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Dismantling the arms race - growing black market in nuclear materials

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#403
03/12/1993
Article

(December 3, 1993) Reports concerning smuggling of potential bomb-grade materials from the former Soviet Union continue to make the news (see NC 400/1.3907). In one account, 2.5 kilograms of enriched uranium were seized by police near Lublin, east of Warsaw. Also, six containers filled with a highly radioactive substance (thought to be cesium) were recently detected in the baggage compartment of a bus by border guards at Hrebenne, near the Ukrainian-Polish border. All the passengers on the bus are thought to have received significant doses, according to a major article in the Guardian of London.

(403.3921) WISE Amsterdam -Authorities are revealing their increasing concern about Mafia-style trading in nuclear materials and conventional arms in Eastern Europe. Soviet Kalashnikov rifles are being sold openly, as are cigarette packets containing nuclear samples. Two metric tonnes of plastic explosives have disppeared from the Czech Semtex plant, and 300 Polish AKM assault rifles were recently seized at Teesport (UK) by British customs agents. Drug dealers are increasingly trading in the illicit weapons. Investigative centers devoted to the arms movements have been set up in London and Berlin.

As for nuclear materials, Dr. Siegfried Hecker, director of the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory in the US, said recently: "As soon as one nuke gets away, or the material gets away, you've lost the ability to ever answer a terrorist threat again. Ever. In other words, if you know that there are 10, 20, 30 pounds [5, 10, 15 kilograms] of plutonium missing somewhere from the huge former Soviet materials stockpile, then you'll never know again whether a terrorist threat is serious."

The United States is also experiencing difficulties in dismantling its own Cold War arsenal. The US Department of Energy is operating under a schedule requiring disassembly of 1,400 war-heads per year, taking the nuclear stockpile down from a 1990 level of 21,000 warheads to about 3,500 war-heads in 2003. But at the Pantex disassembly plant near Amarillo, Texas, a special trailer for transport-ing the warheads broke down this summer, causing the suspension of the entire warhead transport fleet for 60 days. A General Accounting Office (GAO) report has shown that Pantex will run out of storage capacity for plutonium elements by April of next year. No long-term plan for plutonium storage exists in the US at present.

A study just prepared for the US Defense Department in fact says that within a decade there will be enough surplus plutonium in the world to make 87,000 primitive nuclear bombs.

According to one recent proposal, some of the former Soviet weapons complex could be converted to pro-duction of industrial and scientific isotopes for the world market. A report from MINATOM, the Russian atomic ministry, has estimated that with a 7.5 billion ruble investment, revenues from isotope sales could equal 16 billion rubles by 1995 and 64 billion rubles by the year 2000.

Some of these isotopes are also being dumped into the industrial production stream, however. US authorities recently traced large shipments of cobalt-contaminated steel from Dzhambul, Kazakhstan, through a broker in Luxembourg, to a dozen steel fabrication firms across the midwestern US and Canada. Cobalt-60 in the steel has been detected at levels up to 40 microrems per hour.

Sources:

  • Guardian (London), 27 Nov. 1993
  • Washington Post (US), 14 Nov. and 25 Nov. 1993
  • Post-Soviet Nuclear Complex Monitor (US), 8 Nov. 1993
  • US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Weekly Information Report, 29 Oct. and 4 Nov. 1993