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Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Nuclear Smorgasbord 

The December Atlantic contains a number of strong, unsettling pieces, including James Fallows's "Will Iran Be Next?" -- in which a Pentagon-style war game predicts that a U.S. military strike on Tehran would probably end in disaster. But for our entertainment dollar, the most disturbing of the lot is a two-pager (not, alas, online) by Terrance Henry, "Russia's Loose Nukes," which sets out in explicit detail a few of the horrors John Kerry hinted at in the presidential debates:
In fact, some 350 tons of nuclear material in the former Soviet republics rest in facilities that have yet to receive any [security] upgrades at all. And according to Securing the Bomb: An Agenda for Action, a report produced by Matthew Bunn and Anthony Wier, researchers at Harvard University, whose work was commissioned by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, less weapons-usable material was secured in the former Soviet republics in the two years after 9/11 than in the two years before . . . .

Even after the materials have received security upgrades they remain vulnerable to theft. At some of these facilities guards keep their weapons unloaded (to prevent misfiring, they say); intrusion detectors are turned off (because false alarms are "annoying," guards say); and supposedly secured doors are propped open (to ease passage, guards say). Drunken fights and shootings among security personnel are not uncommon. Since 1991, according to confirmed reports, stolen weapons-usable materials have been stolen eighteern times in Russia and other countries, including France and Germany; most of the materials are believed to have come from the sites on this map. In 2003 alone, radioactive material thought to be purloined from former Soviet facilities was reportedly discovered in China, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Thailand. (Russian officials will often confirm that a theft has occurred, but not where. Given the country's penchant for secrecy and obfuscation, there are probably additional incidents we don't know about.)
The map that accompanies the story shows the locations of 51 sites within the former Soviet Union that together house about 660 tons of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium -- "enough to make as many as 70,000 nuclear bombs." Callouts on the map describe a handful of recent incidents:
  • HIGH-LEVEL CORRUPTION: August 2003: In the first known case involving the top management of a facility handling weapons-grade materials, Alexander Tyulyakov, the deputy director of Russia's fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers, was arrested for possession of more than two pounds of natural uranium powder, or "yellowcake." Tyulyakov had been attempting to sell the material for about $55,000.

  • A READY MARKET: October 2003: A Russian businessman agreed to buy several pounds of weapons-grade plutonium, for $750,000, from two residents of Sarov -- a nuclear city "closed" to all but residents. In a bizarre twist, the businessman contacted the Russian authorities after the sellers disappeared with his $50,000 down payment. The businessman had been planning to sell the plutonium to a former client.

  • THE MAFIA, THE POLICE, AND RUSSIAN INTELLIGENCE: December 2001: Seven people were arrested trying to sell more than two pounds of "low-enriched" uraniumfor $30,000 in a cafe in the town of Balashikha, outside Moscow. Although the case did not involve weapons-grade uranium, the composition of the selling group was worrisome: it included a Russian intelligence office, former members of the nuclear-trafficking division of Russia's police, and members of an organized-crime group. The uranium had been stolen from the enrichment and fabrication plant Elektrostal, which has suffered a number of thefts, including thefts of highly enriched uranium, and is not scheduled to have upgrades completed until 2009.

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