Last August, an international task force of Americans, Russians, and Yugoslavians airlifted a stash of highly enriched uranium from of a Soviet-era nuclear reactor just outside of Belgrade. It was enough uranium to make two nuclear bombs, and for over a decade it had lain unprotected right under Slobodan Milosevic's nose.
Since the Soviet Union's implosion, the U.S. government has funded efforts to help safeguard its former adversary's crumbling network of nuclear research and storage facilities. The successful removal of so much uranium from the war-torn Balkans last summer was the most aggressive action yet taken to prevent nuclear material from falling into the wrong hands.
But Uncle Sam wasn't the hero here. Playing substitute? Ted Turner. Fully half the cost of the operation was paid for by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a private group underwritten by the CNN-founder-turned-activist, former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, and Warren Buffet, who pledged $2.5 million to the group just last week. The NTI is a fine organization, and it plays an important role in preventing nuclear smuggling, but the question remains: Why should we have to rely on the charitable donations of concerned philanthropists to protect us from nuclear attack? Isn't such protection the core responsibility of our federal government?
The problem of nuclear smuggling is very real and will continue to threaten international peace for years to come. Western intelligence agencies report that Al Qaida is actively searching for enough radioactive material to fashion a crude "dirty bomb." And Saddam Hussein, perhaps the world's most avid bomb-seeker, could easily assemble a fully functional nuclear weapon were he to get his hands on enough fissile material. This wouldn't be as hard as one might hope.
Some analysts believe material from South Africa's now-defunct nuclear program is floating around Africa's black market, and North Korea probably has at least one or two nuclear bombs. But the most likely supplier is Russia. The Soviets manufactured tens of thousands of nuclear warheads during the Cold War, and although many of these have been dismantled, about 18,000 remain. They are housed at over three dozen Russian installations, many of which are safeguarded by ill-trained and under-paid guards.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reported 18 instances of attempted theft of weapons-grade nuclear material in Russia and the former Soviet republics over the last decade. At least four of these attempts probably succeeded, according to the Central Intelligence Agency. In the most serious case, Viktor Yerastov, chief of Russia's nuclear accounting office, reported in 1998 that the amount stolen from an unnamed facility in central Russia was "quite sufficient material to produce an atomic bomb." But the same Yerastov, speaking at a press conference late last year, characterized allegations that Russian nuclear materials had gone missing as "barking mad."
Vladimir Putin himself later chimed in, saying he was "absolutely confident" that terrorists in Afghanistan did not have Russian-made nuclear weapons. Maybe so, but the only proof we have is that they didn't use them on us.
An Energy Department report released last year urged the federal government to allocate $30 billion over the next decade to help secure Russia's nuclear stockpile, but based on current budgeting we will spend barely one third of that. This is not nearly good enough. Al Qaida, Iraq, and other enemies of America will eventually find what they're looking for if our federal government doesn't get serious about the threat posed by nuclear smuggling. In the meantime, thank goodness for Ted Turner.
Bruce Falconer is a foreign affairs analyst with The Atlantic Monthly in Washington, D.C.