Bomb smugglers

April 24, 1996|By Jessica Stern

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Nuclear smuggling has captured the popular imagination. Novelists are fascinated by it, Hollywood is making films about it and stories in the press abound. Many Russian government officials deny that the problem exists except as a figment of the West's collective imagination.

In fact, however, nuclear smuggling is more than the stuff of Tom Clancy novels; it is now a key national-security concern. It wouldn't take a lot of genuine nuclear smuggling incidents to threaten international security.

Even a tiny nuclear explosion, say, a one-kiloton blast at 3 p.m. in the World Trade Center, would change Americans' lives forever. A single detonation would explode the delicate balance that Americans have struck between civil liberties and public safety. Suddenly there would be a lot more sympathy for FBI snooping, for CIA spying, and for chips that monitor electronic conversations.

Criminals and con men have been smuggling radioactive materials for decades. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, the number of incidents increased dramatically from four in 1991 to several hundred in 1995. Most of these cases have involved non-fissile radioactive substances that are highly poisonous, but could not be used to make a bomb. Beginning in May 1994, experts' worst fears were realized when authorities seized a series of seven consignments of weapons-usable materials in various European cities.

The typical profile of an arrested nuclear black-marketer, according to Russian foreign intelligence, is a worker in the nuclear industry, who, months after ferreting out a small quantity of nuclear material, begins haphazardly to search for a buyer. But the fact that the Russian government has seized materials stolen by amateurs is hardly reason to relax; amateurs are obviously more likely to be caught than professionals.

The origin of the problem is that the Soviet nuclear security and accounting system was not designed for a democratic state. It depended on the loyalty of the nuclear custodians, disciplined by terror. With the KGB weakened in post-Communist Russia, and the legitimate incomes of custodians plummeting, neither loyalty nor terror operates effectively.

A member of President Boris Yeltsin's national-security staff says that, as a hoard against future five year plans, workers often hid away as much as 10 percent of nuclear-materials production. No one has any idea where that material is now, he claims.

In Russia today Ph.D. scientists are working as secretaries. Soldiers are dying for lack of food. In Chechnya, troops trade tanks for vodka, and Russian-trained insurgents take Russians hostage. Criminals are winning parliamentary seats, principally to secure parliamentary immunity against prosecution. Ordinary Russians see their leaders as thugs, and journalists investigating corruption are shot.

Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that workers are tempted to steal valuable nuclear materials. According to the Russian government, 80 percent of Russia's nuclear facilities had no equipment to prevent nuclear theft, so it is also no wonder that they occasionally succeed. Not only nuclear materials are at risk: The warheads themselves may also be threatened.

Stingy funding

Under a comprehensive program designed by the Clinton administration, hundreds of missile launchers have been dismantled, thousands of warheads have been sent back to Russia (from Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus) for destruction, and security for tons of bomb-usable material has been improved. These programs have barely squeaked through Congress. This year's administration request was cut by $71 million.

Americans should urge their leaders to take the following actions: Increase the level of funding for improving Russia's nuclear security; expand the Nunn-Lugar program to include all former Soviet states (other states in addition to the ''nuclear four'' inherited nuclear materials, expertise and components -- and are possible conduits to would-be nuclear states or terrorists); initiate discussions among Nuclear Emergency Search Teams to prepare to cooperate in the event of a nuclear emergency; regularize international cooperation among law-enforcement and intelligence experts; expand intelligence efforts to cover all former Soviet borders, especially the most likely smuggling routes, and expand training and equipment programs for law enforcement, customs and border-control agencies.

Only through such efforts will nuclear terrorism remain the purview of novelists and screenwriters.

Jessica Stern, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is writing a book on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons terrorism.

Pub Date: 4/24/96

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