Nuclear Terror Is a Possibility

Rose Gottemoeller, who spearheaded the Clinton administration's effort to block nuclear proliferation, described her impressions of a visit to a Russian facility where nuclear weapons and fissionable material is stored.

"They didn't have any bars on the windows. Just a big wooden door with a huge key. And when you walked in, basically down on the floor there were hundreds of buckets of plutonium." That's how Rose Gottemoeller, who spearheaded the Clinton administration's effort to block nuclear proliferation, described her impressions of a visit to a Russian facility where nuclear weapons and fissionable material is stored. Speaking on a National Public Radio broadcast recently, she said, "Frankly, I think more likely is the possibility of radiological attack, somebody gets hold of either a warhead or some materials, and just breaks it apart over a geographic area. That would cause a great deal of contamination. Not immediate death from a blast effect, but perhaps longer term contamination and death."

At least 1,500 tons of plutonium and uranium are stored in facilities across the former Soviet Union, some practically without any security at all. The equipment used to secure the facilities does not meet minimal professional standards acceptable in the West in similar installations.

In a CIA report delivered last month to Congress, the intelligence agency says that there is a real danger that terror groups could steal nuclear weapons or fissionable materials from the poorly protected facilities. The discovery of documents in Afghanistan showing Osama bin Laden planned to equip his organization with nuclear materials and to build a radiological bomb, also known as a dirty bomb, heightened U.S. intelligence agency fears of a nuclear terror attack.

There were 175 attempts at illicit trade in nuclear materials in recent years. The CIA does not know how many of those attempts ended in success. It is also not clear who acquired the fissionable materials that were stolen from the Russian facilities. In 1992, 1.5 kilograms of enriched uranium were stolen from the Luch factory in Podolsk, near Moscow. That weapons-quality material has not been located to this day. Two years later, three kilograms of similar material were stolen from a Moscow facility. That material has also disappeared without a trace. Lately, says Victor Yertzov, of Minatom (the Ministry of Atomic Energy of the Russian Federation), enough material has been stolen from the facilities for which he is responsible, to manufacture a bomb.

The CIA report reveals a frightening picture of negligence and malfeasance in the safeguarding of weapons and nuclear materials in Russia. The report raises the fear of cooperation between workers at the facilities and terrorist groups, enabling terrorists to get their hands on the elements needed to build a nuclear device. The potential for such cooperation is great, considering that the wages of a worker at the Russian facilities is in the $70 a month range.

The top echelon of the American defense establishment discussed the issue of a terror group gaining control over a nuclear weapon or managing to put together a dirty bomb, and reached the conclusion that the terrorist group would not hesitate to use such weapons. That fear strengthened the U.S. government's resolve to proceed with its global war on terrorism. American policymakers have apparently conceded failure at preventing all the nuclear leakage from Russian storage facilities. They have reached the conclusion that while the Putin administration should be supported in its efforts to improve security at Russian nuclear sites, the anti-proliferation effort should also include terrorist groups that could acquire such means. The Americans were finally convinced of the urgency of the matter when it was discovered that Qaida was vigorously pursuing efforts to build a nuclear device.

The experts are divided on the question of how close terror groups are to owning nuclear weaponry. Most agree that the chances of them building a nuclear bomb or taking over a nuclear missile remain slim, among other reasons, because of the difficulty of operating such devices. But manufacturing a radiological bomb is much simpler. Radiological bombs in cities could kill thousands. To make such a bomb, all that's needed is radioactive material, which is why there is so much worry about the disappearance of nuclear material from Russian storage facilities. It would not take very much material to make an extremely lethal "dirty bomb."

The lively debate in the U.S. over poor security measures in Russia also has a Middle Eastern angle. The American intelligence community is focused on terror groups that not only regard the U.S. as a target, but also Israel. Nuclear terror could reach this region, too. Therefore, it is clearly an Israeli interest not to obstruct the American campaign against countries harboring terrorists in the region and the terrorists themselves.