The Good News About Loose Nukes

Every age needs its vision of apocalypse, its End of the World myth. Ours is nuclear terrorism. It is a fear that has provoked at least one war (Iraq), endless speculation about another (with Iran), and a never-ending stream of alarmist books—Jonathan Schell's "The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger" being the latest. And every now and than we hear some unnerving story about loose nukes that sends chills down our collective spine.

The most recent came to light on Thursday, when police in Bratislava, Slovakia—the very town in which George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin signed a pact on nuclear safeguards in 2005—announced the arrests of two Hungarians and a Ukrainian trying to sell a pound or so of highly enriched uranium from the former Soviet Union for $1 million. "That's the biggest case in quite a number of years," says Matthew Bunn, a proliferation expert at Harvard. In an Associated Press story on the incident, an official with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Richard Hoskins, was quoted as saying that last year alone the nuclear watchdog had registered 252 reported cases of radioactive materials that were stolen, missing, smuggled or in the possession of unauthorized individuals. That's a 385 percent increase since 2002, he noted.

Well, maybe I'm just whistling past the graveyard, since I live in Washington, D.C., which is supposed to be the ultimate target for every Islamist terrorist worthy of the name. But when I dug into the details of those stats, I wasn't especially unnerved. In fact, I was somewhat heartened. First, according to Hoskins, that 385 percent increase can actually be seen "as a measure of success," because so many more countries are now tracking and reporting incidents since 2002, when the IAEA database was formed. Ninety-nine countries are now cooperating; in recent years even roguish nonsignatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty like Pakistan and India have joined the database. So has China, despite "a huge bureaucratic system that I don't think is working 100 percent," Hoskins told me. The vast majority of those 252 cases are small-scale ones involving industrial radioactive material like what one might find in medical isotopes or moisture-density gauges used in highway construction. Of the cases reported since the IAEA database began in 1993, only 18 involve nuclear bomb-making material, and Hoskins believes that "nearly all" were recovered.

It takes only one miss, of course, to "change the world," as Hoskins says. The Bratislava incident isn't even close to enough to do that—the amount allegedly being peddled there was less than one percent of the 110 pounds of highly enriched uranium that would be necessary to create a crude "gun-type" nuclear bomb. Still, it is possible that terrorists are slowly trying to accumulate the necessary amount, or intend to use it to create a small "dirty bomb." One big remaining worry is that many of the culprits who are caught are would-be sellers just out to make a buck. "What worries us is we see very little of the buyer end of the market," says Hoskins. Even so, investigators believe that those who do get involved in this illicit business tend to be more ordinary criminals than terrorists. "There are very few incidents that involve terrorists," Hoskins says.

Part of the good news here is that beneath the ongoing ideological disputes that dominate the headlines—about how to deal with terrorism—there is an extraordinary degree of international cooperation over stopping loose nukes. The Bush administration, after a slow start and an excessive focus on missile defense, is catching up with this wave as well, according to proliferation experts such as Harvard's Bunn. "There's a lot more tracking going on," he says. "A lot more detectors are being put in place—there are now over 100 national border crossings" with radiation detectors. And all of the crossings in Russia—where the largest amount of unsecured nuclear material still lies—are supposed to be monitored by 2011. "The Russians are going to pay for half of them, which is a new thing as well," says Bunn. Alexander Pikayev, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow Center, says that despite the tension between Washington and Moscow over issues like Iran's nuclear program, the two countries are cooperating nicely on interdiction.

Still, it's a little disturbing that there's so little discussion about continuing these interdiction efforts—especially by candidates for the 2008 presidential nomination. In the 2004 campaign Bush and his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, could seem to agree on only one thing: that nuclear terrorism was the No. 1 threat to U.S. national security. Yet nearly four years later, Hoskins notes, there still is no comprehensive database keeping track of the origin of weapons-grade nuclear material so that, in the event of a theft, it can be traced back. "There's a lot more to be done," Bunn agrees. "We're still treating this as an important but not urgent activity. It remains true that there is no one in the U.S. government who has overall charge of all the pieces of trying to keep nuclear bombs out of terrorist hands." Nuclear apocalypse could still become a reality some day if we're not vigilant. But, thankfully, it's not nearly as imminent as some alarmists would have us think.