Analysis & Opinions - The Scotsman

Nuclear and Present Danger

| January 29, 1996

The Scotsman
January 29, 1996, Monday

HEADLINE: Nuclear and present danger
BYLINE: Graham Allison

BODY: ON 18 APRIL 1995, American terrorists demolished Oklahoma City's federal office building, killing 162 people. Two and a half years earlier, international terrorists attacked New York City's 110-storey World Trade Center. Had that explosion succeeded in undermining the structural foundation, 30,000 people would have died.

From Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center to the first act of nuclear terrorism is but one small step. Suppose that instead of mini-vans filled with hundreds of pounds of the crude explosives used in Oklahoma City and New York, terrorists had acquired a suitcase carrying a, grapefruit sized 100 pounds of highly-enriched uranium (HEV).

Assuming a simple, well-known design, a weapon fashioned from this material would produce a nuclear blast equivalent to 10,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT. Under normal conditions, this would devastate a three-square mile urban area. Oklahoma City would have disappeared. The tip of Manhattan, including all of Wall Street reaching up to Gramercy Park, would have been destroyed.

AS A DIRECT CONSEQUENCE OF the collapse of the Soviet Union, a buyer's market for the raw materials needed to build simple nuclear bombs has emerged. This has transformed the nature of the world's nuclear proliferation problem in a manner that is only slowly being appreciated by international leaders.

Last May's indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was a laudable accomplishment for international diplomacy but the NPT is virtually irrelevant for combating the new nuclear threat of illicit trafficking in fissile material.

Reducing the threat of nuclear leakage requires radical rethinking and an international effort at containment, not of an expansionist adversary, but of a global overhang of insecure fissile materials in the former Soviet Union.

Nuclear leakage is occurring and it is likely to get worse. Since 1991, the press has been filled with stories about the theft and trafficking of nuclear materials and weapons from the former Soviet Union. Since 1992, there have been six known cases of theft or illicit trafficking in weapons-usable fissile materials.

An employee stole approximately 3.7 pounds of HEU from the Luch Scientific Production Association at Podolsk, Russia, in mid-1992. A captain in the Russian Navy stole approximately 10 pounds of HEU from a submarine fuel storage facility in Murmansk in November 1993.

German police accidentally discovered 5.6 grams of supergrade plutonium in the garage of a suspected counterfeiter in Tengen, Germany, in May 1994. In June 1994, Bavarian police in Landshut seized 0.8 grams of HEU in a sting operation. A sting operation also resulted in the seizure of almost a pound of near-weapons-grade plutonium at the Munich airport in August 1994.

And approximately six pounds of HEU were seized in Prague in December, 1994. To put this into historical perspective, more fissile material is known to have been stolen from the former Soviet Union in the past five years than the United States produced in the first three years of the Manhattan Project which built the first atom bomb.

Though a catastrophic rupture of the Russian nuclear complex has not yet taken place, nuclear leakage from Russia is likely to continue and could easily get worse. The reasons are self-evident: Russia's sprawling nuclear complex is in the midst of a seemingly terminal economic decline, with installation security inadequate, particularly against insider threats, and the process of dismantling Russia's excess nuclear warhead overwhelming Russia's capacity to store the resulting excess weapons components.

This in a context of a society suffering from profound disorder, social and economic hardship, political opportunism, and rampant criminalisation. In this situation the risks are distressingly high.

Nuclear leakage is the single greatest threat to international security. This is true today and for the foreseeable future. The new threat of nuclear leakage caused by the Soviet collapse has transformed the nature of the proliferation problem. There are four dangerous myths in circulation about nuclear weapons: that building a nuclear weapon is hard to do; that fissile materials are too hazardous or too heavy to smuggle; that the delivery of nuclear weapons across international borders is a challenge; and that there is no demand for illicitly acquired nuclear weapons or fissile material. All four assumptions are dead wrong.

First, once fissile material is available it is easy to turn it into a weapon. The denial of access to fissile material is the only reliable means of denying access to nuclear weapons. Designers of US weapons have been repeating the basic truth since the early Seventies when John Foster, a former director of the Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons laboratory, stated that "the only difficult thing about making a fission bomb of some sort is the preparation of a supply of fissile material of adequate purity; the design of the bomb itself is relatively easy."

There is a consensus among US weapons designers that most states and many terrorist groups could build a simple nuclear weapon given an adequate supply of fissile material.

Second, transport is easy. Many seem to draw reassurance from the belief that a weapons quantity of fissile materials is too massive to be easily transported, or that nuclear smugglers would be inhibited by the health dangers associated with handling fissile materials. Both views are false. The simplest bomb design, such as the one dropped on Hiroshima, requires a little over 100 pounds of HEU. A slightly more challenging but still simple implosion weapon can be constructed with less than 20 pounds of plutonium or about 40 pounds of HEU.

These are weights that could be physically carried by a single human being, and because of the density of these materials, the volumes associated with these weights are very small. Moreover, and contrary to widespread public belief, weapon-grade fissile materials can be safely handled; plutonium is radioactive, emitting alpha particles, but these particles cannot penetrate skin; HEU is hardly radioactive at all.

Third, delivery is easy, as open societies, the borders of the US, Germany and the other western allies are exceptionally porous. The volume of people and commodities that flow across them is enormous and largely uninspected. Those trying to smuggle nuclear weapons, or the materials to make them, would not need to choose legal points of entry.

The detection of nuclear weapons or fissile material by law enforcement officials is not easy, Technologies designed to detect them operate over very short ranges and are used only at secure storage facilities and by a few special search teams.

Finally, the means of delivery into or against developed countries are essentially infinite. Since they lack the intercontinental delivery systems preferred by the nuclear superpowers, a terrorist or rogue state would rely on an unconventional means of delivery, such as a ship in a port or a truck bomb.

Fourth, demand exists. No-one can doubt that there is a demand for nuclear weapons: it has been demonstrated by over a dozen states, beginning with the Second World War combatants. Some question whether there is demand for stolen or illicitly purchased fissile material or nuclear weapons. So far, there is little hard evidence to prove the existence of this demand, but it has only been a feasible option since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Since states are known to be willing to invest years of effort and billions of dollars into the acquisition of nuclear weapons, it is not plausible that they would decline to steal or purchase fissile material, or even weapons, if such an opportunity were to present itself. Some observers assert that terrorists are congenitally uninterested in acquiring or using nuclear weapons.

People felt similarly about terrorists and chemical weapons until they tasted sarin in the Tokyo subway.

THE RESPONSE TO THE THREAT of nuclear leakage is inadequate. The international response has not begun to match the high stakes in the matter. In 1995, a few hopeful steps were taken in a few areas of the post-Soviet nuclear archipelago. Yet most of the relevant facilities are no more secure by the end of 1995 than they were when the Soviet Union disappeared. And although several important individual successes of US policy can be identified, little has been done to reverse the broad-based degradation of Russia's nuclear custodial system.

The Clinton administration has pursued a broad range of innovative programmes designed to deal with many different nuclear issues in the former Soviet Union, but their efforts have been obstructed by Russia's reluctance to co-operate, financial limits imposed by Congress, the competing priorities of the Clinton administration itself, and the meagreness of the contribution of the US allies. Combating nuclear leaking is not a significant foreign policy priority for any state in Europe or elsewhere. Germany has done more than any other European country, having aggressively tackled the nuclear smuggling problem, but with a counter-productive media and Bundestag response.

THE LEADERS OF THE MAIN industrial powers have to master the danger of nuclear proliferation -they must move faster. Specifically, there are three essential objectives.

First, Russia must be induced to reduce short-term leakage. This can be achieved by official purchase of Russian HEU, excess weapons-grade plutonium, and support of security-enhancement at all former Soviet nuclear installations, including joint inventories and multi-lateral site-by-site analyses.

Second, the relationship with the Russian government needs to be co-operative and in Russian institutional interests. This could include economic incentives, joint reactor development projects and clean-up operations, sponsorship for re-orienting nuclear weapons enterprises towards non-military commercial activity, and provision of alternative energy resources to the two Russian cities where weapons-grade plutonium is made.

Finally, a long-term solution to the global surplus of excess fissile materials must be addressed. It is incumbent upon the United States and Russia to take the lead in this area, given their nuclear superpower status, but in co-operation with the other international powers, this should include provision for: an international monitoring regime for fissile materials; an international plutonium "bank", or depository, and a specialist international law enforcement and intelligence agency; in short, the creation of a "nuclear Interpol".

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham T..“Nuclear and Present Danger.” The Scotsman, January 29, 1996.