two nations and around the world. And I want to thank you for that. And I want to thank our defense ministers for working on the issue as well—Minister Ivanov is here; he and Secretary Rumsfeld have had a very constructive relationship."

The Diplomatic Debate

Despite this positive promotion, observers say the US-Russia relationship is rocky. Earlier this year, the Russian defense minister told an audience in New York that Western concerns about Russian nuclear materials falling into the hands of criminals were "pure fiction."

But CIA Director Porter Goss has testified before the US Congress that enough nuclear materials have already disappeared from Russian custody to build a nuclear bomb. And former US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's assessment is also starkly at odds with Russian claims.

"Russia must work harder to address vulnerabilities at their nuclear and radiological facilities," Abraham said at a Washington press conference.

"At a time when terrorists are known to be scouting under-secured locations worldwide...we're still working to gain access to some of the facilities in Russia that, in my judgment, need to be addressed sooner rather than later. It is imperative that the Russian Federation work together with us to quickly resolve outstanding questions about access to these sites so that we can get this job done to ensure that terrorists are cut off from these locations and materials."

With both sides refusing to show their most sensitive military sites, the debate has become the diplomatic equivalent of, "I'll show you mine, when you show me yours."

"There is nothing in this world which could not be described as requiring more," Lavrov said. "We have to perfect everything that we do. If we get facts that indicate we need to do more, we would certainly respond. When we are told that we have general concerns, so why don't you take us here or there to see, well, on a reciprocal basis this is possible. And we managed to send our experts sometime ago to the states on the invitation to see a site, and eventually they didn't get there. So if those concerns are substantiated, I assure you we would be the first one to wish to get these things right."

A Return to Normal

The Dubrovka Theater complex, scene of the October 2002 siege, has now reopened. Dance classes are offered to young Muscovites—music now ringing through a place that would otherwise echo with the silence of death.

Dance teacher Marina Maratova says most families she encounters don't spend their time worrying about the prospect of Russia's enemies going nuclear.

"I am not afraid that terrorists will be able to take over nuclear sites," she said. "Our interior forces are doing all they can to fight them. I don't rule out the possibility that a terrorist attack could happen in Moscow. But it definitely won't happen again here. Lightning doesn't strike twice."

But Robert Berls of the Nuclear Threat Initiative's Moscow office argues there is no reason—or time—for complacency.

"The terrorists are not going to wait," he said.

"The terrorists have been moving forward, and we know that there have been several attempts in recent times by terrorists to get nuclear materials. They need to appoint a senior government official that will be responsible for waging war against the possibility of nuclear terrorism. It must be a government priority, a very high government priority. It must also become a high priority for the other members of the G-8, as well as all the nuclear powers and other concerned countries. There's a lot that can be done. It just requires the leadership to make it happen."

Global leadership, Berl says, is the key to securing Moscow's arsenal, and neutralizing the threat so-called "loose nukes" pose to the security of Russia and the wider world.

Principles Over Politics?

How, then, can global leadership be better harnessed to deal with the enormous threats posed by the spread of nuclear material and weapons?

"If it wasn't for Pakistan, there wouldn't be an Iranian nuclear program," said Joseph Cirincione, director of Non-Proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "If it wasn't for Pakistan, Libya would never have gotten centrifuges. If it wasn't for Pakistan, it's unlikely that North Korea would have gotten whatever centrifuge equipment they have."

Cirincione argues that principles need to trump politics when governments make decisions. He faults the Bush White House for failing to hold Pakistan to account for the proliferation activities of A. Q. Khan. The architect of Pakistan's nuclear program was also selling nuclear secrets all over the world.

"Clearly the administration decided that they needed Pakistan's support in the hunt for Osama bin Laden more than they needed Pakistan's support in shutting down this proliferation network," he added. "I disagree with that policy choice, but they have chosen to accept, not just publicly, but privately, Pakistan's assurances that this network has been shut down. I think that's a naive acceptance.

Organized Crime: The Enabler

Bob Orr, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Planning, says in addition to proliferators like A. Q. Khan, the world's governments must also be on guard against the growing tentacles of organized crime in this arena.

"Organized crime is one of the most efficient transmission mechanisms of threats around the world," he said. "Whether you're talking about the movement of arms, of fissile material for nuclear devices, of drugs, organized crime provides transmission mechanism[s] that gets goods—whether they be these dangerous materials or, in fact, people, trafficking in humans—from one point on the globe to the other without a whole lot of impediment.

"If we don't deal with this fundamental reality, and look at organized crime as an enabler for all of the things we're trying to stop, we won't get to the fundamentals."

Celina Realuyo, director of Counterterrorism Finance Programs at the US State Department, spends her time trying to deal with that fundamental reality. It is her job to track down and shut down the financial operations that can support this traffic.

"If you think about the proliferation of nuclear materials, what is the real motivation for those who are engaged in that line of business, if you want to call it that? It really has to do with the profits, as opposed to terrorists who are really motivated by ideology," she said.

"If you look at the nuclear proliferators, most of them are really motivated by profit. We take a look at money as the oxygen that actually promotes proliferation. It's another way to attack the problem of proliferation. In terms of, it makes it much harder for them to move the money or they can't actually physically transfer the money, the actual transfer of the material will not take place."

The Global Response

Since the 9/11 attacks the US government, acting in concert with other countries, has frozen bank accounts, prosecuted rogue financial institutions, and made it harder for criminals to launder or park their money in offshore tax havens.

Realuyo argues that a coordinated global response is the key to success.

"It's actually superimportant, because if you think of the analogy of squeezing a balloon, if you squeeze it on one side the air will go to the other side," she said.

"Actually, all of the signatories to the UN are required to actually criminalize terrorist financing and terrorism as a result of the 9/11 attacks under UN Security Council Resolution 1373. This is something that, actually, the entire world community has recognized as a problem and, more important, there are actually measures being taken to address it."

Circinione of Carnegie Endowment says forcefully carrying out these measures is key to keeping nuclear capability out of the wrong hands.

"We know that some of these groups have tried to get highly enriched uranium," he said. "Osama bin Laden, according to the 9/11 report for example, spent one-and-a-half million dollars buying what he thought was highly enriched uranium. It turned out to be radioactive junk. But the problem is we know he wants it. They are trying to do this. Similarly, Aum Shinrikyo, the terrorist group in Japan that succeeded in dispersing sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway, was trying to buy uranium mines in Australia.

"We're in a race to secure this material before they can get their hands on it."

"Security Check: Confronting Today's Global Threats" is part of the 2005 Public Radio collaboration "Think Global," May 16-22. The documentary is produced by Simon Marks, Keith Porter, and Kristin McHugh. It is a Stanley Foundation production in association with KQED Public Radio. The full program includes segments on civil war in Uganda, AIDS in Thailand, small arms in Colombia, and an exclusive interview with Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

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