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 San Jose, 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.
Invading Power Plants
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.
Phi Beta Iota: Our understanding is that the US Government cannot account for all of its nuclear materials (not just weapons, but those are not under rigorous control either). Furthermore, the development of nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological weapons in black programs open the real possibility that the next CIA, FBI, or Israeli false flag will indeed be radiological in nature. As best we can tell, we have a corrupt civilian leadership and a troubling mix of honest and out of control military leaders. The USA remains the greatest proliferator of most threat materials, while enabling others to proliferate at well. It is not possible to “lock down” the world. The USA passed the point of diminishing returns on Epoch A top down leadership decades ago. The only possible “win” is non-zero – create a world that works for all. We know how to do this. Corruption prevents us from being serious.