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New Scientist 26 July 1997

The Continuing Risk of Nuclear Military Incident

'The nuclear arsenals, have been privatised and are now prey to gangs of criminals'

IS THE world slipping back to the dangerous state it was in at the height of the Cold War? The old controls have gone and near anarchy reigns in the former Soviet Union. What is most worrying is that the nuclear arsenals, once secure in state hands, are now scattered over hundreds of sites under the control of several countries. Worse still, they have been privatised and are prey to gangs of criminals as likely to traffic in uranium and plutonium as heroin and cocaine.

Currently the former republics own some 130 tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium between them. They produce fissile material for nuclear and civilian research programmes, and have uranium-enrichment plants producing low-enriched uranium for commercial sale. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, millions of dollars have been spent, mainly by the US and other G7 countries, on programmes to dispose of fissile material safely. Yet for all the effort, nuclear security remains a problem. The authority of the central government in Russia has been eroded, and its nuclear regulatory agency, GAN, no longer has the resources to run a good accounting system for the country's stockpiles. The same is true in the other republics. None is able to determine the exact whereabouts, quantity or condition of fissile material that it owns. Enough fissile material is on the loose to make many hundreds of nuclear weapons. Against this backdrop, incidents of nuclear smuggling are inevitable-or rumours of them. Many media accounts have turned out to be untrue-there are even claims in academic circles that German journalists fabricated the idea of a black market for fissile material. Even so, a number of reports have turned out to be true. They have tended to involve entrepreneurs, impoverished employees of the decaying nuclear industry or organised criminal networks. For example, in 1992,1-7 kilograms of 90 per cent pure highly enriched uranium (HEU) was stolen from the Luch Scientific Production Association in Russia; on 27 November 1993, three pieces of a reactor core containing 4-5 kilograms of 20 per cent HEU were stolen from a shipyard near Murmansk in Russia; and on 10 May 1994 in Tengen, Germany, 6 grams of plutonium-239 was uncovered; and on 14 December 1994, 2.7 kilograms of 87 per cent pure HEU was seized in Prague. A number of industries in the former Soviet Union produce nuclear materials that are suitable both for commercial use and for making nuclear weapons. These "dual-use items" include beryllium, caesium-137 and lithium. In 1993, 4 tonnes of beryllium was illegally exported from Ukraine to Germany and thence to the US. The black market has tended to smuggle fissile materials such as uranium and plutonium along particular routes. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are the major transit states for materials originating from Russia. Dual-use materials often leave former republics by way of the Baltic states, too. And the smugglers also use exit routes through Eastern Europe and into Germany However, when smugglers are caught using these routes they tend to be in possession of "insignificant" amounts of nonweapons-grade fissile material, is the route a smoke screen to protect some other shadowy trade in larger amounts of fissile material which are being shipped around central Asia? Frank Barnaby, the nuclear weapons expert, suggests that given the lack of adequate border controls, Turkey provides an important exit route, and Vladivostok another into China and beyond. The international community has tried to respond to the threat. Examples of its efforts include the Nunn-Lugar Program (backed by $1 billion from the US government) to convert former Soviet nuclear defence industries to civilian use, the US-led Laboratory to Laboratory Program to help former Soviet scientists now forced to live on the breadline, and the moneys contributed after the Moscow G7 Nuclear Safety Summit. But too little attention is being paid to the intrinsically criminal character of this lethal traffic. Unless the crime-busting skills normally ranged against other Mafia-like organisations are deployed, the progress will continue to be slow. Partial solutions and half-hearted attempts to solve the problem mean that fissile material continues to fall into the wrong hands. If this trade is not tackled head-on, the risk of nuclear terrorism both individual and state-sponsored-in the next decade will be unprecedented. --

Nadine Gurr is a researcher in the Department of International Relations at the University of Reading