The Real Threat of Nuclear Smuggling
Image: Laurie Grace
NUCLEAR-SMUGGLING INCIDENTS have been reported
across Europe (dots above show sites of seizure, origin or transfer).
Security at some stockpiles is being upgraded, but unsettled economic and
political conditions are undermining morale. Hundreds of incidentsover the
past five years suggest that illicit trade in uranium and plutonium could
be a grave problem
During past centuries, most people who thought of smuggling at all considered it a somewhat esoteric profession--a way of avoiding taxes and supplying goods that could not be obtained through licit channels. Drugs added a more insidious dimension to the problem during the 1970s and 1980s, but trade in uranium and plutonium during the past five years has given smuggling unprecedented relevance to international security.
Yet there is considerable controversy over the threat nuclear smuggling poses. Some analysts dismiss it as a minor nuisance. Not only has very little material apparently changed hands, they argue, but, with a few exceptions, most of it has not even been close to weapons grade. None of the radioactive contraband that has been confiscated by Western authorities has been traced unequivocally to weapons stockpiles. Some of the plutonium that smugglers try to peddle comes from smoke detectors.
In addition to these amateur smugglers, there are many scam artists who sell stable elements that have been rendered temporarily radioactive by exposing them to radiation or who obtain large advances based on minute samples. Indeed, many of those who traffic in nuclear materials do so with little or no idea of what they are stealing--one Pole died of radiation poisoning after carrying cesium in his shirt pocket, and a butcher in St. Petersburg kept uranium in a pickle jar in his refrigerator.
Based on the bumbling nature of most of the smuggling plots uncovered so far, some well-informed observers have suggested that, in Germany at least, the only buyers are journalists, undercover police and intelligence agents. Some go even further and contend that pariah states such as Iraq, Iran, Libya or North Korea may not be interested in acquiring illicit nuclear arsenals at a time when they are in the process of trying to reestablish normal relations with the West.
Nevertheless, nuclear smuggling presents a grave challenge. In almost all illicit markets, only the tip of the iceberg is visible, and there is no reason why the nuclear-materials black market should be an exception. Police seize at most 40 percent of the drugs coming into the U.S. and probably a smaller percentage of those entering western Europe. The supply of nuclear materials is obviously much smaller, but law-enforcement agents are also less experienced at stopping shipments of uranium than they are in seizing marijuana or hashish. To believe that authorities are stopping more than 80 percent of the trade would be foolish.
Moreover, even a small leakage rate could have vast consequences. Although secrecy rules make precise numbers impossible to get, Thomas B. Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C., estimates that a bomb requires between three and 25 kilograms of enriched uranium or between one and eight kilograms of plutonium. A kilogram of plutonium occupies about 50.4 cubic centimeters, or one seventh the volume of a standard aluminum soft-drink can.
Although rigorous screening of all international shipments could catch some radioactive transfers, several of the most dangerous isotopes, such as uranium 235 and plutonium 239, are only weakly radioactive and so could be easily shielded from detection by Geiger counters or similar equipment. X-ray and neutron-scattering equipment, such as that in place at airports to detect chemical explosives, could uncover illicit radionuclides as well, but because it is not designed for the task its practical effectiveness is limited.
If the amounts of material needed for nuclear weapons are small in absolute terms, they are minuscule in comparison to the huge stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, especially in Russia, where both inventory control and security remain quite problematic. World stocks of plutonium, which totaled almost 1,100 tons in 1992, will reach between 1,600 and 1,700 tons by the year 2000, enough to make as many as 200,000 10-kiloton bombs. As disarmament agreements are implemented, another 100 tons of refined weapons-grade plutonium will become available in the U.S. and Russia--ironically, in the post-cold war world, one of the safest places for plutonium may well be on top of a missile.
In addition, the U.S. and former Soviet states each hold about 650 tons of highly enriched uranium. These large stockpiles are all the more disturbing because control over them is fragile and incomplete. The Russian stores in particular suffer from sloppy security, poor inventory management and inadequate measurements. Equipment for determining the amount of plutonium that has been produced is primitive--yet without a clear baseline, it is impossible to know what may be missing.
Virtually nonexistent security at nuclear installations compounds the problem. The collapse of the KGB took with it much of the nuclear-control system. Ironically, under the Soviet regime security was tight but often superfluous. Nuclear workers were loyal and well paid and enjoyed high status. As pay and conditions worsen, however, disaffection has become widespread. With an alienated workforce suffering from low and often late wages, the incentives for nuclear theft have become far greater at the very time that restrictions and controls have deteriorated.
In November 1993 a thief climbed through a hole in a fence and entered a supposedly secure area in the Sevmorput shipyard near Murmansk. He used a hacksaw to cut through a padlock on a storage compartment that held fuel for nuclear submarines and stole parts of three fuel assemblies, each containing 4.5 kilograms of enriched uranium. Although the uranium was eventually recovered, Mikhail Kulik, the official who conducted the investigation of the theft, was scathing in his report: there were no alarm systems, no lighting and few guards. Kulik noted: "Even potatoes are probably much better guarded today than radioactive materials." Improvements in security at the base since the incident have been very modest.
The situation is not entirely gloomy. According to reports, some of the nuclear cities--formerly secret sites where bombs were designed and built--are well secured, and the controls on weapons-grade materials are generally more stringent than those on lower-quality items. Although efforts to enter the closed zone at Arzamas-16 (the Russian weapons-design laboratory that is a rough counterpart to Los Alamos National Laboratory in the U.S.) have reportedly doubled during the past year, the security system there appears to remain effective. Moscow is also making efforts to reestablish security throughout its nuclear industry--in some cases, such as the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in Moscow, with direct assistance from the U.S. Yet the task is formidable. Nearly 1,000 stores of enriched uranium and plutonium are scattered throughout the former Soviet Union.
Against this background, it is hardly surprising that the number of nuclear-smuggling incidents--both real and fake--has increased during the past few years. German authorities, for example, reported 41 in 1991, 158 in 1992, 241 in 1993 and 267 in 1994. Although the vast majority of cases do not involve material suitable for bombs, as the number of incidents increases so does the likelihood that at least a few will include weapons-grade alloys.
In March 1993, according to a report from Istanbul, six kilograms of enriched uranium entered Turkey through the Aralik border gate in Kars Province. The material had apparently been brought from Tashkent to Grozniy, where Chechen crime groups entered the picture, then to Nakhichevan via Georgia, before arriving in Istanbul. Although confirmation of neither the incident nor the degree of the uranium's enrichment was forthcoming, it raised fears that Chechen "Mafia" groups had obtained access to enriched uranium in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan's agreement in 1994 to transfer enriched uranium to the U.S. suggests that such speculation may have had some basis.
In October 1993 police in Istanbul seized 2.5 kilograms of uranium 238 and detained four Turkish businessmen, along with four suspected agents of Iran's secret service. A Munich magazine later reported that the uranium may have gone to Turkey via Germany. According to one of the Turkish detainees (a professor who had previously been involved in the smuggling of antiquities), accomplices flew the uranium by Cessna to Istanbul from Hartenholm, a private airfield near Hamburg owned by Iranian arms dealers.
Significantly, 1994 saw several incidents involving material that was either weapons grade or very close to it. On May 10 police in Tengen, Germany, found six grams of plutonium 239 while searching the home of businessman Adolf Jaekle for other contraband. The plutonium, which was in a container in the garage, was discovered only by accident. Jaekle had widespread connections, including links with former officers of the KGB and the Stasi (the East German secret police) and with Kintex, a Bulgarian arms company that has long been suspected of a wide range of nefarious activities. Much of the initial speculation has dissipated, but important questions about the Jaekle case remain unanswered. It would be unwise to exclude the possibility that the plutonium was simply a sample for a much larger delivery.
On August 10 authorities in Munich arrested a Colombian dentist and two Spaniards in possession of 363.4 grams of high-grade plutonium and 201 grams of lithium 6 (a component of hydrogen bombs). They had brought their contraband to Munich from Moscow on a Lufthansa flight and were captured amid much fanfare. It later turned out that agents from the German federal intelligence body, the BND, had induced the three men to bring in the material.
The operation caused great controversy in Germany; BND agents were accused of helping to create rather than control the nuclear-smuggling problem. The three men were connected neither with Colombian drug gangs nor Basque terrorists; there was no evidence that they were experienced smugglers. They simply had financial problems and had been trying to solve them by selling the lithium and plutonium.
In all the controversy over the propriety of the BND's actions, however, an important point was lost. Even as amateurs, the three men succeeded in obtaining a significant amount of high-grade plutonium.
Then, on December 14, police in Prague arrested three men in a car with 2.7 kilograms of highly enriched (87.7 percent) uranium 235. Two were nuclear workers who had come to the Czech Republic in 1994: a Russian from a town near Obninsk and a Belarusian from Minsk. The third was a Czech nuclear physicist, Jaroslav Vagner, who had not been officially employed in the nuclear industry for several years. In mid-1994 a similarly enriched sample of uranium had apparently turned up in Landshut, Bavaria, and on March 22, 1995, two more men, one of them a police officer, were arrested in connection with the December incident.
The number of smuggling cases in Germany, at least, has declined since these highly publicized arrests. Traffickers appear to be going elsewhere. Some have gone through Switzerland and Austria and into Italy. More may be taking the routes to the south through the Central Asian republics and the Black Sea. As former International Atomic Energy Agency inspector David Kay has pointed out, these paths in effect reverse those used by the KGB to smuggle Western goods into the former Soviet Union. Border controls in these areas are much weaker than those going into western Europe, and the potential clients are closer.
Some of the seizures in Germany and Turkey make it fairly clear that outlaw states such as Iran may in fact be looking for high-quality nuclear material. It appears, indeed, that some of them have set up their own networks. Both Libya and Iraq have experience with such methods, since each nation set up front companies to facilitate the illicit diversion of precursor chemicals and equipment to develop chemical weapons.
Furthermore, as the Jaekle case implies, smugglers are not all blundering amateurs. Although there is no monolithic nuclear Mafia, ex-spies from the former Soviet bloc countries appear to be taking a leading role in the professional networks. They have apparently been joined by entrepreneurs, often involved in the arms business, whose dealings span a continuum from the licit, through the shady, to the illicit.
Not surprisingly, because nuclear smuggling is a potentially profitable business, organized crime groups have also become involved. Some Turkish gangs appear to be engaged in the trade--having graduated from clandestine export of antiquities, they treat uranium as just another commodity.
In Italy, Romano Dolce, a magistrate investigating the nuclear trade, was arrested for participation in the very crimes he was pursuing. This scandal aroused considerable speculation that he had focused on some cases in order to divert attention from other, more significant transactions.
Perhaps the most insistent question, however, concerns the involvement of Russian organized crime. Although nuclear trafficking does not seem to be a priority for these groups--other activities are both more immediately lucrative and less risky--there is growing evidence that some Russian criminal groups are diversifying into trade in radioactives.
Even though serious efforts are being made to attack the problem at the source, the international community has been slow to respond to the dangers that nuclear smuggling presents. The Russian nuclear regulatory agency, GAN, now has 1,200 employees, but the degree of authority it can actually wield over the old nuclear bureaucracy--both civilian and military--is uncertain.
Furthermore, even if GAN is successful, it will take several years to upgrade safeguards, and smugglers are not going to sit by idly in the meantime. As a result, there will be a premium on good intelligence and law enforcement during the remainder of the 1990s. Unfortunately, international agencies with nuclear expertise are not yet cooperating effectively with those whose responsibility is to stop illicit trade. The IAEA and the United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Branch are both located in Vienna's International Center, but the IAEA's mandate does not allow it to engage in investigative activity. As a result, contacts between the two have been little more than desultory.
In Washington, meanwhile, early responses to the smuggling problem have been ill conceived and poorly coordinated. Since 1994, the Federal Bureau of Investigations has taken the lead and has been working closely with the Defense Nuclear Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency, but the U.S. remains some distance from a comprehensive policy.
We suggest that systematic multinational measures be taken as soon as possible to inhibit theft at the source, to disrupt trafficking and to deter buyers. The U.S., Germany, Russia and other nations with an interest in the nuclear problem should set up a "flying squad" with an investigative arm, facilities for counterterrorist and counterextortion actions and a disaster management team.
Such an idea seems very far-fetched at the moment, at least in part because of a continuing reluctance to recognize the severity of the threat. It would be a tragedy if governments were to accept the need for a more substantive program only after a nuclear catastrophe.
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN January 1996 Volume 274 Number 1 Pages 40-44
"POTATOES WERE GUARDED BETTER." Oleg Bukharin and William Potter in "Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists," Vol. 51, No. 3, pages 46-50; May-June 1995.
CHRONOLOGY OF NUCLEAR SMUGGLING INCIDENTS: JULY 1994-JUNE 1995. Paul N. Woessner in "Transnational Organized Crime," Vol. 1, No. 2, pages 288-329; Summer 1995.
NUCLEAR MATERIAL TRAFFICKING: AN INTERIM ASSESSMENT. Phil Williams and Paul N. Woessner in "Transnational Organized Crime," Vol. 1, No. 2, pages 206-238; Summer 1995.
PHIL WILLIAMS and PAUL N. WOESSNER work at the Ridgway Center for International Security Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Williams, who directs the center, is a professor in the graduate school of public and international affairs. During the past three years, his research has focused on transnational criminal organizations and drug trafficking, and he is the editor of a new journal, "Transnational Organized Crime." Woessner, a research assistant at the Ridgway Center, received his master's degree in international affairs in 1994. He also earned an M.S. in planetary science and a B.S. in astronomy and physics, the latter at the University of Maryland.