‘Time Is of the Essence’

No terrorist has ever managed to detonate a nuclear device. Let's keep it that way.


It was a cold autumn in Russia in 1998. The country had recently defaulted on its debts and devalued the ruble, millions of bank depositors lost their savings, and the banks closed their doors. The economic crisis had also created a sense of uncertainty about nuclear security. Erik Engling, who had been working on the problem of loose fissile material for several years for the U.S. Energy Department in Washington, was attempting to visit as many of the Russian institutes with uranium as he possibly could that fall.

One day in early November, he arrived at the Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics, spread over 89 acres on a beautiful old estate in Moscow. The institute was one of the oldest in the Soviet Union’s archipelago of nuclear research facilities. A large amount of weapons-grade uranium, enriched to 90 percent, was stored there inside in aluminum-clad canisters 6 inches long, which had been used for a heavy-water research reactor and physics experiments.

Earlier in the year, the United States had completed installation of new equipment at the institute to monitor and protect the uranium. The equipment was just one part of a multibillion-dollar effort by the U.S. government to secure the uranium and plutonium in Russia after the Soviet Union’s collapse. On a day of bone-chilling cold, fighting exhaustion from weeks of work, Engling came face to face with a crisis the U.S. government had not expected: The guards had walked away from their posts. The new monitoring equipment was still there, but there was no one to operate it. "They’re all gone; they’ve left; they’ve quit," Engling told me. "They haven’t been paid, and they’re not gonna get paid, and everyone knows they’re not gonna get paid."


Looking around, Engling counted 32 people who were essential to keeping the facility operating and the uranium secure, including 12 guards.

He knew that it was foolish to put money in a bank account to pay them — given the condition of the banks, it would disappear overnight. At midafternoon, he gathered several institute officials in the deputy director’s office. "I was just desperate," he recalled.

Engling pulled $3,000 in cash out of his pocket, money he had been given for per-diem expenses on his trip. He asked the Russians: If he paid everyone $50 a month, would the guards remain on duty for three months until he could figure out something else? He gave the wad of cash to the deputy director, whom he trusted. Please, he implored all of them, remain on duty for three months. Can you promise me the guards will be back?

After the visit, Engling sent an urgent message to the Energy Department in Washington. Previously, the U.S. government had focused on protecting the uranium with monitoring equipment, but now, he warned, there was a whole new problem looming: a "human catastrophe." The guard forces at the institutes were paralyzed, with wages unpaid for two to four months, absenteeism, and lack of winter clothing, heat, and food.

"TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE," he wrote, all in capital letters to underscore the urgency.

In the years since then, much has been done to physically secure the loose nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union. But there are still risks of the unforeseen and undetected hole in the fence. A group of peace activists breached the fences of a Belgian base holding U.S. nuclear weapons this year and walked around for an hour before they were stopped by a lone guard.

These stories go to the heart of the problem of nuclear security to be taken up this week at the summit of 47 countries in Washington. Uranium and plutonium that could be used for a bomb is spread all over the world — global stockpiles of highly enriched uranium are estimated to be 1,700 tons, and separated plutonium 550 tons. That’s enough for about 200,000 nuclear weapons. Even without the knowledge to create a weapon that causes a nuclear explosion, a terrorist could manage to mix radiological material with conventional explosives to cause mass panic and economic disruption. Thus, simply keeping the fissile material safe is the most important single challenge of nuclear security.

But the reality today is that the rules, facilities, and people involved in nuclear security are vastly different across the globe. Even when the best locks and video monitors are in place, there can be threats — such as the "human catastrophe" Engling described. Many nuclear bombs from the Cold War have been given better security, but less obvious risks remain in nooks and crannies where the fissile material is vulnerable to theft or diversion.

U.S. President Barack Obama has promised to complete the lockup of all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world in four years. But as Matthew Bunn, associate professor at Harvard University, noted at a recent news conference, "We are not yet today on a track" to meet the president’s goal. Many countries neither see the problem as urgent nor have devoted the resources to dealing with it. Bunn is the author of the authoritative annual survey Securing the Bomb, the latest of which was released today.

It is not rocket science. The problems and methods are known. Here are the major areas of concern:


Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, there has been a lot of work done in Russia and elsewhere to provide security upgrades to buildings that hold highly enriched uranium, plutonium, and nuclear weapons. Although about 200 buildings have undergone upgrades in physical security, a big problem in the former Soviet Union is that, so far, Moscow has not consolidated all nuclear material into a smaller number of facilities that would be easier and less expensive to protect. The uranium and plutonium is scattered across about 250 locations. (The United States did finance and build an impressive $309 million Fissile Material Storage Facility in Russia for the materials being extracted from dismantled weapons, however.)

Civilian HEU

Highly enriched uranium (HEU) continues to be used in research reactors and to produce medical isotopes around the world. By one estimate, nearly 800 kilograms are used annually. In many cases, the HEU could be replaced by low-enriched uranium, which cannot be used to make a nuclear weapon. The Energy Department’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative was created to clean out this category of nuclear materials. The most recent operation, in February and March, extracted HEU from two reactors in Chile. But "political and economic obstacles continue to hamper efforts to achieve a global clean out of civilian HEU," according to the Fissile Materials Working Group. Some countries don’t want to give up what they see as an asset for science or medicine.

Culture and Training

As the Engling story illustrates, the human factor is often critical. Threats exist from insiders who could leak or divert nuclear materials, as well as from outsiders. As Bunn wrote in the 2008 edition of Securing the Bomb: "If the upgraded security equipment the United States is helping countries put in place is all broken and unused in five years, U.S. security objectives will not be accomplished." It takes people to operate the equipment successfully, and over the long term the training and security culture has to be homegrown.

Security Standards

Although the United Nations has called on all countries to set "appropriate effective" standards for protecting nuclear materials, the reality is that no single gold standard exists for guarding nuclear materials. The standards have been left up to each national government to decide. Bunn suggests in his report that the United States attempt to build a common consensus about standards and then work to put them in place.

The Black Market

Aside from better locks on doors, much of the concern about nuclear security is how to catch the materials in transit — being smuggled across borders or carried into a large city. Bunn points out that the amount of nuclear material needed for a bomb is small and difficult to detect. "Once such material has left the facility where it is supposed to be, it could be anywhere, and finding and recovering it poses an immense challenge." So the nuclear security problem must involve customs and security agencies to interdict the materials on the move.

Obama has declared that nuclear terrorism is the gravest threat facing the world. To date, there has never been a terrorist attack using a nuclear weapon or fissile material. This suggests that the window of opportunity to prevent such an attack is still open; there is time to lock up all the dangerous materials and ensure the number of nuclear terrorist incidents remains zero.

David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook