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Unsecured Nuclear Material Poses Risks

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Unsecured Nuclear Material Poses Risks

National Security

Unsecured Nuclear Material Poses Risks

Unsecured Nuclear Material Poses Risks

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Robert Siegel talks to Joseph Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund, a nonprofit foundation that supports nuclear disarmament, about unsecured nuclear materials worldwide. He is also the author of the book Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons.


Professor Joseph Cirincione of Georgetown University is president of the Ploughshares Fund, which is an anti-nuclear arms group. Welcome to the program.

Professor JOSEPH CIRINCIONE (Georgetown University; President, Ploughshares Fund): Thank you.

SIEGEL: Mike Shuster just spoke of 500 tons of plutonium and 1,600 tons of highly-enriched uranium. Of that amount, what percent can we say is secure in the sense that it's under the control of some stable, sovereign government or at least one that observes International Atomic Energy rules?

Prof. CIRINCIONE: Well, about half of it, even though almost all of it is under the control of the government. And most of them observe the rules fairly strictly. The problem is they have varying degrees of security. Some of this is locked up very tightly at military bases with top flight vanguard troops protecting it. But a lot of it is still protected by little more than a chain link fence and a guard that works during the day.

SIEGEL: And that might describe as much as half of the nuclear materials in the world today?

Prof. CIRINCIONE: As much as half, yeah.

SIEGEL: Of that material that is not secure, to what degree would Pakistan account for the problem or to what degree is it far more widespread than that?

Prof. CIRINCIONE: For my money, Pakistan is the most dangerous country on earth. It is a much bigger threat to us than either North Korea or Iran. And we have to focus our attention more on where Al-Qaida would likely get the material to attack us. It's not Iran, they don't have it. It's not North Korea. It's Pakistan. An unstable government, enough material for 60 to 100 weapons, strong Islamic influences in the military and intelligence.

Al-Qaida in the country encamped some 60 kilometers away from a nuclear base. It's not that the material isn't secure right now. It is. It's that the government isn't secure.

SIEGEL: So, in effect, it's the stability of the Pakistani government and indeed the policy or the orientation of the Pakistani government that's the measure of how dangerous that arsenal is.

Prof. CIRINCIONE: Right. You know, today's ally can be tomorrow's nuclear nightmare. It's not just that something terrible could happen tomorrow, it's that something terrible might've happened yesterday and we just don't know about it yet.

SIEGEL: When the Soviet Union broke up, there were concerns that some disgruntled, corrupt general-turned-warlord Mafioso would sell nuclear material or give it to some non-state actor. How close have we actually come to seeing anything like that happen?

Prof. CIRINCIONE: We have about 15 documented instances of thieves stealing weapons-usable material over the past 20 years. All of them have been in states of the former Soviet Union. So that tells us where the...

SIEGEL: Fifteen such...

Prof. CIRINCIONE: Fifteen. And those are the ones we know about. None of these were organized crime. They were all petty thieves, people who worked in the facility trying to make an extra buck, somebody who heard about the lax security, went through a chain link fence, went to something that would look like a tool shed to you and me and grab the highly enriched uranium.

It's just a matter of time, though, before some organized crime element matches up with an international terrorist group. That's the race we're in. In all the incidents that we know of, where we've caught people selling material, no one had known that material was missing until we caught the thieves. That tells you how much we have to do to beef up security at these facilities.

SIEGEL: You've said that you hoped the Washington summit won't end up with a declaration that's effectively a two-page press release. Are you at all encouraged in that regard?

Prof. CIRINCIONE: I am. I think the communique is going to be a serious communique, better than most. There's going to be an action plan. It's going to be all-voluntary, so that's a drawback. But, still, it's committing countries to specific steps by specific deadlines. And you started to see, most importantly, countries make individual contributions now.

The Ukraine announcement today that it's going to get rid of its highly enriched uranium. Chile just last week announced that it was giving up a bomb's worth of highly enriched uranium from a research reactor. We'll look for more of that. And in the end, I want to see if the countries are going to commit to come back, say, in two years to measure their progress, hold themselves accountable.

SIEGEL: But a system of nuclear safeguards that turns out to be 99 percent effective might well be 100 percent failure. That is, if one nuclear weapon, either a radiation device or an explosive device went off, we wouldn't say, yeah, but think of all of the explosions that didn't happen during this time. Can you achieve that level of security that is 100 percent airtight?

Prof. CIRINCIONE: You can get very close to that. Is this doable? You know, I think it is. We have never lost an ounce of gold from Fort Knox. We shouldn't lose an ounce of highly enriched uranium.

SIEGEL: Joseph Cirincione, thank you very much.

Prof. CIRINCIONE: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: That's Professor Cirincione of Georgetown University, who's also president of the Ploughshares Fund.

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