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(Corrects to Long Beach, California in sixth paragraph of story published on March 23.)
The second global conference ever on nuclear material that has escaped state control is drawing President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Nuclear violators Iran and North Korea won’t be there.
The legacy of the Soviet Union’s breakup, inadequate atomic stockpile controls and the proliferation of nuclear-fuel technology mean the world may be awash with unaccounted-for weapons ingredients, ripe to be picked up by terrorists.
“If material is loose, it may already be impossible to contain or account for it,” said Graham Allison, director of Harvard University’s international security program and a former nuclear-security adviser to President Ronald Reagan. “There are no precise figures for how much high-enriched uranium or plutonium is missing.”
About 50 heads of state will attend the Nuclear Security Summit on March 26-27 in Seoul. Iran and North Korea, which are in violation of United Nations resolutions requiring them to halt their nuclear work, are among countries excluded from the summit because of organizers’ desire to reach consensus. So are potential transit countries such as Moldova and Lebanon that smugglers may target to move nuclear material.
With security officials still seeking the most basic information about how much high-enriched uranium and plutonium has been lost or is unaccounted-for, leaders meeting in Seoul may have to settle for modest measures to protect their populations from the risk of a terrorist obtaining a nuclear weapon, Allison said. Even a small blast would cause enormous casualties and disrupt the world economy.
A nuclear-armed terrorist attack on the U.S. port in Long Beach, California, would kill 60,000 people and cost as much as $1 trillion in damage and cleanup, according to a 2006 Rand study commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security. Even a low-level radiological or dirty-bomb attack on Washington, while causing a limited number of deaths, would lead to damages of $100 billion, according to Igor Khripunov, the Soviet Union’s former arms-control envoy to the U.S. He is now at the Athens, Georgia-based Center for International Trade and Security.
Because a terrorist needs only about 25 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium or 8 kilograms of plutonium to improvise a bomb, the margin of error for material accounting is small. There are at least 2 million kilograms (4.4 million pounds) of stockpiled weapons-grade nuclear material left over from decommissioned bombs and atomic-fuel plants, according to the International Panel on Fissile Materials, a nonprofit Princeton, New Jersey research institute that tracks nuclear material.
That’s enough to make at least 100,000 new nuclear weapons on top of the 20,000 bombs already in weapon-state stockpiles.
“The elements of a perfect storm are gathering,” said former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, founder of the Washington- based Nuclear Threat Initiative, in an e-mail. “There is a large supply of plutonium and highly enriched uranium-weapons- usable nuclear materials spread across hundreds of sites in 32 countries, too much of it poorly secured. There is also greater know-how to build a bomb widely available, and there are terrorist organizations determined to do it.”
Greenpeace, the anti-nuclear environmental group, has shown the ease with which intruders could breach security at Electricite de France SA reactors. Activists on Dec. 5 exposed lapses at EDF nuclear reactors near Paris and in southern France, hiding inside one for 14 hours and unfurling a banner reading “Safe Nuclear Doesn’t Exist” on the roof of another.
Since then, EDF has reviewed existing barriers around reactor sites and added patrols with guard dogs and tasers, said Dominique Miniere, the company’s director of nuclear production. If saboteurs were to penetrate a reactor site and disable the power supply, creating a similar effect as when the tsunami struck the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant in Japan last year, there would be a danger of the nuclear fuel rods melting and radioactive particles being released into the air.
Criminals breached South Africa’s Pelindaba nuclear facility in 2007, overpowering guards who oversaw the country’s stock of bomb-grade material. The U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency dismissed staff over nuclear security concerns in May 2008 at a North Dakota base that dispatched nuclear bombs without proper controls.
In November 2010, Belgian activists evaded North Atlantic Treaty Organization guards to expose weak security protecting nuclear weapons at a base in Kleine Brogel. Activists spent several hours taking pictures of a bunker containing nuclear warheads before security guards apprehended them.
The Global Zero Initiative, whose U.S. arm is headed by former nuclear negotiator Richard Burt, said in a report last month that the greatest nuclear security threat in Russia comes from bases in the country’s west that house tactical nuclear warheads targeting Europe. These bases provide inadequate security against theft or sabotage, according to the report, whose authors included Russian former arms-control negotiators.
At the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had about 22,000 nuclear weapons in storage in Russia and such satellite states as Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Allison says there are doubts that all the weapons-usable material was recovered when many warheads were repatriated and dismantled because of the chaos at the time and incomplete records.
About 100 grams of highly enriched uranium, lodged inside a nuclear fission chamber, was plucked out of a Rotterdam scrap- metal yard in 2009 by Jewometaal Stainless Processing BV’s radiation-safety chief, Paul de Bruin. The scrap probably came from a decommissioned Soviet nuclear facility, he said.
The discovery illustrated the ease with which nuclear material can bypass accounting checks and international radiation monitors. The shipment containing the uranium had already been checked for radioactivity.
“The inability to accurately account for weapon-usable nuclear material around the world is a major obstacle to eliminating the threat of nuclear terrorism,” said Edwin Lyman, a senior physicist at the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Union for Concerned Scientists, on March 14. Plutonium can be smuggled from some facilities “without a high probability of detection,” he said.
One issue threatening to hobble the security summit is that all nations aren’t invited, wrote Burt, who is also a managing director at Washington’s McLarty Associates. He negotiated nuclear-weapons cuts with the Soviets under President George H.W. Bush.
Other countries that weren’t invited include Belarus, home to about 500 pounds of high-enriched uranium that the U.S. wants removed, and Niger, the West African nation falsely accused of supplying uranium to Iraq before the 2003 war over an alleged nuclear-weapons program. Organizers opted to keep participation narrow in 2010 to foster more substantive debate, South Korea’s International Atomic Energy Agency envoy, Cho Hyun, said in a March 15 interview.
By excluding some nuclear nations from the proceedings, the summit organizers risk undercutting the role of the Vienna-based IAEA, which verifies nuclear material worldwide.
“The summit’s lack of universality affects the ability of the IAEA to take a visible role in nuclear security,” said Cho, who was previously South Korea’s chief negotiator for U.S. nuclear agreements. “The IAEA has been playing an essential role in strengthening international efforts for nuclear security.”
The 153-member IAEA, whose powers are granted by consensus, has published guides and helped install detection equipment, in addition to making sure fissile material isn’t diverted for weapons in places like Iran. Lebanon asked the Vienna-based agency in 2008 to help install radiation monitors in Masnaa, along its border with Syria.
“Nuclear security is a global issue and it requires a global response,” IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor said today in an e-mail, adding that the agency’s security budget will need to grow in order for it to help member states. “The need to improve nuclear security greatly exceeds inflation.”
In the absence of binding oversight or an international verification treaty, Harvard’s Allison said he was surprised terrorists haven’t already used nuclear materials in an attack.
“There is general agreement in national security circles that” a dirty bomb attack “is long overdue,” he said. “Terrorists have known for a long time that nuclear reactors are potentially vulnerable to attack or sabotage.”
Other officials say the threat of nuclear terrorism should be taken seriously without being overplayed in public.
“Those of us who are ringing the nuclear terrorism alarm take care to not overstate the odds of such an attack,” former U.S. Energy Department Director of Intelligence Rolf Mowatt- Larssen wrote March 18 in an e-mail. “The population is also suffering from terror-warning fatigue.”
“Governments are only now beginning to think about how to raise nuclear security standards worldwide,” Washington-based Arms Control Association President Daryl Kimball said March 14. “Terrorists only need to exploit the weakest link in order to acquire nuclear material that could eventually lead to a detonation that would make the Fukushima disaster pale in comparison.”
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