How the Breakdown of Law and Order in Russia Increases
the Danger Posed by the Poor Man's Nuc

January 3, 1999

Comment: #218

Discussion Thread:  #216


[1] Bill Richardson, "Russia's Recession: The Nuclear Fallout" Washington Post, December 23, 1998; Page A23.

[2] David Hoffman, "Cure for Russia's Nuclear 'Headache' Proves to Be Painful Crisis, Spotty Data Hobble Bid to Secure Bomb Material," Washington Post, December 26, 1998, Page A01.

[3] David Hoffman, "Idled Arms Experts In Russia Pose Threat: Many Take Talents to Developing States," Washington Post, December 28, 1998, Page A01

[4] Kenneth N. Luongo and Matthew Bunn, "A nuclear crisis in Russia," Boston Globe
29 December 1998

[5] Kenneth N. Luongo and Matthew Bunn, "Some Horror Stories Since July," Boston Globe, December 29, 1998

This commentary builds on the discussion initiated in Comment #216, which argued that our obsession with the technically unrealistic Ballistic Missile Defense system was blinding strategists, budget planners, and politicians to a far more serious nuclear threat to our homeland.

Terrorists or a rogue nation could construct a radiological bomb out of fissile materials smuggled out of Russia and infiltrate it into the United States in a truck or shipping container. Such a bomb would use a conventional a shaped charge made out of Semtex or C-4 to distribute a toxic cloud of powdered plutonium oxide (the Poor Man's Nuke). [Note: A primitive atomic bomb using enriched uranium, based loosely on a "gun" design like that used on Hiroshima, could also be used in such an infiltration attack, but I consider it less likely, because it would be far more difficult to design, fabricate, and transport.]

There are at least three reasons why the attacker would choose the indirect infiltration attack over a direct ballistic missile attack (new readers are referred to Comment #216 for a more detailed discussion of these reasons):

First, the ability to mask the source of the infiltration attack would create paralyzing ambiguities for decision makers in the United States. It would be advantageous for the attacker to exploit these ambiguities in a strategic and grand strategic context. On the other hand, the clarity of a direct missile attack would be disadvantageous to the attacker, because knowing the source of the attack would simplify the retaliation decision and thereby transfer the initiative and moral authority to the United States.

Second, our obsession with developing an impenetrable defensive shield actually makes our nation MORE VULNERABLE to an indirect infiltration attack, because (1) the fantasy of a perfect defense is based on the arrogant premise that our adversary will be stupid enough to attack into our strength directly, whereas history has shown repeatedly that wily attackers will try to convert their adversary's obsessions as their ally, a case in point being Germany's exploitation of France's Maginot Line mentality to amplify the effects of its infiltration through the Ardennes in May 1940, and (2), this obsession distracts attention, diverts resources away from, and corrupts thinking about a far more likely threat.

Third, acquiring the fissile material has always been the strongest barrier to this kind of attack. But economic depression and a breakdown of law and order in Russia are making it far easier for someone to steal the five-to-ten pounds of plutonium needed to make a radiological bomb (or the enriched uranium needed to make a primitive nuclear explosive). The Soviet Union produced about 1200 tons of highly enriched uranium and 150 tons of plutonium during the Cold War, about half of which is contained in relatively secure bombs, with the other half remaining in 50 relatively insecure scientific centers and military research facilities scattered across Russia and the former Soviet Republics [see Reference #2]. Nuclear waste products from electricity generating and maritime power reactors are additional sources of loose fissile material that could be appropriated by our adversaries [see References #3 & #4, Comment #216].

It is impossible to block the flow of knowledge needed to build such a bomb in the era of faxes and the internet. Similarly, it would require an unrealistic mobilization of resources to prevent such an infiltration by sealing our borders. Consequently, the only potentially effective way to neutralize this threat is to actively prevent the flow of fissile materials at their source.

Comment #216 concludes with the following recommendation: The United States, Russia, Japan, and the wealthy countries of Europe should combine forces to form a multilateral military task force to gain control of the nuclear materials before the growing crisis mutates into an uncontrollable catastrophe. Step 1 would to occupy and secure the storage sites, and Step 2 would evolve multilateral plan to consolidate the storage sites into a smaller number of more manageable locations and determine how to dispose of these materials over the long-term. The US contribution to this task force would be paid for by REDUCING expenditures on missile defense.

The references to this message provide interested readers with more information describing how the growing social crisis in Russia is creating a real threat of nuclear leakage.

The Rosy Scenario

Bill Richardson, the Secretary of Energy, presented what amounts to the Clinton Administration's best case scenario in a recent op-ed piece in the Washington Post [Reference #1]. He asserted that the Energy Department's efforts (i.e., the Materials Protection, Control and Accounting program) to prevent leakage of fissile materials is working, but he also admitted that Russia needs more help. Note, however, that Richardson acknowledged that Russia's current financial crisis has increased the risk of fissile leakage to rogue states or terrorists.

This Energy Department's program may indeed have made some progress, but as David Hoffman [References #2 and #3] and Kenneth N. Luongo and Matthew Bunn [References #4 and #5] point out below, this program is floundering and may be overwhelmed by the economic chaos now threatening to envelop Russia.

Moreover, at $137 million a year, the low priority attached to the Energy Department's effort is indicated by the fact that it amounts to a paltry 3% of the $4.5 billion Congress just appropriated for missile defense in Fiscal Year 1999, which began on October 1, 1998 ($3.5 billion budgeted plus a $1.0 billion "emergency" readiness supplemental).

The No-So-Rosy Reality.

In Reference #2, Hoffman paints a horrifying portrait of the control regime at one storage location in Russia, the Institute of Physics and Power Engineering, a prominent and once secret nuclear research institute 60 miles southwest of Moscow. A building known as Fast Critical Facilities contains about 10 tons of bomb-grade fissile material distributed in a 100,000 small uranium and plutonium disks (a dozen of which could easily fit in a pocket). But the old Soviet accounting system did not account for how much nuclear material accumulated over time, nor did it keep track of the condition of the disks. Many of the disks had duplicate serial numbers; sometimes as many as five disks had the same number. To make matters worse, many disks were in a state of disrepair and needed to be re-covered with metal cladding, but these repairs are painstakingly slow, and at the current pace (about a half-ton a year), it will take 20 years to repair it all.

The Prospect of Insider Diversion is also increasing. Many of these nuclear institutes are now in a state of dire financial emergency. Money has been drying up since the ruble was devalued on Aug. 17. There have been widespread delays in paying workers, growing shortages of food, clothing and housing for guards, and even cases where electric power to control monitors has cut off [see Reference #5 is a list of recent horrors]. Not surprisingly, these nuclear institutes are under pressure to seek contracts with countries like India, China, and Iran in order to stay alive.

Hoffman discusses the problem posed by unemployed nuclear workers in Reference #3.

Tens of thousands of specialists in the Soviet Union used to work on weapons of mass destruction or the means to deliver them. These workers lived apart from society in secret cities, had special privileges, and were paid more than the average Soviet worker.

The privileged status of nuclear workers evaporated when Russia collapsed in 1991, and today, most of them are without jobs. Moreover, most of those with jobs are not getting paid. Western policy makers have been acutely aware of the danger posed by this problem, but they have focused these concerns on the core group 2,500 to 3,000 nuclear scientists having detailed knowledge of bomb-building technologies. Their prime fear has been that disgruntled or opportunistic individuals might sell services to rogue nation or terrorist organization interested in building a nuclear bomb together with a missile delivery system.

Accordingly, the United States, European Union, Japan, South Korea, Norway and private firms, as well as Russia, spent nearly $190 million for grants to persuade Russian weapons scientists to take up civilian work. But this effort probably reached only about 60 percent of the core scientists.

It is important to remember that the problems posed by the poor man's nuc does not require the specific engineering knowledge needed to design a nuclear explosive or its delivery system. The poor man's nuc merely requires knowledge about handling, machining, and transporting fissile material. Terrorist organization already have the knowledge needed to build the shaped charge explosive for distributing the toxic dust.

Hoffman reports that there are about 5,000 more specialists in fabricating weapons and handling nuclear materials. Beyond that, Hoffman reports that there at least 12,000 to 15,000 individuals with experience in uranium and plutonium production, weapons delivery, or other aspects of weapons of mass destruction.

Actually, the number of disgruntled workers may be far higher than implied by Hoffman's estimates. In early September, Mssrs. Luongo and Bunn reported that 47,000 unpaid nuclear workers joined in protests at various locations around the country. The nuclear workers' trade union said its workers were owed more than $400 million in back wages, or about three times more than the budget for the Energy Department's control policy [Reference #5].

Many nuclear workers have found other jobs in business; others have simply disappeared. And, despite official restrictions, the breakdown of law and order in Russia provides little to stop these workers from leaving Russia.

But buying off the workers is no solution.

The main risk to the United States is not the emigration of disgruntled scientists. It is virtually impossible to stop the spread of knowledge in a world dominated by global communication networks. The information needed to build the radiological bomb can be easily transmitted over the internet or by fax.

The most effective of the admittedly unpalatable alternatives, therefore, is to prevent physical leakage of the fissile materials by plugging them at their source.

There is a fly in this ointment, however. Such a proposal clearly makes no sense unless we secure the full cooperation of the Russian government, its military, and eventually a majority of its citizens. This, I believe, is possible, because the growing conflict between the center and periphery in Russia, as well as its boiling porridge of ethic and religious hatreds, suggest that Russia could be the first state targeted by an infiltration attack with a poor man's nuc. The Russian people, therefore, may have an even greater interest in ending this problem than we do.

Unfortunately, the possibility for full cooperation is made more difficult by those Russians who perceive an aggressive posture implicit in the West's policy to expand eastward. Others see that policy as an arrogant sense of western triumphalism and revenge that smacks of the Versailles "peace" conference.

A generous multilateral strategy might dispel some of these fears, and help to prevent the demise of a Weimar Russia. But this would require decisive action by the West to work constructively with the Russians in a way that treats them with the empathy and dignity normally accorded to a ally and a full participant, not to mention the respect owed to a distinctive culture that overthrew its tyranny and ended the Cold War without massive bloodshed.

Chuck Spinney

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