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Loose Nukes
A radioactive "dirty bomb" could be headed for your neighborhood

Vicki Haddock, Insight Staff Writer
Sunday, April 28, 2002

American officials say a top al Qaeda field commander has just bragged to interrogators that his network now knows how to cook up a radiation-spewing "dirty bomb" and could smuggle it into the United States. If you're still sleeping soundly knowing that, consider this:

Nearly five pounds of highly enriched uranium missing from a research reactor in the former Soviet Union years ago remains unaccounted for.

And if it's unsettling to think nobody knows the whereabouts of a chunk of hazardous material, it's even more unnerving in the post-9/11 world to imagine the alternative: Someone does.

It wouldn't be the first time radioactive material passed into the possession of someone with ill intent.

There was the U.S.-made nuclear fuel rod smuggled from a reactor in the Congo - Italian mafiosos were arrested for trying to peddle it to an intermediary for a Middle Eastern buyer. There were the Chechen rebels who planted a container holding the cesium-137 core of a medical device in a Moscow park and then tauntingly alerted Russian reporters.

And there was the Texas petroleum engineer convicted of pilfering licensed radioactive cesium pellets from his job site, slipping them into socks and putting them between his 11-year-old son's legs - leaving him burned and sterilized.

The frightening reality is that it is a mystery how much radioactive material goes missing worldwide every year. But missing material anywhere is a threat to everyone everywhere - as evidenced by the 1,000 American customers who bought La-Z-Boy recliners manufactured with Brazilian steel accidentally contaminated with low levels of radioactivity. (The chairs were swiftly recalled.)

Shocked at the lapses - and determined to force greater accountability - three researchers at the Institute for International Studies on the Stanford University campus have transformed themselves into loose-nuke sleuths. They have just announced creation of the world's most comprehensive database to track missing, stolen and recovered radioactive material globally.

Their Database on Nuclear Smuggling, Theft and Orphan Radiation Sources logs some 850 incidents from the past decade - everything from radioactive trash cavalierly tossed out by a cancer clinic to weapons-usable plutonium and uranium smuggled out of the dismantled Soviet Union.

Terrorism quickened the pulse of the project. Although most experts regard Osama bin Laden's boast of nuclear capability as a bluff, they're more willing to believe al Qaeda field commander Abu Zabaydah's claim to his interrogators that the group can build a "dirty bomb" out of the kind of radioactive material available in clinics, colleges and the like.

Rigged with ordinary explosives and then detonated, such a device could shower an area with radioactive contamination.

It -ouldn't truly be a weapon of mass destruction, but it would cause mass disruption - and probably mass hysteria.

"Within the United States, you're losing track of radioactive material literally every other day. Every other day. And controls here are among the highest in the world," says Austrian nuclear physicist Fritz Steinhausler, who fostered the database as a visiting professor at Stanford. He notes that the U. S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission lists an average of 200 radiation sources that are stolen, lost or abandoned within the country every year.

Some countries -don't even have a central register of radioactive materials - and thus no way of tracking their whereabouts.

Kazakstani researcher Lyudmila Zaitseva spends her days perusing databases, government records, technical journals and newspapers to pick up cases and assess their credibility. She then enters them into a database that categorizes incidents 21 ways: by material, type of incident, perpetrators, origin, presumed destination and intended use, etc.

Her conclusion: Accounting, protection standards and border detection capabilities have been so weak in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere that the database probably lists only a fraction of the incidents that occur every day somewhere around the globe.

Some 650 of the incidents she's established to date involve nuclear smuggling.

"Right now, law enforcement is picking up only about 10 to 30 percent of other illicit contraband" such as smuggled drugs or conventional arms, says Zaitseva. Extrapolating, "we calculate that what (radioactive material) is being detected as missing or stolen is probably 10 to 30 percent of what's really gone. So much goes unreported, so much we simply don't know about."

And clearly, when the missing merchandise is this "hot," what we don't know can hurt us.

Still, individual countries are loath to admit their snafus to the world. The International Atomic Energy Agency reports 18 cases of nuclear trafficking in the past decade involving small amounts of plutonium or enriched uranium - virtually all from the former Soviet Union - but each time material was seized,

accounting logs at the plundered facilities indicated that nothing was missing.

Thus far only one country has fully cooperated to provide information to the Stanford database - although the researchers -won't say which one. The United States -hasn't yet complied. Information on cases in closed societies like China is virtually nil.

Estimates put the world stock at hundreds of tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium (it becomes weapons-grade only if highly enriched). A small nuclear bomb conceivably could be fashioned from less than 50 pounds of highly enriched uranium, or from a sample of plutonium small enough to fit inside a Coke can.

"Those seeking to acquire nuclear material will go wherever it is easiest to steal, and buy it from anyone willing to sell - and the terrorists of Sept. 11 have demonstrated global reach," says George Bunn, a veteran U.S. arms control negotiator, now a Stanford professor and the third member of the new database triad.

To the lay person, the words "terrorist" and "nuclear bomb" together may conjure visions of a mushroom cloud like that over Hiroshima, but most experts consider such a fear unwarranted. The bulk of known smuggled material is not close to weapons-grade. Some of the peddled plutonium has been extracted from trace amounts in overseas home smoke detectors.

Even potent nuclear material is unusable or uncontrollable outside the hands of a fairly sophisticated bomb-builder.

And security at the old Soviet sites -isn't as lax as it was, say, a decade ago, when a thief outside a "secure" shipyard near Murmansk squeezed through a fence hole and used a hacksaw to cut the padlock on a container of nuclear submarine fuel - absconding with almost 30 pounds of enriched uranium. Mikhail Kulik, chief investigator of the incident, reported there were no alarm systems, no lights and few guards. "Even potatoes," he concludes, "are probably much better guarded today than radioactive materials."

Law enforcement officers have seized more than 80 pounds of missing Russian uranium and plutonium since the Soviet Union crumbled. Some volatile stockpiles have been relocated to more secure sites in the West, and the United States has spent millions to help upgrade facilities there by bricking up windows, installing motion detectors and the like.

Even so, only a third of former Soviet stockpiles have been secured - meaning that in some quarters the old Soviet Union retains its nickname as the "Home Depot" of nuclear bomb shopping.

Nor is there any shortage of alienated, underpaid nuclear scientists there -

and plant workers and guards protecting materials worth millions earn the equivalent of $200 a month.

Russia's nuclear security system, which suited a police state, is more vulnerable now. That was made glaringly apparent in 1998, when a local police official in the Chelyabinski region took credit for cracking a conspiracy to swipe more than 40 pounds of weapons-usable uranium.

"That one was serious because it was a group of people probably working inside the nuclear facility - the Russians still -won't say which facility - and the quantity of material involved was so great," says Scott Parish, senior research associate at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, whose database on nuclear materials in the Soviet Union is a prime source for the Stanford database.

"The Russians probably -didn't intend for the world to learn about the incident," he added, noting that his Moscow sources say Russian authorities called the police official on the carpet for blabbing.

While authorities recently have reported fewer theft attempts and seizures of nuclear material, perhaps thieves are getting more clever or redirecting their supply routes to the Middle East and Central Asia, where detection is less likely.

Just weeks ago, an intelligence report to the CIA warned that nuclear material inside Russia remains vulnerable. It noted several incidents such as the day last year when U.S. investigators found a storage site fence gate open and unguarded.

"The truth of the matter is, we are not very sure of how much should be there," says Steinhausler. He noted the old Soviet system was " 'You account for it, you seal it, and you forget it.' But if you had fraud committed years ago, you may be guarding an empty container."

Nor is the United States' own nuclear stock truly secure. The White House cut 93 percent of a recent Energy Department request for $380 million to better safeguard nuclear weapons and waste - ignoring Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's letter warning that "failure to support these urgent security requirements is a risk that would be unwise."

But even the patchy security at nuclear facilities is more rigorous than at the millions of businesses and research organizations around the globe that use and store radioactive materials for sterilizing equipment, disinfecting food, treating cancer and finding fuel deposits.

In recent days, that fear drove an unprecedented international air, ground and road search in the woods in the former Soviet Georgia - a weak state menaced by Muslim extremists - for two flashlight-sized containers of radioactive strontium-90. The radioactive material was encased in small power generators that vanished from an abandoned military base.

The frenzied search began after lumberjacks in a snowy forest near the Black Sea stumbled upon one of the missing containers in December. Unaware, they warmed their bodies next to its heat - and are now fighting to survive radiation burns. At last, the other canisters were found and, as of last week, secured.

The Federation of American Scientists recently offered Congress some disturbing scenarios. One example: What if the amount of cesium just discovered abandoned in a North Carolina scrap yard had fallen into the clutches of terrorists who exploded it with TNT near the National Gallery in Washington?

"Materials that could easily be lost or stolen from U.S. research institutions and commercial sites could easily contaminate tens of city blocks at a level that would require prompt evacuation and create terror in large communities even if radiation casualties were low," Henry Kelly, the federation's president, testified.

"Since there are often no effective ways to decontaminate buildings that have been exposed at these levels, demolition may be the only practical solution" - devastating in, say, midtown Manhattan or downtown San Francisco.

Other experts are more skeptical about terrorists' propensity to concoct a dirty bomb. Parish says even someone volunteering to die instantaneously in a flame of martyrdom might be more squeamish about exposure to the agony of radiation sickness. Still, nobody argues for dismissing the threat.

But forget terrorism for a moment. Even without it, the world ought to worry about the amount of radioactive material floating around, ready to trigger accidents that wreak havoc on health and the environment.

The Stanford database lists more than 80 cases in which villains like that Texas father used, or attempted to use, radioactive material to commit murder, injury, blackmail, fraud and the poisoning of food and water supplies.

Even more common are incidents of orphaned radioactive sources, which often aren't reported missing and simply turn up in scrap yards or the woods - often with tragic results.

Perhaps the most harrowing illustration is the case of Goiania, Brazil. In 1987, scavengers sold a junkyard operator a canister from an abandoned cancer clinic's radiotherapy machine. He pried open the top and discovered vivid blue granules that "glowed" in the shade.

As news spread, the neighborhood was enchanted with the mysterious substance. Children dabbed it on their faces like carnival glitter. One man even applied the "magic dust" to his penis to enhance his sexual prowess. It was radioactive cesium-137.

More than 100,000 people were tested for exposure, 249 of them were found to be contaminated, four people died and, at the time, much of the rest of Brazil viewed Goiania as a leper colony.

"The level of effort devoted to securing and accounting for stocks of even a few kilograms of fissile material should be even higher than that devoted to protecting stores of millions of dollars worth of cash, gold or diamonds," Stanford's Bunn maintains in a recent scientific article. "This is manifestly not the case at many facilities in many countries today. Indeed, a strong case can be made that the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons should be protected roughly as rigorously as nuclear weapons themselves are," as a committee of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences recommended in 1994.

Although the 1980 Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials sets international standards for transportation between countries, it says nothing about what countries do with nuclear material within their borders. Reformers say that's got to change.

They also advocate drastically better site security, interdiction efforts and stiffer penalties for the theft, illegal possession or transfer of plutonium or enriched uranium - typically only a few years in prison - to make the crime comparable to treason and murder.

The terrorist attacks, Bunn says, made it apparent that "the costs and risks of failing to act are far higher than the costs of acting now."

E-mail Vicki Haddock at vhaddock@sfchronicle.com.

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