Plutonium: rising terror threat
The biggest threat facing the United States - and the world - is the spread of nuclear material to rogue states and terrorists. So say terrorism experts. Both major American presidential candidates concurred in last week's televised debate.Skip to next paragraph
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So why is the US moving plutonium from military to less secure civilian control? And why, critics ask, is it embarking on research programs that teach other nations how to use plutonium in nuclear power plants after a quarter-century of opposing such moves? That's what Tom Clements wants to know.
Lurking beside major highways that cut through the heart of France, Mr. Clements and other antinuclear activists from Greenpeace usually watch for unmarked white trucks carrying plutonium-based fuel to French nuclear power plants. Their aim is to dramatize how easily terrorists could spot the trucks and steal their contents. This week, however, they hope to track more dangerous quarry: a convoy laden with about 275 pounds of plutonium oxide shipped from the US. Unlike nuclear fuel for power plants, which terrorists would have to convert to make a bomb, this plutonium is weapons grade - enough dark, coarse-grained powder that could be used immediately to make 15 to 20 atom bombs the size of the one dropped on Nagasaki in World War II.
Knowing terrorists are seeking nuclear material, nations have made strides to secure bomb-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU). But they have paid far less attention to an alternative: plutonium.
The US shipment of weapons-grade plutonium to France, its first overseas, is not only a security threat but also clouds America's nonproliferation message, critics say. Moreover, it focuses attention on plutonium from another source - nuclear power plants. This "separated" plutonium can be converted into a weapon and poses a threat comparable to HEU, most experts say.
"The big risk we face with separated plutonium is from theft by terrorists at a factory making reactor fuel - maybe an inside job," says David Albright, a researcher at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a Washington think tank. "You always have to worry about the physical protection of plutonium. Nations always tell you their protection is good. But it may not be enough." Consider:
• The world is swimming in plutonium. Although military stockpiles have stabilized, the amount of civilian-held plutonium has doubled in the past 13 years, says a new ISIS report. At the end of 2003, 14 nations' civilian reactors held 235 metric tons of the most dangerous variety in terms of a terrorist threat - separated plutonium. That's enough material to fashion some 40,000 Nagasaki-sized weapons; the amount is growing by five to 10 tons a year.
• France annually converts tons of this plutonium to a mixed-oxide or MOX fuel, which is trucked to its nuclear power plants. Despite its "reactor grade" label, MOX could make an effective bomb - as a US test in 1962 revealed. Even if a weapon "fizzled" because its plutonium was only reactor-grade, it would still yield a one-kiloton explosion that would "rip the heart out of a city," says Leonard Spector, deputy director of the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
• While it's far simpler to make a bomb from HEU, it's conceivable that terrorists could build a plutonium-based device with expert help, observers say. Just 15 pounds of the material, a baseball-sized chunk, would be enough to wipe out a large portion of a major city. Last month, Kyrgyz security agents arrested a man trying to sell 60 small containers of plutonium.
The US has carefully protected the onetime shipment of plutonium to France, counters Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, an arm of the Department of Energy. "There are efforts and procedures in place we're not going to discuss publicly."