How Do Terrorists Get A Hold Of Nuclear Material?

World leaders at the Nuclear Security Summit this week hope to make progress toward preventing nuclear terrorism. But how do the myriad parts that go into making a nuclear weapon get into the hands of terrorists and rogue governments in the first place? Host Linda Wertheimer talks to Mark Hibbs, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has actually searched out nuclear traffickers and asked just that.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

As we just heard, the focus of tomorrow's summit is loose nukes and how to handle them. President Obama has called nuclear terrorism the most immediate and extreme threat to global security. Mr. Obama hopes that the heads of state assembling will make a greater effort to keep nuclear material out of the hands of rogue nations and terrorists.

Of course, there is not a shopping center for black market nukes. They are purchased piece by piece through clandestine deals.

Mark Hibbs has followed those deals. He is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and part of his work is to seek out and talk with the people who smuggle nuclear material.

Mr. MARK HIBBS (Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Some of the encounters I've had with these people have been bone-chilling. They can size you up and tell very quickly whether you are a threat to them, or you pose a challenge that they feel they have to deal with, and I've come away with a conclusion that in dealing with nuclear smugglers, I'm dealing with people who are potentially very, very dangerous.

WERTHEIMER: What other sorts of, I don't know, skills, advantages, equipment, what do they need to do this?

Mr. HIBBS: Many of the ones I've met have very deep backgrounds in engineering and physics and chemistry. They also tend to be logistical experts.

You know, one of the people that I'm referring to, he described that he would have a meeting in South Africa. Couple days later, he would go to Dubai. The week after that, it was Liechtenstein and then Singapore, and, you know, these people are very aggressive in looking for innovative ways of solving the problem of moving illegal materials.

WERTHEIMER: The person I guess that most Americans have heard of is A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist who was at the center of a huge proliferation scandal. I mean, is he the sort of person that does this, or does the fact that he was working for the Pakistani government make him not typical?

Mr. HIBBS: The intriguing thing about A.Q. Khan is that he is in the background. The impression that we have from the Khan network is that he has, you know, an array of associates who have known him for many years and do his bidding and work for him and that these are the people that are doing most of the running around. They're doing most of the organizing, and some of those individuals, I've met over the years.

WERTHEIMER: Now, what is it that is moving through this kind of commerce? What is the object that is being purchased or protected?

Mr. HIBBS: Well, for a nuclear weapons program, the shopping list really goes from soup to nuts. Most of the items are ho-hum, and they're basically harmless. There's one Khan associate who I've looked into over the years.

This dealer's transactions to Pakistan involved huge amounts of stuff. Most of it look like an inventory for a hardware store. You know, it was metal plates, wire switches, fasteners. None of this is sensitive. Where it gets tricky is that you go up the ladder of what you need for a program, you know, an item that you're shipping to Pakistan might have a nuclear use, or it might have a non-nuclear use.

To give a good example of that, there are certain aluminum tubes of an alloy that could be used for a centrifuge plant, but they are also commonly used in the frames of bicycles.

WERTHEIMER: Well, they're exactly the kind of thing that we heard so much about in Iraq.

Mr. HIBBS: Exactly.

WERTHEIMER: Can you give us a kind of a it-started-here-and-it-went-there-, a kind of nuclear transaction?

Mr. HIBBS: Sure. This is a case I'm looking into now. There's an Iranian company which contacts a firm in China to get equipment to operate its centrifuge plants. The Chinese firm then contacted a firm in Taiwan. The Taiwanese firm then ordered the equipment from a vender in Liechtenstein. The Liechtenstein vendor shipped to Taiwan, and the Taiwan organization, after some discussions with the Chinese firm that originally ordered the goods, then decided okay, we're going to ship it not to China but to Iran. And that's what happened.

So, you know, this is a classic case, and this experience underscores how difficult it is to interdict this trade because if it's not watertight, you're going to get - a link in a chain is going to be broken, and the transaction is going to go through.

WERTHEIMER: Mark Hibbs is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was in Bonn when we spoke to him.

Mr. Hibbs, thank you very much for doing this.

Mr. HIBBS: You're welcome.

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