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
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If you wanted a bomb, you would need this very thing the CIA has lost—a feel for the street. I flew to Ekaterinburg, a Russian city on the Siberian side of the Urals, two time zones east of Moscow. Ekaterinburg is where the czar and his family were liquidated, where the American U‑2 pilot Gary Powers was shot down, and where Boris Yeltsin got his start. It has a single-line metro, a small downtown, and a few large hotels. Within a few hours’ drive, a visitor can arrive at the perimeter walls and fences of five of Russia’s ten closed nuclear cities. They are primarily production sites, and between them they contain all manner of nuclear goods, including warheads in various stages of assembly, and several hundred tons of excellent fissile material. So sensitive are the nuclear cities and other defense sites in the vicinity that the entire region was closed to outsiders during Soviet times. Since the Soviet Union was itself largely closed and compartmentalized, the nuclear cities stood within concentric layers of defenses like fortresses within fortresses, like nested Russian dolls. Still more pervasive defenses existed in the residents’ minds. They were expected to inform on their neighbors, as they themselves expected to be informed on, and to rely on all the nested gulags to keep everyone in line.

Describing those years in heavily accented English, a Russian plant manager said to me, “All nuclear material was secret. State secret! Anyone stealing nuclear material in Soviet Union was committing state crime. He became state criminal! So there was fear. Real fear. If something got lost somewhere—maybe a piece of paper, or materials, or there was mismatch in balance of plutonium—a person understood that he would be exiled forever.” Hesitating over the right words, he said, “But then when this … change took place, of course people felt more … freedom, I would say.”

He was using the word freedom for the American ear, and making a familiar argument for the extension of foreign aid. The closed cities and nuclear facilities around Ekaterinburg have received a large portion of the U.S. dollars spent on Russian security upgrades, yet they are the subject of continued wariness by the NNSA, and are of still greater concern to independent critics in the United States, who insist that they remain acutely vulnerable to terrorist theft. Take, for example, the closed city of Ozersk, a community of 85,000 people, whose existence was so hushed under the Soviets that it was not allowed a proper name, and was referred to only by its post office box numbers—first No. 40, then No. 65—in Chelyabinsk, an open city forty-four miles away. The nomenclature remains confused. Ozersk is often and mistakenly called Mayak, for its nuclear production area—an industrial complex within the city’s perimeter, a few miles from the residential center. The Mayak Production Association employed 14,500 people as of 2001, and since 1945 has been in the business primarily of processing HEU, plutonium, and tritium for nuclear warheads. Recently it has also thrown the business into reverse, as one of two sites in Russia where fissile material from existing warheads is extracted before shipment to another closed city for blending down. Many tons of the highest-quality weapons-grade HEU and plutonium are present at the site.

And nyet, this is not state secret.

Divulging it is not state crime.

Start with the all-American fact that Mayak is the location of the recently completed “Plutonium Palace,” a heavily fortified $350 million warehouse, which was paid for by the U.S. Congress, and has therefore been heavily publicized. The facility was designed to hold as much as 40 percent of the Russian military’s excess fissile material. For now the storage vaults remain empty because of technical and bureaucratic disputes, as well as, perhaps, a sense, in a Russia on the rise, of not wanting to place nuclear assets quite so far out of reach just yet. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that such a beautiful facility will eventually be used—and that the world will be better off when it is.

For those trying to counter the threat of nuclear terrorism, however, the possibility exists that the Palace is just another Maginot fort, a strong point that can be neatly ignored by the new strategists of war. The fort will neither reduce nor protect the large quantities of weapons-grade materials elsewhere in Ozersk. NNSA technicians have struggled to fill the gaps, installing some cameras and radiation monitors, and strengthening some floors and walls—but only in a few of the many buildings where they believe such work is needed, and only intermittently, as the Russians have allowed.

By perverse logic, therefore, Ozersk comes highly recommended to anyone in pursuit of a bomb. The facilities are tucked away two hours south of Ekaterinburg, down unmarked back roads, on a forested plateau of lakes and small rivers that would seem idyllic were it not for a number of decimated industrial towns and villages. Ozersk’s perimeter is large. It encompasses more than 50 square miles, and includes the city itself, the Mayak facilities, a network of paved and dirt roads, an internal bus service, one large internal checkpoint, multiple railroad lines, burial sites for radioactive waste, multiple radioactive lakes, some radioactive swamps, and a lot of radioactive forest. The main gate is on the north side. It has pens where Interior Ministry troops check vehicles going in or out, and verify people’s papers. The perimeter is marked by twin parallel chain-link barbed-wire fences, separated by a chemically defoliated strip that is apparently not mined, or raked, or checked for tracks even in the snow. The fences are in reasonable repair, but in many places have no road beside them, and they show no signs of being patrolled. If they are monitored remotely, it is safe to assume that they are not monitored well. On the south side of the site, they run through miles of empty forest. You could cross them almost anywhere with little immediate risk, though odds are you would eventually be caught, and the consequences would be severe. And to what advantage? You wouldn’t learn much by walking the streets. You might be able to send agents who could establish residency, but that would require too much time, and offer a poor chance of success. Better to back off and think things through, particularly since the essentials can be known from the outside.

Ozersk is in the nuclear business and nothing else. Its weapons-usable HEU is kept in Mayak as oxidized powder, flat metal pucks, elongated ingots, and finely machined warhead hemispheres. Each form is stored in a different type of steel container. The containers are light, because the shielding they contain is minimal. They are sealed but not locked. They sit in vaults or ordinary storage rooms. In addition to the standard containers, there are larger, brightly colored shipping containers, used to transport the material to and from other nuclear cities and sites, by truck and rail. Empty shipping containers are sometimes kept outdoors. High-resolution satellite photographs freely available on the Internet show them stacked in the yards, and in other ways help to identify the buildings in the complex. It does not matter that the photographs are old. Any of thousands of ordinary workers at Mayak could update them, and also provide information on material-processing schedules, NNSA upgrades, broken cameras, the patterns of the night shifts, and the locations of guards who use narcotics or drink on the job. It would not be difficult to find such an informant—for instance, in the taverns of Chelyabinsk. Afterward the action would have to be fast and accurate. Moving through the forest from the east or south perimeter fences, a raiding party on foot could hit any of the buildings within two hours. This would hardly be a sure thing. Ten years ago would have been a better time to try. But with luck it could still be done.

Or knowledgeable Americans urgently believe so. Some of the best of them work for a richly endowed organization known as the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), which was founded by former Senator Sam Nunn and the CNN mogul Ted Turner. The director of NTI’s efforts in the former Soviet states is a smart, no-nonsense Washington insider named Laura Holgate, who spent years as a senior U.S. official grappling with Russian nuclear-weapons security. When we met, at NTI’s buttoned-up headquarters, in Washington, she repeated a colleague’s anecdote about a certain closed city where informal parking lots have sprung up outside of holes in the fence, because workers prefer not to bother with the gate. But I wanted to know about Ozersk, which seems to be more orderly, perhaps because of the quantities of bomb materials there. I asked about the security upgrades. She answered indirectly. “It’s a very challenging environment to work in. You set up a radiation detector, and it’s constantly going off, mostly false alarms. There’s so much clandestine movement of other stuff—cooking oil, insulation, you name it. So how are you supposed to catch the illicit movement of material as unradioactive as HEU? They put a little box of uranium in the corner, and they’re fine.” Moreover, the Russian government, she implied, can be somewhat dismissive of such matters.

Later, in Russia, I spoke to a modest American technician with a decade of experience in the secret cities of the Urals. He knew enough of Washington to want to remain anonymous, but did not seem interested in diplomatic maneuvering or nuclear policy. He was a detail man, a practitioner. He said, “Some of what the NNSA puts in is worthwhile, maybe. And other stuff seems, ah, not to get used. I took a tour one time, and they had installed a radiation monitor, a portal, for traffic going in and out of the site. So I say, ‘So, how’s the portal working?’

“And this Russian says, ‘Oh, we shut it off most of the time.’

“‘Why?’

“‘Because it’s always going off.’

“‘How come it always goes off?’

“He says, ‘Well … it’s the people on the buses. People go fishing in the lake, and when they catch fish and bring them out on the bus, they set off the radiation monitor. And then we’ve got to respond.’”

The technician laughed at his own story. Just when you think you’ve nabbed a terrorist, what you’ve really nabbed is a radioactive fish. After ten years around Russia’s nuclear facilities, he was not concerned. He said, “But you know, things like radiation portals? That’s just our method of security. They’ve got their own methods, which are probably as effective.”

“You mean human intelligence?”

“Yeah. It’s more people-intensive, the way they do it.”

Others have described Ozersk’s human side in dire terms—children selling drugs in the schools, mobsters in the construction and trucking business, large numbers of unvetted Central Asians arriving to do menial work that before would have been reserved for loyal Slavs. The worst of the lot are the soldiers whose duty is to guard the site. Called “the dregs of the dregs” by some critics, they are second-round conscripts, picked up by the Interior Ministry only after they have been rejected by the army. They in no sense constitute an elite corps, as the ministry sometimes claims. NTI has catalogued a string of known incidents of Mayak guards killing each other, committing suicide, stealing weapons, running away, buying narcotics, drinking on duty, and in one case imbibing a bottle of antifreeze and dying.

The problem for you, in your quest for a bomb, is that even these soldiers will fight. This is less a possibility than a fact. They will fight whether sober or drunk. Their presence at Ozersk means that no raiding party will be able to hit without provoking a noisy response. Still, American specialists have warned that a large and coordinated attack could overwhelm or counter traditional Russian defenses, pointing to the Chechen seizures of a Moscow theater in 2002 and a Beslan school in 2004 as evidence that terrorists within Russia already possess the wherewithal.

If you wanted a bomb, however, you would have to be concerned not only with getting your hands on fissile material but also with getting away. The getaway factor is not often raised in the United States, where the prevailing view is of a Wild West environment in which a nuclear bandit would need only to ride out of town in order to vanish safely. But up close to Ozersk, I kept running across evidence of a powerful and self-confident Russia that seemed more like its old autocratic self, and at least selectively under control.

The nearest international border to Ozersk is with Kazakhstan, only four hours’ drive to the south, but the route is poor, because it runs through Chelyabinsk and crosses border checkpoints using roads that can easily be blocked. A safer plan would be to head southwest, 1,200 miles or more, for the Caspian Sea or the Caucasus, with the goal of smuggling the uranium to Turkey through Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, or northern Iran. The trip, however, would require at least three days just for the escape from Russia—an interval that becomes the minimum head start required before the loss of material is noticed at Mayak. And raiders would be lucky to have three hours. In good conscience, therefore (and perhaps with some relief), a rational bomb-maker would abandon any idea of commando heroics.

But that is not to say you should give up on Ozersk. Possibilities abound for an inside job. A culture of mobsterism and corruption broadens the opportunities for recruiting thieves. Insiders could neutralize any practical defenses, pass undetected through the gates with a load of unshielded HEU, and provide a getaway team with a head start that could be measured in weeks or months—perhaps right up to the time an assembled bomb ignites. Linton Brooks described the possibility of insider theft as the greatest challenge facing the NNSA in Russia today. The solutions, which at best can only be partial, consist of efforts to complicate the task of would-be thieves, requiring them to bring more people into a conspiracy and to operate with larger teams.

An agent with deep experience in these matters said, “You try to make it more difficult by putting in doors that require two people to open. You put in video surveillance. You put in watchers to watch the watchers. You put in accounting systems to bring the facilities from paper ledgers into the bar-code era. But there are very deep-seated cultural issues here. In the Soviet days you were a very trusted person, an elite person, if you were working in these facilities. And now we come along and say, ‘OK, you’re not allowed to go into the vault by yourself anymore.’ That can take a while to sink in. Also, there’s a different perception of rules and regulations. The rule of law is not looked at the same way. There’s more skepticism in Russia. It’s a very complicated problem. Bricking up windows is part of the solution, but it’s not everything.”

It’s not as if the Russians don’t already know how to build strong rooms. I once mentioned to the American technician in the Urals that even ordinary doors there are heavy. He said, “One of the guys at the plant said to me, ‘Jack, I watch American movie last night.’” The technician imitated a Russian accent. “‘And I see something strange. Drug police. They kick in door! In Russia, this not possible!’”

Or maybe in Russia, this not necessary.

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William Langewiesche

"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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