A Russian citizen arrested in the former Soviet republic of Georgia reportedly had weapon-grade uranium for sale. The incident highlights the overall problem of securing nuclear material after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Former Sen. Sam Nunn discusses the case with Steve Inskeep:
SN: There have been numerous instances of this kind of smuggling. There have been a lot of stings, there's been a lot small trafficking, there's been a lot of low-enriched uranium.
The thing that really stands out here is this was weapon-grade material. And by that, we mean that knowledgeable people could take that kind of material, in sufficient quantities, and make a nuclear weapon or device that could take out an American city, or a city around the world.
SI: Is there enough evidence to know that this suspect actually had access to as large a quantity of uranium as he claimed?
SN: I have no way of knowing that. I'd have to defer that question to people who did the investigation.
But this overall problem, trying to keep materials out the hands of the wrong people, and trying to secure the weapon-grade material all over the globe, has been the mission of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a foundation I head. And, in fact, it is the main aim of the program known as the Nunn-Lugar Program that you alluded to. So, we've worked this problem for a long time. But the threat, in many cases, seems to be outpacing the response.
The other big program, we call it "the global cleanout," and that's a U.S.-Russian initiative to try to get material that is weapon grade back from research reactors all over the globe.
SI: Given all the efforts you've made, how safe would say that Russia's nuclear stockpiles are now?
SN: Let me give you a brief scorecard, and I would have to say this is totally subjective, this is my view, but I think it's based on facts.
On a scale of 10, 10 being we would have secured all of the Russian and former Soviet Union stocks, we are at about five. That's real progress; but we have a long way to go.
On a scale of 1-10, globally, in terms of getting all of this material under control, we are at about three, so we have much further to go in that regard. But this does take cooperation. And we are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe.
SI: So even though this particular smuggling case seems to involve Russia, that's not the area of gravest concern at the moment?
SN: I would say it is. But that's not the only one. I think Russia still has the largest stockpiles. But there are other countries that probably have less security over much smaller stockpiles. So I would say they're all very important.
SI: I want to follow up on a couple of things you said, senator. You said the threat is outpacing the response. Does that mean that, even though you're making progress, you're a little more worried now than you might have been 10 years ago?
SN: Yes, because I think groups, fanatical groups, have worked on this. There's no question that Osama bin Laden has announced publicly that he is trying to get nuclear materials. So there's a willingness there. And there would probably be access to the kind of people that could put a weapon together. Although it's not an easy task, it can be done.
And the nuclear material is taking far too long to secure. There are over 40 countries that have small amounts of nuclear material. And even if they don't have enough for a weapon, there's nothing to prevent a group like this that's determined, that has access to money, that can corrupt people inside, nothing to keep them from putting several different stocks together to be able to have enough material to make a weapon. And that's my worst fear.
As hard as the problems are with Iran and North Korea, and these things come together at some point, because the more nations that have nuclear weapons, the more nations that go into the enrichment process, the harder its going to be to keep this stuff out of the hands of someone who would use it.
SI: People sometimes refer to "suitcase" bombs. I wonder how real that is, even if you're talking about the raw material, smuggling nuclear material. Could you put enough uranium to make a bomb in a suitcase, with enough lead or other insulation, that it would not be blindingly obvious and extremely dangerous?
SN: I'm afraid the answer to that is yes.