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Ever since the collapse of the former Soviet Union, reports have circulated with increasing frequency concerning attempts to smuggle materials from that country's civil and military nuclear programs. Such an increase obviously raises a number of concerns (outlined in the authors' introduction), chief among which is the possibility that these materials might eventually fall into the hands of proliferant states or terrorist groups.
Commentary this month is a co-authored issue: Dr. A. Robitaille was most recently the Director of Scientific and Technical Intelligence with DND; Mr. R. Purver, formerly Research Director at the Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament, is presently a Strategic Analyst with CSIS.
Disclaimer: Publication of an article in the COMMENTARY series does not imply CSIS authentication of the information nor CSIS endorsement of the author's views.
Attempts to smuggle special nuclear materials (i.e., those of significance to a nuclear weapon program) continue to increase throughout Eastern Europe. Further, available data reflect only those unsuccessful attempts which have been intercepted by the appropriate authorities. Troubling questions remain. How many other cases of such smuggling have been successful and remain undetected? To which countries are these materials being shipped? Why are such curious materials being offered up for sale? Is the risk to Western countries real and serious, or is it instead little more than a nuisance in international relations? Have the police themselves created an artificial demand through efforts to prevent it? Is there a genuine possibility that a rogue country like Iran might actually succeed in the construction of a clandestine nuclear weapon? Or worse yet, a terrorist organization such as Hamas? Some of these questions must, for the time being, remain unanswered, but others are worthy of consideration, and are discussed further below.
Reports of the trafficking of Red Mercury (claimed to have the composition Hg2Sb207) have been circulating for many years. Red Mercury was touted as a mediator in nuclear weapons design, particularly as an essential ingredient in pure-fusion weapons, a view expressed most recently in International Defence Review (6/94) by Dr. F. Barnaby, a former Director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. What is known about Red Mercury is that it was the Russian code name for the production of Li6D — a legitimate component of thermonuclear weapons, but not some mystical or magical ingredient for other purposes. In recent years Red Mercury has been widely discredited, and the "market" for it appears to be diminishing.
Of the nearly 1000 known incidents of smuggling, all but a handful have been of isotopes or materials entirely useless to nuclear weapons manufacture, thus reflecting the technological ignorance of both the supply and demand sides of the "market". However, four prominent exceptions were of truly special nuclear materials and all occurred within the last eight months of 1994. In May 1994, six grams of plutonium — Pu239 (99.75% purity) — were found in the garage of businessman Adolf Jaekle, in the southern German village of Tengen. In another case, six people were arrested in June 1994 in the Bavarian town of Landshut with 0.8 gram of weapons-grade uranium — U235 — for sale. Although the isotopes were certainly weapons-grade, the quantities involved were fortunately minuscule. In August 1994 at Munich Airport, 350 grams of 87% pure Pu239 were discovered aboard a flight from Moscow, and three couriers arrested; 200 grams of lithium (Li6) were confiscated at the same time. Both of these materials are required in the construction of thermo-nuclear weapons, and the amounts are significant. In the case of the plutonium, this amounts to almost 10% of the fissionable material required in an (admittedly) efficient weapon design. Finally, in December 1994, in the largest seizure yet of weapons-grade uranium, Czech officials in Prague confiscated 2.722 kilograms of U235 enriched to 87.5%, and arrested three men later identified as "nuclear workers". As in the case of the earlier German seizures, the materials were believed to have originated in the former Soviet Union (FSU), although Russian authorities have stridently denied that any of their weapons-grade material has gone missing.
Statistics on the overall incidence of nuclear smuggling vary according to the source, with some counting confirmed hoaxes or cases involving materials not generally considered harmful. Nevertheless, all appear to agree that the number of incidents is growing and represents a disturbing trend, especially in qualitative terms. For example, the New York Times in February 1995 cited a "Western European intelligence report" to the effect that the number of cases of actual or attempted nuclear smuggling from former communist countries reported to Western governments had more than doubled in 1994, to 124 from 56 the previous year and 53 in 1992. Furthermore, of the 1994 cases, a total of 77 had involved uranium or plutonium rather than "more harmless materials". For its part, the German federal criminal police (the BKA) recently reported that it had investigated no fewer than 267 cases of "illicit traffic in nuclear or radioactive materials" during 1994, compared to 241 in 1993, 158 in 1992, and just 41 in 1991. In short, the threat has clearly become serious enough that it can no longer be ignored or discounted.
Ever since the breakup of the USSR, concerns have been expressed that fissionable materials from its civil and military nuclear programs would find their way onto the black market where they could be obtained by would-be proliferant states or even terrorist groups. Such concerns have increased as economic conditions in the FSU have further deteriorated, with sagging morale in the military and insufficient (or non-existent) pay for workers in key industries and facilities, as well as the dramatic rise of organized crime.
Russian authorities continue to deny that weapons-grade materials seized in the West originated in their country. They have, however, admitted the theft of substantial quantities of highly-enriched uranium within their own borders. For example, it was reported to an Interpol meeting in May 1994 that Russian authorities had arrested two persons the previous March in St. Petersburg in possession of 2 kg of U235 enriched to 98%, presumed to have come from a "nuclear plant" east of the Urals. Russian Interior Minister Viktor Yerin told an international crime conference in Naples in November 1994 that 80 crimes relating to the illegal traffic of radioactive substances had been committed in the previous two years, including 32 thefts, but that none of the material had been suitable for weapons and none of the thefts had been from a "defence complex". Other reports put the number of cases much higher, but tend to agree that most, if not all, thefts have involved civil rather than military installations. Finally, a British television report in February 1995 quoted Russian sources as saying that their federal counter-intelligence service (the FSK) had seized a total of 212 kg of uranium fuel stolen from nuclear plants, and 8 kg of weapons-grade uranium, during 1994.
By one estimate, there are 950 sites for enriched uranium and plutonium in the FSU, including research institutes, weapons laboratories, assembly plants, power plants, nuclear waste storage sites and naval fuel depots. In many cases, physical security measures are reported to be seriously inadequate, while the accounting is said to be so poor that authorities are unaware of the precise amount and nature of materials in their possession. For example, until recently, the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in Moscow, housing hundreds of kilograms of nuclear materials, had no inventory controls, portal-monitoring system, or adequate fencing. According to one American official, "there was nothing to stop thieves from backing up a truck and loading what they wanted". A Russian naval officer on trial in Murmansk for having stolen 4 kg of 20%-enriched U235 in November 1993 has described how he simply walked straight into a poorly guarded storage area in Severomorsk (headquarters of the Russian Northern Fleet), forced a padlock on a door, and walked out with several canisters of nuclear fuel rods. Such reports hardly lend credibility to the protestations of Russian officials that they have the situation under control.
As noted earlier, all but one of the cases of weapons-grade material seized in the West have occurred in Germany, while the number of other incidents there appears higher than in other countries. This has led to some skepticism about why smugglers would choose Germany as the preferred route, given its better criminal intelligence and more efficient police forces. One possible answer would be the availability of the large sums demanded by smugglers. However, the issue also intruded into the German federal elections in the fall of 1994, with the opposition charging that the problem had been exaggerated, and incidents actually manufactured to improve the image of the incumbent government and allow it to pass stricter security regulations.
Seizures of illicit nuclear materials have in fact been reported in a variety of other countries, including Switzerland, Poland, Turkey, Romania, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, Austria, Italy, Belgium, Sweden and India, as well as in the FSU. The Baltic states are said to be a preferred route for smugglers, given the laxity of their border controls. Many observers have pointed out that the FSU's southern borders are even more porous, and are in some cases directly adjacent to potential state customers, leading to speculation that there may be much greater—though undetected—traffic through Central Asia.
Hitherto it has been the conventionally accepted wisdom that the clandestine construction of a nuclear weapon was beyond the capabilities of individuals, terrorist organizations, or even smaller countries. This view has persisted since World War II, primarily because of the immense effort by the USA at the time to produce one non-deliverable nuclear device (Gadget) and two nuclear weapons (Little Boy and Fat Man)—an effort which required tens of thousands of dedicated workers, billions of dollars, the construction of two very large research establishments (Oak Ridge and Los Alamos), many smaller ones, and four years.
If there is any lesson to be learned from the recent South African experience, however, it is that this perception no longer remains true, if indeed it ever did. South Africa's program was truly modest in scale, but was characterized by perseverance, patience and technical competence. In the beginning the program employed only about 100 personnel, of whom 40 were directly involved and only 20 actually in weapons construction. Even at the termination of the program (in 1989), a total of fewer than 300 were involved. At completion the program was designed to have the capacity to manufacture only two weapons per year—a production rate small enough to remain undetected by other countries. Secrecy was paramount; thus South Africa chose to make the program as self-reliant as possible, and depended little upon imported equipment. Most of the equipment which did have to be imported was not proscribed by international nuclear export controls, but in many cases did violate international sanctions imposed as a result of its policy of apartheid. What was required from foreign sources was the fundamental "intellectual infrastructure", and many of its key staff members were sent abroad (to the USA and Europe) for graduate education in the scientific disciplines required by the program. (A similar process was followed by Iraq, and unfortunately by many other countries attempting to develop weapons of mass destruction.)
Smuggled nuclear materials could be acquired either by states seeking a short-cut to a nuclear weapons capability (or an augmentation of existing stocks), or by terrorist groups. Given the technical difficulties encountered by a number of states in large-scale and relatively well financed efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, as well as the extremely high prices quoted for nuclear materials on the black market, many observers are skeptical about the likelihood of terrorist groups being able to acquire a nuclear explosive capability. However, radioactive materials—in much smaller quantities—could be used for terrorist purposes to contaminate a water supply or render unusable a particular area or facility. Although some types of contamination may be more difficult to achieve than commonly believed, most analysts agree that, given the widespread public "allergy" to nuclear material in whatever form, the mere threat of such use of radioactive materials could be a potent terrorist tool.
A more likely destination for smuggled nuclear materials would be the weapons program of a nation-state. A sufficient supply of fissionable materials is usually considered the primary obstacle to a new state's acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability. The acquisition of smuggled material might also allow a state to forego the construction of plutonium production, reprocessing and/or enrichment facilities, thereby effectively concealing its program from outside eyes and achieving strategic surprise. Finally, the acquisition and transport of highly radioactive materials by ill-trained and/or ill-equipped smugglers may pose a serious public health problem, as evidenced by the controversy surrounding the seizure at Munich Airport.
Sources in both Russia and the West maintain that, despite the apparent abundance of "sellers" in the nuclear black market, there appear to be relatively few "buyers" at the moment (other than journalists seeking a sensational story, or government undercover agents attempting to gauge the extent of the problem and to put a stop to it). Concern has been expressed that German authorities in their zeal to expose smugglers may have artificially created a market where none exists. German prosecutors have denied newspaper reports that the Spaniards arrested in Munich were suspected of having ties with the Basque separatist group ETA. Reports have persisted of documents showing that Saddam Hussein is trying to buy weapons-grade material on the European black market, and that a shipment of smuggled plutonium may have been sent to Pakistan. Iran, Libya and North Korea have also reportedly been named by German authorities as possible "buyers". However, the "Western European intelligence report" referred to earlier, as well as recent public remarks by senior American officials, suggests the lack of any conclusive evidence so far of the involvement of any foreign states in the trade.
The seizures in Germany in 1994 prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity to come to grips with the nuclear smuggling problem. Initially, they also caused some acrimony in relations between Russia and its Western partners, with Moscow accusing the latter of seeking to place Russian nuclear programs and facilities under supranational control, or at least to gain unfair advantage in the international nuclear market. Nevertheless, on 22 August 1994, Germany and Russia signed a memorandum aimed at improving bilateral co-operation to prevent the smuggling of nuclear materials. This included the establishment of a "hot line" between the relevant authorities, the exchange of information on cases, the possibility of mutual participation in analyzing seized materials, and joint promotion of an international agreement on the prompt notification of future cases. Subsequently, the issue was discussed both between various Western states and former republics of the Soviet Union, and in a number of high-level multilateral forums, including meetings of the European Union foreign and interior ministers, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Interpol, and the new European police agency, Europol.
President Yeltsin moved to demonstrate the seriousness of his government's attempts to deal with the problem by announcing in late August 1994 the establishment of an inter-agency commission headed by Sergei Stepashin, director of the counter-intelligence service. Further, on 15 September 1994, Yeltsin issued a decree to improve the "system of registration, conservation and control of nuclear materials". Among other things, it called for a prompt review of the accountancy and physical security situation; designated Gosatomnadzor (GAN), the Nuclear Control Commission, as the supreme agency in this area, reporting directly to the president; and called for priority budgeting in the fiscal year 1995 budget. Nevertheless, reports have persisted of divisions within the Russian bureaucracy over the magnitude of the problem and the degree to which Western concerns should be accommodated. The most powerful player, the Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom), has been described as being "not at all helpful in this regard". At least part of the problem is the multiplicity of Russian agencies having control over fissile materials (unlike in the West), including Minatom, the Ministry of Defence and even the Ministry of Shipbuilding (in regard to naval reactor fuel). Moreover, suspicions linger about widespread corruption and involvement in the trade at the highest levels of the Russian bureaucracy.
At their general conference in September 1994, the members of the IAEA expressed "deep concern" over the problem and called on Agency Director General Hans Blix to strengthen the IAEA's role in this area. The agency convened a meeting of 96 experts from 46 countries and 3 international organizations in Vienna in November 1994. They endorsed greater IAEA involvement in such matters as aiding states to improve their national systems of accountancy and control, as well as physical protection of materials; and developing a reliable data base on incidents to assist decision-makers and better inform the public. However, the availability of the necessary funds remains a problem.
The United States has been a leader in publicizing the issue, regarding it as a severe threat to its own (as well as international) security. Until recently, however, the rather extensive Nunn-Lugar program for the "denuclearization" of the states of the FSU had failed significantly to improve fissile material protection, control and accounting in Russia, due in part to disagreements between the two governments. A laboratory-to-laboratory effort administered by the US Department of Energy in 1994 was more successful, leading to improvements by the end of the year at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow. On 20 January 1995, Minatom agreed to co-operate for the first time with the USA in the physical protection and accounting of nuclear materials, beginning with six facilities. However, critics charge that the effort is still "too little, too late", given the gravity of the problem.
Other related efforts by the USA and/or its allies aimed at least partly at preventing smuggling include the creation of International Science and Technology Centers (ISTCs) in Moscow and Kiev to provide support to former weapons scientists; and "Project Sapphire" — the November 1994 transfer from Kazakhstan to the USA of 600 kg of poorly guarded, highly enriched uranium (HEU). Regarding the latter operation, however, one critic has pointed out that the material in question represented only .05% of the total amount of weapons-usable material in the FSU!
Approximately 500 metric tons of U235 and 300 tons of Pu239 from dismantled weapons and other sources must eventually be disposed of as a result of various arms control agreements currently being implemented in the FSU. These materials represent a proliferation potential of some 60,000 nuclear weapons.
In discussing options available to governments to deal with this problem, one must make a clear distinction, for technological reasons, between uranium and plutonium. Uranium is one of the most common elements found in the Earth's crust. It powers universally the 450-odd nuclear power plants currently operating in the world. There is already a well-established, legitimate, international market for the material. The fissionable isotope (U235) can, in principle, be readily blended-down with natural or depleted uranium (U238) to the same levels of enrichment as used in power-plant fuel. Once so diluted, the material is no more of a proliferation concern than natural uranium, since isotopic enrichment is an extraordinarily difficult process.
On the other hand, plutonium does not exist in nature, and Pu239 cannot merely be diluted with other isotopes to make it proliferation-resistant. Blending-down with other elements is no solution either, since separation of the original plutonium would require chemical, rather than physical, processing which is, at least in principle, considerably less difficult. Finally, but not the least importantly, the word "plutonium" itself is so highly emotive that there are very few Western governments prepared even to discuss participating in its disposal, for purely political reasons. Yet the material exists, it represents a threat to the world and it must be dealt with.
It is no wonder, therefore, that there has been a flurry of international activity among governments (West and East) to deal with weapons-grade uranium, for both political and commercial reasons, and such an aversion to dealing with the plutonium problem.
On 28 August 1992, Russia and the USA agreed to transfer from Russian inventories 500 metric tons of weapons-grade uranium to the USA for dilution into reactor fuel over the next 20 years. Over the subsequent two years, much progress was made between the two countries towards resolving difficulties associated with this transfer, primarily having to do with the issue of "transparency"; namely, developing methods and procedures to ensure that neither country could surreptitiously divert any of this material back into a weapons program. (One wonders why either would ever want to, since they both have the same disposal problem and a serious over-supply of existing weapons.) In any event, the final Implementing Contract was signed on 1 January 1994 by Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin in Moscow. This contract, between the United States Enrichment Corporation and Techsnabexport, has a value of (US) $12 billion. Regular shipments were to begin in late 1994, although some had been made earlier to develop and verify handling procedures. Thus, it can be reasonably assured that (barring thefts) the Russian stockpile of U235 will eventually be disposed of in an orderly way, with satisfactory material accounting and control procedures, and that there is little Canada can do to assist further in this effort.
The much more vexing question remains, however: what to do with 300 tons of highly radioactive, extremely toxic material that some would argue has no legitimate commercial value and is useful for little else than the potential production of 50,000 nuclear weapons? This issue has been on the table for some three years now, with little progress evident to date. As we have seen, a clandestine market is emerging to fill the void left by government inaction and ineptitude, and international tempers are becoming frayed as a result. Virtually all political leaders have recently emphasized the importance of dealing swiftly with the problem, to pre-empt potentially disastrous consequences, but it has led to little more than political posturing. Partly as a result of the recent controversy over the seizures of illicit material in Germany, a Siemens (Germany) initiative to build a mixed-oxide fuel plant in Russia (to burn up Pu as nuclear reactor fuel) has all but been killed politically, much to the consternation of German arms control authorities, who were vigorously recommending this option.
At a much more rational level, the American government contracted with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to develop policy options to deal with the disposition of weapons-grade plutonium. The NAS final report was released on 24 January 1994 and did much to put the issue into its proper perspective. While public opinion has concentrated more on the ultimate fate of the material, the NAS chose instead to emphasize the short-term questions, which should be resolved as soon as possible to contain the menace. The NAS noted that nuclear weapon technology is so widespread now that access to information is no longer a substantial barrier to proliferation. Rather, the principal technical barrier is access to fissile material itself (a conclusion reinforced by the South African experience, discussed previously). The NAS recommendations included:
(1) establishing a reciprocal régime of monitored net reductions in the stockpiles of nuclear explosive material;
(2) agreeing on the methods and the locations of secure interim storage of nuclear-explosive material from dismantled nuclear weapons; and
(3) superseding interim storage as quickly as possible with measures to minimize the accessibility of the plutonium for re-use in weapons by the imposition of substantial radiological, chemical and logistic barriers.
Regarding the ultimate disposition of weapon plutonium, the NAS identified two leading options which could be implemented quickly to minimize present security dangers (many others were discarded as requiring too much technological development before implementation, which would have introduced unacceptable delay). The two options that emerged practicable, commercially, reliably and safely, in the short term, were the following:
(1) the burning of mixed-oxide (uranium and plutonium) fuel in existing or future commercial nuclear power plants around the world. (For a variety of technological reasons the Canadian CANDU design is the best-suited of all the world's reactor types to burn plutonium, as already demonstrated at the Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories of AECL); and
(2) the mixture and glass-vitrification of plutonium with already processed, high-level radioactive waste.
Proponents of the first option point out that this would recapture some of the very substantial energy already consumed to produce the material initially, and that long-term storage of nuclear waste in glass-vitrified form has yet to be demonstrated satisfactorily. Proponents of the second option argue that this would render the material no more accessible than the plutonium already present in spent reactor fuel, and that any commercial use of plutonium is inherently bad since it might eventually lead to the legitimization of plutonium recycling and thus an enduring "plutonium economy". Nevertheless, both options are available and could begin to be implemented very quickly, if the political will would permit it.
There exists at the present time a dangerous quantity of fissile materials potentially available for the construction of nuclear weapons. The underlying economic and social conditions that make the FSU a particularly threatening environment in this regard are unlikely to change for the better in the near- or even the medium-term. Important elements of the nuclear infrastructure there are said to be resisting controls more intrusive than those already in place, which are widely believed to be grossly inadequate. As increasing numbers of nuclear weapons are dismantled under the terms of already negotiated arms control agreements (as well as unilateral reductions), hundreds of tons of additional fissile material will become available and subject to transport (where it may be most vulnerable to interception).
The only real technological barrier to the clandestine construction of nuclear weapons is access to fissionable material itself. There is a growing black market for this material, and eventually demand will result in enough material reaching as-yet unidentified buyers to produce a nuclear weapon, if the world community continues to procrastinate as it has to date. In the meantime, terrorist threats of contamination using radioactive substances gain enhanced credibility as the number of smuggling incidents continues to rise. Eliminating the menace will be difficult, especially politically, but action must be taken sooner rather than later in order to minimize the short-term threat. Finally, Canada is very well placed, at least technologically, to make a substantial and an enduring contribution to world peace in this area, given resolute leadership.
The views expressed herein are those of the author, who may be contacted by writing to :
CSIS P.O.Box 9732 Postal Station T Ottawa, Ontario K1G 4G4 FAX: (613) 842-1312
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