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Missing Presumed Dangerous - The World's Missing Nuclear Materials

Politics / Nuclear Power Mar 25, 2012 - 03:48 AM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleAbout 50 heads of state will attend the Nuclear Security Summit on Monday and Tuesday 26 and 27 March in Seoul, South Korea, drawing US president Barack Obama and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev as well as leaders from potential transit countries such as Moldova, Lebanon and some African states that smugglers may use to move illicit nuclear materials. Iran and North Korea, which are in violation of United Nations resolutions demanding a halt to their nuclear work, are among countries excluded from the summit because the conference organizers’ are seeking consensus.

Consensus is critical for the 5-nation Declared Nuclear States of the UN Security Council and the 41 other members of the UN accredited Nuclear Suppliers Group - nations which sell nuclear goods and services from reactor building and fuel supply, to reprocessing, waste handling and IT services for the now troubled nuclear industry. With officials still unsure on the basic information they need to gauge how much highly enriched uranium and plutonium has been lost or is unaccounted-for, worldwide, leaders meeting in Seoul want reassuring and convincing majority decisions for the modest measures they will put to vote, and which will appear to better protect civil populations from the rising risks of nuclear terror.

Even a small nuclear blast by terrorist organizations would cause enormous casualties and heavily disrupt the world economy. The most recent nuclear catastrophe, at Fukushima, is estimated as causing some $50 billion of economic damage only in the 3-year period 2011-2014. Long term damage from this disaster, like Chernobyl, will probably exceed $250 billion. In the Chernobyl case, including death tolls of the "Liquidators", the total bodycount from this disaster almost certainly exceeds 50 000. The legacy of the Soviet Union’s breakup, inadequate atomic stockpile controls worldwide, and the proliferation of nuclear-fuel technology effectively means the world is awash with the materials needed as weapons ingredients, ripe to be picked up by terrorists. Rather than the media-touted image of "suitcase bombs" the cheapest, most effective and most likely modus operandi for nuclear terrorists will be simply spreading high level nuclear wastes in city centers - forcing their total evacuation - in so called Dirty Bomb attacks.


Nuclear security advisers, obligatorily speaking oof the record explain that "loose materials" are very easy to dissimulate. Taking them off the radar screen of trackers of stolen and lost nuclear materials is easy, resulting in a de facto situation where it may already be impossible to either contain or account for them. In particular, this concerns highly-enriched uranium and plutonium, the two most-basic ingredients for nuclear weapons, and in the case of plutonium the most deadly (and man-made) material that exists on this planet, with massive cancer-causing effects at doses of a few millionths of one gram. Stocks of plutoninum, only at France's Cap de la Hague site, and the UK's Dounreay site, may exceed more than 350 tons, equivalent to the plutonium needed to build and explode 35 000 Hiroshima-sized atom bombs, or more than 45 000 bombs of the more plutonium-efficient type developed by Abdul Kader 'Bombs R Us' Khan, of Pakistan in the late 1980s.

Security officials in all of the 5 Declared Nuclear states of the UN Security Council (the US, Russia, China, France and the UK by rank of their declared bomb inventories) are still seeking the most basic information about how much high-enriched uranium and plutonium has been lost or is unaccounted-for. Due to critical lack of clear information, leaders meeting in Seoul on 26 and 27 March will be forced to settle for modest but reassuring measures, adapted to the slender intellectual status of their middle class voting publics, which would seem to protect these key voters from the risk of terrorists obtaining nuclear materials or building and exploding a nuclear weapon.

US simulations of worst-case Dirty Bomb attacks tell another story. A nuclear-armed terrorist attack on a key strategic port like San Jose, California, would kill 60 000 people and could cost as much as $1 trillion in damage and cleanup, according to a 2006 Rand Corporation study commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security. Even a low-level radiological or dirty-bomb attack on Washington, with low level numbers of deaths, could cause economic damage of $100 billion, according to Igor Khripunov, the former Soviet Union’s START arms-control envoy, now a leading analyst at the US Center for International Trade and Security.

Because a terrorist needs only about 25 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium or 8 kilograms of plutonium to improvise a bomb, the margin of error for material accounting is small. Plutonium oxide, easily vaporized and spread across cities using crop-sprayer aircraft, could make entire city centres uninhabitable and a total economic loss in a weekend surprise attack.


Taking only declared and known weapons-grade material, there are at least 2 million kilograms of stockpiled weapons-grade nuclear material left over from decommissioned bombs and from civil nuclear power plants, according to the International Panel on Fissile Materials, a nonprofit Princeton, New Jersey research institute that tracks nuclear material. Each year, the world's 440 civil reactors (excluding the more-than-300 military and dual function reactors), produce an estimated 75 tons of plutonium.

Present known or declared stocks are enough to make at least 100 000 new nuclear weapons, over and above the weapons stocks of the 5 Declared Nuclear states, of about 22 000, already stocked in their weapons delivery systems such as submarine launched missiles, and in their weapons stockpiles. For the USA former senator Sam Nunn “The elements of a perfect storm are gathering,” and his Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative provides extensive lists of plutonium and highly enriched uranium weapons-capable nuclear materials spread over several hundred sites, in 32 countries. Nunn's research group underlines that a massive majority of these materials are poorly secured. At the same time. the "nuclear genie is out of the bottle", as shown by Abdul Kader Khan producing highly effective and efficient atomic weapons - some 25 years ago - before moving on to offer the know-how to all comers, especially those with an Islamic flavor and the needed cash.

French Greenpeace, the anti-nuclear environmental group provided total proof on how easy it is to breach security at EDF (Electricite de France) reactors, in December 2011. Where reactor sites also include fuel cooling stores, the jackpot for terrorists is only larger, but physical intrusion is in no way obligatory for "taking out" nuclear reactors, causing a worst-case meltdown, and the maximum possible release of deadly toxic nuclear materials.

At least since 9 / 11, nuclear states such as France have reviewed existing barriers around reactor sites, and moved to lower cost security upgrades such as guard dogs and tasers, but fully functional antiaircraft missile batteries would be needed, around every large reactor, to provide total security against drone attacks or crash-landed hijacked airliners. This protection is not economically possible, and several nuclear operators at the Seoul conference will present briefing papers on how saboteurs, if they penetrated a reactor site and disabled the power supply, can trigger a sequence of events similar to what happened when the tsunami struck the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant in Japan, in March 2011: nuclear fuel rods would melt and there would be massive release of radioactive materials into the air.


The Global Zero Initiative, whose US chapter is headed by former nuclear negotiator Richard Burt, said in February 2012 that the greatest nuclear security threat in Russia comes from bases in western Russia that house tactical nuclear warheads targeting Europe. These bases provide inadequate security against theft or sabotage, according to the report, whose authors included Russian former arms-control negotiators. In particular, and in a macabre link with the global economy and rising commodity prices, nuclear contaminated materials also including copper, manganese, tin and other high-value metals are increasingly stolen, transported and sold for their scrap value.

About 100 grams of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium, lodged inside a nuclear fission chamber, was plucked out of a Rotterdam scrap- metal yard in late 2009 by Jewometaal Stainless Processing BV’s radiation-safety chief. This recycling company, the largest in Europe for stainless steel, has since 2005 received increasing amounts of radioactive contaminated metals and runs regular radiation checks on incoming scrap.

Quantities of these materials are unfortunately not possible to accurately estimate, but at the end of the Cold War, in 1989, the Soviet Union had about 22 000 nuclear weapons stored in Russia and in satellite states of the Warsaw Pact and Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Highly reasonable doubt exists that all of this weapons-usable material was recovered when warheads were repatriated to Russia and hastily dismantled under chaotic conditions with either incomplete or no records.

The legacy of the USSR's collapse and the operation of so-called "civil" reactors have created a context where accurately accounting for weapon-capable nuclear material around the world is a major obstacle to eliminating the threat of nuclear terrorism: if we dont know what is available, estimating the risk will be very difficult. Other countries not invited to the Seoul conference include Belarus, home to about 200 kilogram of known highly-enriched uranium, and Niger, the West African nation falsely accused of supplying uranium to Saddam Hussein of Iraq before the 2003 war, in part justified by an alleged Iraqi fnuclear-weapons program *****

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2012 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.

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