How to Get a Nuclear Bomb

It wouldn’t be easy. But it wouldn’t be impossible. A reporter travels the world to find the weaknesses a terrorist could exploit

But you’d probably rather not have to sneak into anywhere, or negotiate for transport, or spend cold nights squatting with peasants and dodging border patrols. Every move in this venture, every elaboration, increases the chance for something to go wrong. Furthermore, to judge from the reports that have been written about a global black market in fissile materials, perhaps you could sit on the periphery—say in Istanbul—and with relatively little risk allow the uranium to come to you.

It is difficult to get a clear picture here. Turkey is the world’s grand bazaar, and given its geographic position overlooking the Middle East, it is hardly surprising that people have gone looking to sell nuclear goods there. A University of Salzburg database (formerly run by Stanford) that purports to track smuggling activity globally since 1993 lists at least 20 incidents in the vicinity of Istanbul alone. But by including intercepts of all sorts of nuclear materials, that database (like most other treatments in this business) overstates the market’s ability to answer a bomb-maker’s needs. In fact, the marketplace—whether in Istanbul or anywhere else—seems never to have produced what you would require. The closest instance I found in the record dates from 1998, when agents from the Russian Federal Security Bureau (the former KGB, now called the FSB) arrested nuclear workers who were plotting to steal forty pounds of HEU. The enrichment level was never made public—an omission hinting that the uranium may well have been weapons grade. But even then it was less than half of what you would need.

Of course, we don’t know what we don’t know, as we are repetitively reminded. However, the other intercepts have been minor affairs of people caught filching or hawking scraps, often of material that doesn’t pass even the 20 percent mark. For a serious bomb-builder, the reports of “loose nukes” would come to sound like so much background chatter. You will have to obtain the fissile material at the source. If you look through the literature, you’ll soon realize that one of the challenges is the very extent of choices. It turns out that the world is rich with fresh, safe, user-friendly HEU—a global accumulation of over a thousand metric tons (outside of our collective 30,000 nuclear warheads) that is dispersed among hundreds of sites, and separated into nicely transportable, necessarily subcritical packages. The question is how to pick some up. Here again the literature can provide guidance. Although almost all of the HEU is in some manner guarded, there are many countries where it might nonetheless be acquired, and probably nowhere better than Russia.

When post-Soviet Russia came into being, in 1991, it inherited a sprawling state industry that had provided a full range of nuclear services, including medical science, power generation, and ship propulsion—as well as the world’s largest nuclear-weapons arsenal and, almost coincidentally, the world’s largest inventory of surplus plutonium and HEU, maybe 600 metric tons. The physical plant consisted of several dozen research, production, and storage facilities, and especially of ten fenced and guarded nuclear cities, which housed nearly a million people, yet were nominally so secret that they did not appear on maps. But within a few years the industry was obsolete, unable to adapt to the new Russian economy, and in steep decline. The buildings were in disrepair, and morale was low because people were not being paid enough or on time. Worse, the nuclear stockpiles were apparently being neglected. There were stories of guards abandoning their posts to forage for food, and of sheds containing world-ending supplies of HEU protected by padlock only. The question now, some fifteen years later, is why terrorists or criminals apparently did not then take advantage. One explanation is that they were ignorant, incompetent, and distracted. Another is that the defenses were not as weak as they appeared.

In any case, the U.S. government reacted rapidly to a perception of chaos and opportunity in post-Soviet nuclear affairs, and in 1993 launched an ambitious complex of “cooperative” programs with all the former Soviet states to lessen the chance that nuclear weapons might end up in the wrong hands. The programs have blossomed into the largest part of American aid to Russia, amounting so far to several billion dollars. There have been two main efforts. The first, managed by the U.S. Department of Defense, has concentrated on getting Russia to consolidate, secure, and to some degree destroy nuclear warheads, as well as some of the missiles, aircraft, and submarines that carry them. The same programs have facilitated the spectacular denuclear- ization of the former Soviet Union’s outlying nations. But these were the maneuverings of conventional actors following the familiar logic of strike and counterstrike. By comparison the perceived vulnerability of fissile materials in the former Soviet Union has presented the United States with a wilderness of unknowns. Securing these stocks is the second main cooperative effort. The job has been given primarily to the U.S. Department of Energy, and specifically to officials there with experience managing the American nuclear-weapons infrastructure—a group now formed into a semiautonomous agency known as the National Nuclear Safety Administration, or NNSA.

The NNSA sends managers from Washington and technicians from U.S. national laboratories to supervise the local officials. Its frontline agents tend to be hands-on technical people, impatient to pour concrete and get the jobs done. Their impulses lie primarily in an area known as Material Protection, Control and Accounting, or within the NNSA, lovingly, as MPC&A. In brief, this means locking the fissile materials down. Over the years the NNSA has identified approximately 220 buildings at fifty-two sites in Russia that are in dire need of treatment. That’s a lot, and as a result, actually there are two treatments. The first is a stop-gap measure called a “rapid upgrade.” It involves bricking up the warehouse windows, installing stronger locks, fixing the fences, maybe hiring some guards. The second is a long-term fix called a “comprehensive upgrade.” It often involves the full range of Americanized defenses, including crash-resistant fences, bombproof buildings, remote cameras and electronic sensors, bar-coded inventory scanners, advanced locks, well-armed and well-motivated guards, and all sorts of double- and triple-safe procedures.

Such complex constructs require constant care. Agents of the NNSA see evidence already that the Russians are not committed to maintenance and operations, and some complained privately to me that as soon as U.S. funding ends, their elegant MPC&A systems will slip into disrepair. Nonetheless, the NNSA is supposed to wrap up the program, squeeze off the funding, and turn over all the required security upgrades to the Russians by the end of 2008. Knowledgeable observers are skeptical that this schedule can be met. They say that about a third of the identified buildings have yet to be given even rapid upgrades, that these contain about half of Russia’s entire fissile-material stock, and that they sit at some of the most sensitive sites in the country—areas within the closed cities, where new warheads are assembled, and where the NNSA representatives are increasingly seen as meddlers and spies.

The agency’s administrator, a portly former submarine captain and strategic-weapons negotiator named Linton F. Brooks, put it plainly to me. He said, “We are about giving governments the tools to work in those areas where governments have control.” Fine. Brooks is an impressive man, and all the more so for his lack of theatrics. He did not pretend to be winning a war, or even to be fighting one, but more simply to be driving up the costs and complications for would-be nuclear bombers. The NNSA’s job is to shift the odds, and increase the likelihood that its opponents will fail. It cannot dictate to the Russians. It cannot operate with anything like the flexibility of the guerrillas. But of all the U.S. agencies recently engaged to suppress the nuclear threat, it does seem one of the few that may have contributed something real, even if it has to be called MPC&A.

The CIA appears to have added little to the effort. Presumably its people tag along on some missions, but they seem largely just to pursue conventional governmental information—estimating military capacities, or mapping the Russian bureaucracy in order to predict Russian reactions. I spoke to a former high U.S. official who said that during a decade spent securing stockpiles in Russia and receiving countless intelligence briefings, he had never once found information that would have helped him to calibrate the risks specific to a site. Who lives in the neighborhood? Who lives just outside? Who has just arrived? How the hell do any of them survive? What is meant here, tangibly, by organized crime? Is there other crime that counts? Who drives the flashy cars? What are the emotions of the people who do not? How much is known in the street about shipments to and from and between the plants? How much is known about what goes on inside? What do people think about the new wall and fences? What do they feel when they see an American flag? Now start all over again, and tell us about the nuclear technicians, the FSB agents, and the ordinary guards. Tell us about their lovers, their holidays, the furniture they dream of buying at IKEA. Tell us about their inner lives.

The official sighed with resignation. I suppose he felt what many believe, that if the United States is hit someday with an atomic bomb, it will in part be because of Washington’s discomfort with informal realms—because of a blindness to the street, amply demonstrated in recent times, which will have allowed some bomb-builder the maneuvering room to get the job done.

Presented by

"Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria." With those words, typed on plain white bond, William Langewiesche introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Although neither piece quite stood on its own, the editors were drawn to the unusual grace and power of Langewiesche's writing and sent him on assignment to North Africa for a more ambitious piece of reporting. The result was the November 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme"—his first article to appear in a general-interest magazine. (He had, however, written frequently for aviation magazines; he is a professional pilot and first sat at the controls of an airplane at the age of five.) Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects and published four more books.

A large part of Mr. Langewiesche's reporting experience centers around the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, reporting on such topics as the implementation of the shari'a in Sudan under Hassan al-Tarabi, North Africa's Islamic culture, and the American occupation of Iraq. Other recent assignments have taken him to Egypt, the Balkans, India, and Central and South America. In 2004 he won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

In 2002 his book American Ground: Unbuilding The World Trade Center was published. It is based on a series of three cover stories he wrote for The Atlantic as the only American reporter granted full access to the World Trade Center clean-up effort. His latest book, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, was published in May 2004.

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