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Lisa Trei, News Service (650) 725-0224; e-mail:

New database tracks illicit trafficking of nuclear material worldwide

VIDEO: 'Weapon of mass disturbance': researchers discuss threat from 'lost' nuclear material available at

It takes just a few kilograms of plutonium and less than 20 kilograms of highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb.

According to a new database compiled by researchers at the Institute for International Studies (IIS), about 40 kilograms of weapons-usable uranium and plutonium have been stolen from poorly protected nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union during the last decade. While most of that material has been retrieved, 2 kilos of highly enriched uranium filched from a research reactor in Georgia is still missing.

And that's just for starters.

"I think this is the tip of the iceberg," said Lyudmila Zaitseva, a researcher at IIS who has been sifting through databases, technical journals and newspapers since 1999 to compile what may be the most complete picture of illicit trafficking of nuclear material worldwide.

Zaitseva estimates that the real amount of missing weapons-grade material could be 10 times higher than is officially known.

For example, law enforcement officials in the United States seize only 10 to 40 percent of illegal drugs smuggled into the country every year, Zaitseva said. And Russia stops only 2 to 10 percent of illegally imported goods and immigrants entering illegally from neighboring Kazakhstan. Based on such statistics, Zaitseva's estimate of missing nuclear material is not far-fetched. "We don't know what's missing," she said. "That's the most frightening thing."

Nuclear physicist Friedrich Steinhausler is the driving force behind the new IIS Database on Nuclear Smuggling, Theft and Orphan Radiation Sources (DSTO). Unlike existing databases, the IIS database aims to cover incidents worldwide because "the new terrorism is global," he said. "Not knowing what goes on globally is like having [blinders] on."

IIS Consulting Professor George Bunn, a veteran negotiator of nuclear nonproliferation treaties and standards, is the third member of the DSTO team. "It blows the mind the lack of information," said Bunn. "What we're trying to do is say, 'What are the facts?'"

The IIS database combines information from two unclassified databases with additional open sources confirmed by governmental agencies. The Stanford researchers reevaluate the material for accuracy.

"You'd be surprised how much scientific junk is in the existing databases, from mixing up units to reporting on tertiary sources," said Steinhausler. "We decided to look at each case is it scientifically credible? And who is reporting this? Is it a scientific agency or a central Asian local newspaper?"


'Orphaned' radiation

The database, which will be accessible only to carefully vetted researchers cooperating with the team at Stanford, focuses on illicitly trafficked material and what is referred to as "orphaned" radiation sources material that has been lost intentionally or by mistake. The database is divided into 21 categories that can be statistically analyzed. These include type of incident, type of material, suspected origin, perpetrators involved, reported destination and intended use.

The database also categorizes the reliability of information used and identifies major routes of illicit trafficking and how they have changed during the last decade. For example, in the early 1990s, western Europe was the place to sell nuclear material. Now the market has shifted to Central Asia, the Caucasus and Turkey, Zaitseva said.

Steinhausler, a visiting scholar at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation, said that orphaned radioactive material presents a real threat because victims may not know that they have been exposed. "Many countries don't even have a central register of radioactive materials," he said. "If they don't know what they have, they don't know what they've lost."

A case in point: In 1997, La-Z-Boy Inc. made about 6,000 recliner chairs with steel from Brazil that was accidentally contaminated by radiation. About 1,000 chairs were sold in the United States before the contamination was discovered.

"The best description of the threat scenario is the U.S. itself," which has one of the best registration systems for radioactive material, said Steinhausler. Every year, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission receives 200 reports of lost, stolen or abandoned radioactive sources. "If the U.S. loses control of a registered source almost every second day, what do you expect goes on in the rest of the world? Whether it is in scrap metal or in terrorism, you will meet it again."

That happened with devastating results in Goiania, Brazil, in 1987, when scavengers dismantled a metal canister from a radiotherapy machine at an abandoned cancer clinic. Soon afterward, a junkyard worker pried open the lead canister and discovered a pretty blue, glowing dust: radioactive cesium-137. In the following days, scores of people were exposed to the substance some parents painted their children with it and sold tickets to neighbors to watch them dance, Zaitseva said. As a result, 112,000 people had to be monitored. Of those, 249 were contaminated; 28 suffered radiation burns and four people died. More than 67 square kilometers was monitored, large areas had to be decontaminated and 3,500 cubic meters of radioactive waste was generated. For years afterward, the region was stigmatized and its economy devastated, Zaitseva said.


Inadequate protection

Steinhausler and his colleagues at IIS were prompted to create the database to raise public awareness and prod governments to improve the protection of nuclear and radioactive material. Such protection is woefully inadequate, the scientist said, particularly in the former Soviet Union and in developing countries.

"We cannot supply the means to improve the situation," said Steinhausler. "But, as academics, we feel the responsibility to raise awareness. We're pinpointing weaknesses and loopholes and saying, 'Do something about it.'"

It is too early yet to gauge governmental reaction but, Steinhausler said, experts in the field are taking notice of the new database. Europol, the European Union's equivalent of Interpol, has asked the team to work with it in evaluating the criminal aspects of nuclear trafficking. And this September, IIS and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory will jointly organize a scientific conference on preventing nuclear terrorism for the European Union in Salzburg, Austria.

"I hope that the lessons of 9-11 will encourage not only the nuclear industry but also the political arena to engage in a scientifically sound debate rather than a politically motivated debate on the threats to nuclear installations," Steinhausler said.


'Weapon of mass disturbance'

Steinhausler said he is concerned more with the threat of a technologically simple "dirty bomb" conventional explosives packed around radioactive material than of a sophisticated nuclear bomb.

"If I was a modern terrorist, I wouldn't go after a site that is being upgraded continuously; I would go after the weakest link," he said. "And the weakest link is a dirty bomb in a shopping mall. I'm concerned about radioactive material ... combined with very simple explosive techniques, causing a devastating psychological effect on the public. I call this not a weapon of mass destruction but a weapon of mass disturbance."

For example, Bunn said, the anthrax attack on the East Coast last fall killed only a few people but caused widespread panic, prompting costly and time-consuming measures to treat those infected and to decontaminate buildings. "A lot of people were scared to death," he said.

However, Zaitseva added, governments should not rule out that a determined and sophisticated terrorist might one day be able to construct a nuclear weapon. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a large amount of weapons-usable material was left without adequate protection. The U.S.-sponsored Material Protection, Control and Accounting Program has secured only one-third of the more than 600 tons of weapons-usable material in Russia, she said. The program pays to improve security by bricking up windows and installing motion detectors and other devices to prevent theft and smuggling from installations. The remaining 400 tons of material is not scheduled to be secured until 2007.

"It's just not protected," she said. "This is weapons-usable [material]. This is hot stuff. If you steal 20 kilograms of that material you can build a nuclear weapon."


830 entries

DSTO combines information from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)'s Illicit Trafficking Database and the Newly Independent States' Nuclear Trafficking Database at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) in Monterey. The IAEA database is based on state-confirmed incidents, and CNS's database is confined to incidents in the former Soviet Union. The DSTO team also uses additional independently obtained information. As a result, DSTO lists 830 entries including:

(sum) 643 nuclear smuggling incidents that include thefts and seizures of nuclear and other radioactive material;

(sum) 107 sources of orphaned radiation;

(sum) More than 80 cases involving fraud, or malevolent acts using radioactive material to commit murder, deliberate exposure and blackmail, and to poison food and water supplies.

Steinhausler said the biggest hole in the database is that no one knows where the smuggled material has gone. "There is no proof," he said. "There is suspicion but there is no proof." Bunn stresses: "That's the most important point."

The database includes information mainly from the former Soviet Union, Europe and the United States. Incidents in India, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Bangladesh are mentioned, but large gaps of information remain in Asian countries with known nuclear programs. The researchers have contacted officials in China and Kazakhstan and want to collaborate with additional agencies to update the database as new material becomes available.

Bunn said that the database's overriding message to governments is the need for more protection. The 1980 Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material is weak, he said, because it requires international standards only for transporting nuclear materials from one country to another. The convention should be strengthened to include domestic storage and domestic use of nuclear materials, and to establish specific standards for protection, he added.

"There has been considerable opposition to that," Bunn said. "Many countries don't think it is needed." However, governments have been more receptive since last September's terrorist attacks in the United States. "In the last month, Secretary of Energy [Spencer Abraham] made a speech saying that this convention should be strengthened along the lines we've been advocating," Bunn said. "He said it should be made stronger to protect [nuclear and radioactive material] from theft, sabotage and terrorist attacks."

That's the most realistic fix to a frightening global problem. "We've just got to do a lot better job of policing," Bunn said.


By Lisa Trei

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