In the chill of an Afghan evening during the summer of 2001, Osama bin Laden sat chatting beside a campfire at his mountain base with Bashiruddin Mahmood, a Pakistani engineer. The subject, according to a former chief of intelligence for the U.S. Department of Energy, was how Mahmood, who had run Pakistan’s plutonium-production reactor and headed its atomic-energy agency until Islamabad fired him in 1999 for his radical beliefs, could help al-Qaida build a nuclear weapon. The problem, Mahmood said, was not designing or building such a weapon, but obtaining the necessary fissile material. Bin Laden’s chilling response inspired fears among intelligence agencies that persist to this day: “What if I already have it?”
Within a month, al-Qaida would launch the most devastating attack on America since World War II—an unconventional strike using the most conventional of weapons, commercial jet aircraft, as weapons of mass destruction. But since then, nuclear experts, intelligence analysts, and Republican and Democratic politicians alike have cited the possibility that bin Laden or a like-minded terrorist might secure a nuclear weapon as the preeminent threat to our nation. Echoing the theme at his Nuclear Security Summit, the largest American-hosted gathering of leaders since the founding of the United Nations, President Obama called nuclear terrorism “the single biggest threat to U.S. security, . . . short-term, medium-term, and long-term.”
Experts warn that the proliferation of nuclear material and expertise has put the world at the brink of what Paul Bracken, a professor at Yale’s School of Management, has called a “second nuclear age.” Graham Allison, a former Pentagon official now at Harvard, says that, absent an abrupt change of course, a nuclear terrorist attack on America in the coming decade “is more likely than not.” Billionaire investor Warren Buffett, experienced at assessing risk, has called an atomic attack on the U.S. by mid-century “virtually a certainty.” Even the publishers of the prestigious Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, keepers of the “Doomsday Clock,” have chimed in. The Clock’s first setting, in 1947, was seven minutes to “midnight,” which signified global nuclear war; today, the Clock stands at six minutes to midnight.
Are the fears of Armageddon justified? Only if Washington fails to continue the extraordinary progress that Republican and Democratic administrations have made to complicate terrorists’ ability to acquire nuclear devices. Despite the continuing spread of nuclear expertise and efforts by Iran to become a nuclear power, the battle to limit the spread of destructive weapons and fissile material has been hugely successful—so far, at least—and Americans are safer from a nuclear strike today than when the Berlin Wall fell.
One of the nation’s most important moves to prevent nuclear terrorism has been reducing the number of nuclear weapons that terrorists or rogue states might buy or steal. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has cut its nuclear arsenal by 80 percent. Though American nukes are so well guarded that terrorists would be unlikely to steal them, the great advantage of reducing our own stockpiles is that it has led Russia to follow suit.
And Russian weapons—and the fissile material that fuels them—were far less secure, at least until recently. At its peak, the Soviet Union’s arsenal may have totaled more than 45,000 nuclear weapons, with hundreds of tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium stored at dozens of facilities across 11 time zones. But when the USSR collapsed, security for its nuclear weapons collapsed, too. When American experts first arrived at Russian nuclear sites in the early 1990s, they found fallen fences, decrepit buildings, and broken morale. Young, underpaid, ill-trained, bored, and often drunk, Russian guards were said routinely to ignore the “two-man rule,” which forbids single individuals from accessing fissile material and is intended to prevent a lone thief from stealing it. At one nuclear-material storage facility, according to a Russian general’s published account, “a resourceful conscript, who was serving without ammunition, was asked what he would do if he saw 5–6 unknown persons with assault rifles approaching from a wooded area. He vowed to . . . ‘defend my post with a bayonet!’”
Reducing stockpiles is just one way that America has countered the danger posed by such carelessly guarded sites. Since 1992, the Cooperative Threat Reduction program (CTR), based on legislation cowritten by Republican senator Richard Lugar of Indiana and former Democratic senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, has spent over $2 billion to dismantle thousands of Moscow’s nuclear weapons and to secure the remaining weapons and fissile material at nuclear sites in the former Soviet Union. Beginning in 1992, American technicians installed cameras that, for the first time, provided the Russians with constant remote monitoring of the most sensitive materials. Also installed were metal and radiation detectors, stronger locks, reinforced doors and windows, bulletproof guard facilities, perimeter fences with intrusion detectors, robust barriers at vehicle entry points, and “man traps”—heavy turnstiles that require authorized access and proper identification before they permit entry. The work was hard and conditions difficult. The temperature at one facility in Siberia dropped below -65 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and rose above 100 degrees in the summer. That facility alone required some 3.6 miles of fencing, some of it installed through dense forest and bogs.
Such security improvements accelerated after 9/11, but by the summer of 2004, the energy department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency—the agencies that oversee security at nuclear-weapons sites—were frustrated with the pace of progress. Whether from inertia or from reflexive secrecy about opening some of its most sensitive sites, Russia had excluded many of its warhead storage facilities from the CTR program, and even at sites with ongoing work, there were no firm schedules or deadlines; time and money were being squandered. Worse, the security situation in Russia was deteriorating: on September 1, 2004, Chechen terrorists attacked a school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan and slaughtered more than 300 hostages, many of them children.
In early 2005, the George W. Bush White House, recognizing the ruthlessness of terrorists operating within Russia, urged his national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, to convince the Russians of the urgency of securing their nuclear facilities. Not long after, Rice and Hadley met with the Russian defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, at the White House, offering him a briefing (presented by coauthor Tobey) that included overhead photography of Russia’s dilapidated nuclear sites and idle American security equipment, contrasting them with state-of-the-art American sites. Ivanov, seemingly genuinely concerned, agreed to investigate the matter when he returned to Moscow. Six weeks later, Bush and Russian president Vladimir Putin, meeting in Slovakia, agreed to expand the scope and pace of nuclear-security cooperation in what became known as the Bratislava Initiative.
The new deadline to complete the job was tight—the end of 2008—and only a few contractors in Russia had the skills and clearances needed to perform such sensitive tasks. Nonetheless, American program managers pushed, cajoled, and lobbied their Russian counterparts, constantly invoking the agreement by the two presidents. In the end, the deadline was met. A total of 148 Russian nuclear-weapons and nuclear-material sites—essentially all of them—were secured. The gaping security holes from the 1990s were plugged, dramatically reducing the risk that nuclear material might fall into the hands of terrorists.
Another area in which enormous progress has been made is detecting and combating nuclear smuggling. The world’s premier nuclear smuggler is Pakistan’s notorious Abdul Qadeer Khan, who ran an international trading ring that spanned several continents for over a decade. In a dramatic televised confession in early 2004, he admitted to selling nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. He later recanted his confession; Pakistan has refused to provide direct access to Khan, who is now living comfortably in Islamabad; and to this day, Washington remains uncertain of what he sold to whom. But Khan is a poster boy for the need to fight nuclear smuggling.
In 2003, President Bush announced the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which encourages nations to allow their ships to be boarded and inspected for illegal cargo. Since then, some 90 states have joined the initiative. In one signal success, counter-proliferation officials in the Bush administration relied on techniques at the heart of PSI to seize nuclear-related cargo aboard a German cargo ship headed for Libya, adding to pressure on Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi to renounce and dismantle his secret effort to join the nuclear club. American experts would eventually remove nuclear technology and materials from Libya.
Washington also championed United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 in 2004. The resolution requires all nations to enact and enforce effective export controls; prohibit the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, biological, and missile technologies by private citizens; and secure proliferation-sensitive materials. The measure binds all states—a rare instance of Security Council action tantamount to international legislation. But American officials knew that a UN resolution would not suffice, as the Khan case had shown. A Khan factory that made centrifuge parts was located in Malaysia, but the Malaysian government was unaware that the plant posed a proliferation risk. Other nations also lacked the means to detect and prevent illicit activities.
So in 2006, the U.S. and Russia launched the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, which now numbers more than 80 members. Aimed at helping states implement UNSCR 1540, it encourages states to share best practices, train and engage in joint exercises, and share intelligence, law enforcement, and border-security work. In 2007, for example, China, a Global Initiative member, quietly hosted an exercise to practice tracking and recovering stolen radiological material.
The National Nuclear Security Administration, meanwhile, is fighting smugglers by bolstering security at border crossings all over the world. The beefed-up security includes radiation detectors, which demonstrated their effectiveness on June 26, 2003, when Garik Dadayan was arrested in Sadakhlo, Georgia, carrying six ounces of highly enriched uranium. He had set off a radiation detector that the NNSA had installed in an area rife with smuggling near the borders between Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Dadayan was carrying the material in a cellophane bag inside a tea tin in the trunk of his car. While the quantity of material was not nearly enough to build a weapon, the material was weapons-grade. Georgian authorities told the New York Times that Dadayan had twice before traveled between Moscow and Novosibirsk, the site of a major Russian nuclear complex, where Dadayan said he had gotten the material. Dadayan’s motives remain obscure.
Radiation detectors aren’t perfect; a nuclear smuggler might be able to shield emissions from fissile material with lead. But that tactic, aside from being costly, yields suspiciously heavy packages and risks setting off metal detectors and X-ray sensors, which are also deployed at border crossings. So Russia and the United States have agreed to equip nearly 450 Russian border crossings with radiation detectors by the end of 2011, half of which will be financed by the United States. Washington has also helped equip more than 300 border crossings, ports, and airports in 18 other countries with radiation detectors. In addition, 34 “megaports”—high-volume, containerized shipping facilities—now scan all inbound and outbound cargo for nuclear and radiological material, with American cooperation and funding. And the NNSA has trained thousands of frontline personnel at the borders of some 50 countries to identify fissile and other sensitive materials. The goal is not to inspect every container capable of transporting nuclear material—with some 17 million shipping containers in use around the world, that would be impossible—but to make it harder for smugglers to operate with impunity.
One more component of the nation’s counter-proliferation strategy is disposing of fissile material that can be used in weapons—or preventing it from being produced in the first place. Until recently, for example, three pre-Chernobyl plutonium-production nuclear reactors were operating in Russia. Located in frigid Siberia, they provided not only electrical power but also steam heat for the surrounding area. While all nuclear reactors produce plutonium, the Siberian reactors were built to do so for the Russian weapons program and therefore were especially proficient at it. Though no longer intended for that purpose, they continued to churn out plutonium simply by operating. Moreover, their designs were among the world’s least safe. So both American and Russian officials wanted to close them as quickly as possible.
Under the Clinton administration, the United States agreed to fund two coal-fired power plants to replace the three dangerous reactors. One of the replacement projects employed about 2,000 people at its peak, during the Russian oil and construction boom of the 2000s, when labor was tight. Work had to stop when temperatures fell below -40—cold enough, in one case, for a crane’s frozen axles to snap. Nevertheless, the NNSA persevered. The third and last of the reactors was closed last April, almost nine months ahead of schedule. Though few Americans know it, the project has prevented the production of one and a half metric tons of plutonium annually—enough for more than 180 nuclear weapons.
Moscow and Washington are also cooperating on programs to dispose of nuclear material, particularly highly enriched uranium, or HEU. HEU is a severe proliferation risk because—unlike plutonium in spent fuel—it doesn’t require difficult chemical processing to be used in a bomb. A mere 55 pounds of HEU is enough to make an atomic weapon. Luckily, HEU can be “down-blended” into a safer substance used to fuel nuclear reactors. Under the 1993 Highly Enriched Uranium Purchase Agreement, Washington is in the process of buying 500 metric tons of down-blended HEU that once armed Russian nuclear weapons. In fact, of the 20 percent of American electricity generated by nuclear power, half is currently fueled by this Russian uranium—meaning that one of every ten homes in America is illuminated by material from the very missiles that once targeted them.
The United States is also down-blending almost 250 metric tons of its own HEU (enough for about 7,000 nuclear weapons), which will be sold for power generation to American power companies. Finally, the U.S. and Russia have each agreed to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium, which is far harder to eliminate than HEU. This, too, will be used as reactor fuel. At Savannah River, South Carolina, the U.S. is building a $4.8 billion plant to blend oxidized plutonium with uranium oxide and produce reactor fuel rods. When completed in 2015, the plant will begin to convert plutonium into enough reactor fuel to power 1 million American homes for 50 years.
After all these efforts to detect, secure, and dispose of nuclear material, we are undoubtedly safer than we were a decade ago. But more remains to be done. For one thing, while more than 70 HEU-fueled research reactors—which make medical isotopes or advance scientific understanding but do not produce power—have been converted or shut down, many others continue to operate. They should be converted or closed.
The latest U.S.-Russian treaty, known as New START, will require careful implementation. It reduces the number of American- and Russian-deployed long-range nuclear weapons to about 1,550 each. It also reinstates some earlier measures to verify and monitor treaty compliance. Finally, as part of a deal to gain Senate approval of the treaty, the U.S. will spend $85 billion over the next ten years to modernize America’s nuclear-weapons plants and infrastructure and maintain a safe, secure, and reliable deterrent as long as necessary.
The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism should expand participation in its joint exercises and solicit cooperation more actively from private industry. In addition, law enforcement agencies should understand and share information about all 18 cases of nuclear smuggling that the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported. (Investigations to date have been secretive, partly because Russia and other states want to avoid the embarrassment of publicizing their security lapses.) For instance, each of those 18 cases involved material smuggled in powder form. The lesson is obvious: it’s easier to smuggle powder than ingots, which can be systematically counted and tracked.
The U.S. should continue rallying all states to fight proliferation. Such efforts have had unsung success: though President Kennedy predicted that more than a score of countries would possess nuclear weapons by the 1990s, the nuclear-weapons club today numbers only nine. Concerted international action under widely varying circumstances prompted Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus, South Africa, Libya, and Iraq to eliminate nuclear-weapons programs. True, North Korea and Iran have violated their international obligations by building covert facilities needed to fabricate nuclear weapons—and in Pyongyang’s case, by building and testing such weapons. But North Korea’s benighted Kim dynasty will not last forever, and completion of an Iranian nuclear-weapons program is not a foregone conclusion. Increasingly tough sanctions against Tehran by the U.S. and its allies, coupled with other actions aimed at Iranian scientists and facilities—including, apparently, the mysterious Stuxnet cyber-attack on Iran’s centrifuge facility at Natanz—have slowed, if not crippled, Iran’s program. These actions have not yet persuaded Iran to stop developing a bomb. But skillful, persistent diplomacy, combined with strong military alliances that reduce the perceived need for countries to go nuclear, have successfully reversed proliferation programs in the past and may succeed here.
And when all else fails, force has been used to eliminate nuclear threats. In 2008, determined to neutralize what it believed to be an existential national security threat, Israel bombed a nuclear reactor that Syria was building, reportedly with North Korean assistance.
Every day, in hundreds of ways, then, intelligence, nuclear-security, and law enforcement agencies have been struggling to wind back the Doomsday Clock. The success of such efforts to date should instill confidence but not complacency. So long as Osama bin Laden and like-minded enemies of civilization remain determined to obtain nuclear weapons, their intended targets must remain even more determined to stop them.