The Nuke Pipeline

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

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The black marketeers who get caught are often carrying only a few spoonfuls of nuclear material, but that's little comfort. More and more, risk-averse traffickers travel with just a taste of what they're selling rather than the entire inventory. Once they find a buyer, they can attempt the riskier business of delivering the full supply.

Just how little they would need to deliver is another source of worry. While a full-scale nuclear bomb may require 100 lbs. of enriched uranium, a more modest device, particularly one fueled by plutonium, could be built with just 10 lbs. (about 4 kg). "Four kilos of plutonium," says Lidia Popova of Russia's Center for Nuclear Ecology and Energy Policy, "is the amount that could sit in your palm."

For terrorists who can't get their hands on any weapons-grade uranium, there's the option of the dirty bomb. Allied forces overrunning a suspected al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan a few weeks ago found at least one diagram suggesting the design of such a weapon. To build this type of explosive, terrorists could use almost any kind of nuclear rubbish--perhaps even the water in Russia's Lake Karachai, a nuclear dumping ground that fairly crackles with radioactivity.

The International Atomic Energy Agency believes that dirty bombs may not be as lethal as many people assume. The explosion would be a conventional one, and the radiation might not pack much toxic wallop--depending on wind, topography and the radioactive material. The disruption, terror and economic impact, however, would be incalculable. Says Popova: "If such a bomb explodes in a city, very quickly panic will spread."

Despite all this, antiterrorism forces have reason for hope. Turkey, with the help of the U.S., has instituted stepped-up security measures at its borders, installing radiation detectors at key crossings--particularly those leading from Iraq, Iran and Georgia. (Unconfirmed reports suggest that Iran and Georgia are doing the same.) The Turkish government won't say explicitly if its security efforts have been ratcheted up since Sept. 11. "The answer is pretty obvious," says Erdener Birol, acting head of Turkey's atomic-energy authority.

Like so much else in the terror wars however, the job of truly securing the nukes--especially in Russia--may fall to the U.S. But Washington doesn't seem to be giving the problem top priority. When the Bush Administration took office, a program was already in place to help Russia dispose of 34 tons of surplus plutonium. When the program crossed the new President's desk, however, he slashed its projected $87 million price tag, seeking just $57 million.

Washington and Moscow have also been hard at work in recent years improving security at Russia's nuclear-material storage sites, only 40% of which come up to U.S. standards. The Clinton Administration anticipated $225 million for the project this year, a 30% boost over the previous year. President Bush countered with a $30 million cut. Congress kept the funding at last year's level.

Perhaps the most troubled of the existing antinuclear programs is one that relies on the power of capitalism. In 1993 the U.S. agreed to buy 500 metric tons of Russian nuclear material over 20 years, blending it down to a less potent form that could be used in American nuclear power plants. So far, 137 metric tons have been processed and carried off; they account for half the nuclear fuel used in the U.S.

In 1998, however, the U.S. group authorized to buy the material was privatized. With the global market for nuclear fuel faltering, the newly profit-driven group found itself locked into the price Washington had agreed to in 1996. In an attempt to square things, the company is seeking a new contract with Russia that would guarantee it rates far below market, though talks last week in Moscow failed to resolve the matter. If the Russians--sellers with but a single major buyer--are told they have to go along with the price cuts, the program could collapse.

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