Nuclear acquisition a real threat in Russia, Pakistan

If the world’s existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons and weapons-usable nuclear materials can be secured reliably, nuclear terrorism can be prevented. Simple enough, but therein lies the challenge. A recent analysis of the situation commissioned by the Nuclear Threat Initiative concludes that "a fast-paced global partnership is urgently needed to secure the world’s nuclear stockpiles before terrorists and thieves get to them. This must be a global effort, as the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons exist in more than 40 countries, on every inhabited continent."1

Key issues and areas for action cited in the report are summarized as follows:

  • The United States and Russia bear a special responsibility for leading this effort, as they possess more than 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons and more than 85% of the world’s weapons-usable nuclear material, and in many cases, were the suppliers for weapons-usable nuclear material in other countries around the world.
  • The Russian government and economy have stabilized; nuclear workers and guards are now being paid a living wage on time; and the most glaring security deficiencies have largely been fixed. But serious security problems remain.
  • Experts who visit Russia’s nuclear sites continue to report broken intrusion detectors; nuclear-material accounting systems never designed to detect the theft of nuclear material; and security culture problems ranging from guards turning off detectors when they are annoyed by the false alarms to security gates propped open for convenience.
  • At the same time, threats to these facilities appear to be growing: Russian official sources report four incidents of terrorist reconnaissance on Russian nuclear warheads from 2001 to 2002. The Russian state newspaper reports that the 41 heavily armed terrorists who seized hundreds of hostages at a Moscow theater in October 2002 first considered seizing a Moscow site with enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for dozens of nuclear weapons. A 2003 criminal case revealed that a Russian businessman had been offering $750,000 for stolen weapon-grade plutonium for sale to a foreign client — and had succeeded in making contact with residents of the closed nuclear weapon city of Sarov, to attempt to arrange the purchase.
  • Pakistan’s nuclear stockpiles are very small compared to those of Russia and the United States, and its facilities are believed to be heavily guarded. But the threat in Pakistan is very, very high — both from nuclear insiders sympathetic to extreme Islamic causes and from the large armed remnants of al Qaeda.
  • Some 20 metric tons of HEU — enough for hundreds of nuclear weapons — exist as fuel for civilian research reactors around the world. More than 130 research reactors still use HEU as their fuel, in more than 40 countries. Most of these facilities have very modest security — in many cases, no more than a night watchman and a chain-link fence.
  • Research-reactor fuel elements are small enough for a thief to put several of them into a backpack and carry them to a waiting vehicle. Chemical processing would be needed to extract the HEU from these fuel elements — but the processing required is reasonably straightforward, and all the details of the necessary processes are published in the open literature.
  • When both fresh and unirradiated fuel are included, there are probably dozens of locations around the world where enough material for a bomb exists at a single site — and given the terrorists’ demonstrated ability to carry out multiple coordinated attacks, the danger that they might strike more than one site to get their material cannot be discounted.

Reference

1. Bunn M, Wier A. Securing the Bomb: An Agenda for Action. Washington, DC: Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Project on Managing the Atom, Harvard University; May 2004.