The Nuke Pipeline

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Checkpoint guards must watch for smugglers sneaking tiny samples of their wares

The six men who gathered at the roadside cafe southeast of Moscow last Thursday did not go there for the food. They went there for the uranium. Some of the men, members of the Balashikha criminal gang, claimed to be in possession of 2 lbs. of uranium 235, the kind of top-shelf radioactive material that can be used to build weapons. They were asking $30,000 for the deadly merchandise. The others--the buyers--seemed prepared to pay it. The deal may actually have gone off had Russian security forces not been watching. They swept in, arrested all six men and were led back to the apartment of a seventh, where a capsule containing the promised uranium was hidden.

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By that evening, the case--the first officially acknowledged theft in Russia of weapons-grade uranium--was getting big play on local TV. The Russian police had reason to be proud; the rest of the world had one more reason to be nervous.

For while the bust was disturbing, it was hardly unique. After 60 years of building nuclear bombs and nuclear reactors, the world is fairly awash in radioactive slag--from spent fuel rods to medical waste and contaminated tools--much of it held under little if any security in labs, hospitals and factories. Even the high-test weapons-grade material that's supposed to be locked down at military installations is not as secure as it ought to be. Some weapons-storage facilities don't even have video monitors.

That such deadly material is so loosely guarded has been the source of much anxiety since Sept. 11--most of it focused on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Last week reports surfaced of a meeting in Afghanistan at which an al-Qaeda associate waved a canister of what he said was nuclear material in the air to demonstrate to bin Laden and others how much progress had been made in securing the stuff.

But bin Laden is only a part of the nuclear terror problem. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of global terrorist groups, a new market has emerged to manage the increased supply of--and demand for--nuclear contraband. More and more radioactive material has been getting filched, bundled and sent flowing through an increasingly busy pipeline from Russia and the old Soviet states into the hands, it is feared, of people desperate enough to use it.

The Russian government alone lists up to 200 terrorist organizations it believes may be trying to obtain nuclear material. In Istanbul last month, Turkish undercover officers arrested two smugglers who attempted to sell them more than 2.5 lbs. of non-weapons grade uranium for $750,000. In July police in Paris raided an apartment in which three men were holding a small quantity of highly enriched uranium and plane tickets to various East European countries.

And these busts are only the high-profile ones. Russia has broken up 601 attempted transactions since 1998. The International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna reports 376 since 1993, and Turkey has recorded 104 cases of non-weapons grade smuggling in that same time. Moreover, for every trafficker who has been caught, chances are that many more are still in the game--a fact that has security planners deeply worried. "The global effort to control nuclear weapons is based on control of nuclear material," says Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a former adviser to President Bill Clinton. "If that stuff gets on the market, nothing else we do will work."

The likeliest source of most radioactive booty is Russia and the surrounding states, and the material they have to offer comes in two varieties. Top-quality, weapons-grade material is the only kind that can used to build a true nuclear-fission bomb, and is both hard to obtain and harder to turn into an explosive. But lower-grade radioactive rubbish is also dangerous. It can be fashioned into a so-called dirty bomb: a conventional explosive packed with waste that spreads radiation in all directions.

There are at least 100 facilities around the former Soviet Union that store warheads and weapons-grade material, and most of them are reportedly not properly secured. Along the country's eastern coast, according to some sources, up to 80 abandoned, loosely guarded nuclear submarines are rusting in bays and inlets, their torpedo tubes and other openings providing possible access for intruders and an exit for radioactive leakage.

The country's nuclear power plants may be just as porous. At the Leningrad facility near the Gulf of Finland, sources say vodka and drugs flow freely among the workers, most of whom earn barely 3,000 rubles a month--about $100. Poorly paid, highly inebriated men make a shabby line of defense against terrorists and traffickers. Vaclav Havlik, a Czech citizen who was part of a group of uranium smugglers arrested near Munich in 1994, told Time that obtaining material from Russia was no great chore. "It was like going for vacation by the sea and bringing back a sack of shells," he says.

At the same time that smugglers are getting better at obtaining their merchandise, they are also getting smarter about transporting it. The first nuclear black marketeers carried their contraband straight out of Russia and into Europe, across some of the best-guarded borders in the world. As customs officials caught wise, the smugglers started shifting their route south, running a flanking pattern through Central Asia, the Caucasus Mountains and Turkey before resurfacing in Europe. This modified buttonhook play allows traffickers to take advantage of established drug routes--a smart strategy, since customs agents in a place such as Tajikistan, where 200 tons of drugs may cross the border on a busy day, can easily overlook a few ounces of nuclear contraband.

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