Interviews April 2008

Uranium on the Loose

Lawrence Scott Sheets discusses the lawlessness of the former Soviet republics and the nuclear threat no one talks about.

In Graham Allison’s book Nuclear Terrorism, he concludes, “On the current course, nuclear terrorism is inevitable. Indeed, if the United States and other governments keep doing what they are doing today, a nuclear terrorist attack on American soil is more likely than not in the decade ahead.” Did you get the same sense of inevitability from the security experts you spoke with in Russia—that it’s not a matter of if, but when?

In terms of Russian nuclear analysts themselves, they’re unfortunately increasingly reticent to talk about these issues. But in terms of people who interact with them and have long-term relationships with Russian nuclear experts and are experts in the field, yes, that’s very much their sense—that it’s not a matter of if, but when.

I think Senator Sam Nunn is a good example. He spent a good deal of his political life and post-political life dealing with this very issue. I spoke to him at great length, and on many issues I asked him to estimate, on a scale from one to 10, the degree of safety of Russian nuclear materials. Sometimes he said it was two, sometimes it was three, sometimes it was four. But when I asked whether it was possible that some rogue state or organization could at some point build a suitcase bomb—which we’ve all heard of, the nuclear suitcase—his answer was five.

It’s a pretty grim scenario—and it goes back to the basic fact that the Russians don’t know exactly what they had. The three men in my article had no competence at all in these matters, and probably little inherent interest in nuclear materials. They just wanted to make a few dollars to put some food on the table.

But it leads one to wonder about what would be the case with somebody who had money, and the desire, and the ideology, and the means, and the creativity to procure these materials. Where have these materials gone? The answer is scary.

You’ve lived in Russia on and off for a long time. To what extent do you think the average Russian fears a nuclear attack? They know probably better than anyone how poorly guarded some of their facilities are, and they’ve experienced terrorism in its most nihilistic form firsthand, from Chechen separatists.

Russians have seen many more terrorist-type incidents over the past 15 years than we have. I think they’re a little more hardened to these types of things, and the Russian national character is slightly more fatalistic about them. For the last 10 or 15 years, many Russians have been more focused on trying to improve their standard of living, which in many cases they’ve been able to do. So I don’t think terrorism is one of their main preoccupations. That fact probably contributes to a lax attitude within Russia’s official circles about these issues.

You mention that members of the Russian military have actually sold weapons to the men they’re fighting in Chechnya. And you suggest that corrupt soldiers could be one channel through which nuclear material could get into the hands of small-time hustlers, or even terrorists. Selling any kind of weapon to one's enemy seems like a surpassingly stupid thing for a military person to do, but selling nuclear material to terrorists would seem to go beyond mere corruption. How likely is that scenario?

We do know that it was a widespread practice during the Chechen wars that Russian officers—or soldiers, or conscripts, and generals even—were selling weapons, tanks, all sorts of equipment to the Chechen separatists. It was simply a function of the fact that the country was in disarray. The sense of national purpose had been lost. And the Russian military lived extremely poorly. Even officers were paid a pittance, although that’s been improving recently. The rank and file didn’t believe in the war in Chechnya. They preferred to make a buck and sell their weapons. So it was a very widespread practice.

Does that mean that there are elements within the Russian security or military services that would actually engage in peddling weapons-grade nuclear material to terrorists? The answer is, we don’t know. But it’s certainly not beyond the realm of imagination.

I’d like read you a quote from Dick Cheney on Meet the Press, from all the way back in December 1991: “If the Soviets do an excellent job at retaining control over their stockpile of nuclear weapons—let’s assume they’ve got 25,000 to 30,000; that’s a ballpark figure—and they are 99 percent successful, that would mean you could still have as many as 250 that they were not able to control.” The U.S. clearly recognized the nuclear threat immediately when the Soviet Union broke apart. Why hasn’t securing nuclear material been priority number one in the war on terrorism?

You’d think that would be the case, but the world's leaders—and the U.S. more specifically—has become so distracted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the problems with al-Qaeda, that they’ve simply forgotten what’s potentially the main source of nuclear material: the states of the former Soviet Union.

As a matter of fact, when you look back at all of the interdictions of highly enriched uranium over the past 10 or 15 years, the raw materials to make potential atomic weapons—fissionable weapons, not just a dirty bomb—almost all of the materials were traced back to Russia. More than 99 percent, I believe. I’m often amazed by the extent to which the Western imagination is captivated by Iran. We’re worried about the Iranians potentially having the ability to construct centrifuges that could perhaps create tiny, tiny amounts of these materials relative to what we know has probably gone missing in Russia and is available in Russia.

And I think it baffles many security analysts: Why this overriding concentration on, for instance, North Korea, which was able to, by all estimations, churn out at best a few extremely low-quality fissionable devices? The Iranians would probably be far better served by trying to actually obtain the raw material that people like Mr. Khintsagov have demonstrated is available. Whether they could round up enough highly enriched uranium to make a few fissionable devices, we don’t know. But we do know that the stuff has been out there for sale, and that there has been a baffling lack of attention to the source.

Now the West has spent billions of dollars safeguarding these installations, but the fact is, this is a huge, huge, overwhelming task. When people have an understanding of how many nuclear facilities there were, how secret they were, that they were so secret that in many cases there weren’t even telephone communications within the installations themselves because the Soviets were so paranoid about security—when you get a sense of just how massive it is, it boggles the mind. The material is there. And Mr. Khintsagov demonstrates that himself.

Presented by

Timothy Lavin is an Atlantic Monthly staff editor.

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