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:
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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,
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
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
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
"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 email@example.com.