Wanna Buy Plutonium?

TWO years ago, when plutonium traces were found in a car abandoned on the Munich autobahn, the implications of such nuclear smuggling made it one of the main threats to peace and security. In the flush of the post-cold-war period and the hopes for warm working relations with Moscow, this fact was not given top priority by either the Bush or Clinton administrations.

However, detective work by German authorities that resulted in four arrests of those selling illegal weapons-grade plutonium this summer should keep the problem on the front burner. In the past week, two seizures of fissionable material originating in the former Soviet Union have been made. Despite admiration for German security, the real question is: How much material is getting through?

Last Wednesday German police stopped a private Spanish-Colombian operation that would have delivered 8.8 pounds of plutonium 239, the isotope used in nuclear weapons. It takes 17 pounds of such plutonium to make a standard-size bomb; but smaller amounts can wreak havoc on civil society if used as a terrorist weapon. A German businessman arrested in May admits to having Iraqi contacts. One lesson of the Gulf war is that states desiring to stand up to the US will seek some nuclear cabability.

Two years ago experts pooh-poohed the idea of ex-Soviet nuclear stockpiles being raided or plundered. Yet waning discipline in the ex-Soviet Army, its need for cash, and, most important, the astounding rise of mafia control in Moscow and chaos in former Soviet states makes this a live threat. The Clinton administration conducted a nuclear proliferation policy review for the United Nations last September, concluding that nuclear terrorism was the No. 1 danger. Still, it is not clear the White House is adequately seized by the issue.

In post-Soviet Moscow, three large mafia organizations are running the city. Whether they have an interest in moving the society to a civil order is unknown. A state takes responsibility for collective security and safety; with a mafia, anything is possible. On Tuesday Russia denied that its weapons stockpiles had been breached. Given the breaches in Russian discipline, however, how can either the West or the Kremlin know for sure?

Some US scientists think the plutonium from Munich was slightly below weapons grade. This is no reason to put off the problem. Handling nuclear terrorism will require a different security approach from that of the cold war. Much more focus is needed.

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