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San Francisco Chronicle
December 10, 2001
Terrorists shop in Russia for nuclear 'dirty bombs'
By Bill Wallace, Chronicle Staff Writer

Washington -- One November morning six years ago, Shamil Basayev, a Chechen rebel, tipped a Russian television reporter that a radioactive weapon had been buried in Izmailovo Park in downtown Moscow.

It was a warning of the horror Russia could face if it continued military operations in Chechnya.

In fact, a lead container with a quantity of radioactive cesium inside -- enough to irradiate a wide area if detonated properly -- was later recovered at the park.

Such a weapon, known as a "dirty bomb," is "the most accessible nuclear device for any terrorist," said Bruce Blair, the director of the Center for Defense Information, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.

Indeed, it's the terrorist weapon most feared in the wake of the September attacks on New York and the Pentagon. There is ample evidence that Osama bin Laden has tried to obtain nuclear devices, and the Washington Post reported last week that there was a deepening fear in the Bush administration that there could be such an attack.

"It is something that the president is concerned about and takes seriously," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said at a press briefing last Wednesday, "and every precaution is being put in place."

It's a reasonable fear, Blair told The Chronicle.

"There is no question that there is plenty of radioactive waste around that could be acquired and turned into a dirty bomb just by wrapping it around dynamite," he said. "I am quite fatalistic about this threat."


Since the collapse of communism, the lax security and poor controls at Soviet nuclear warfare facilities have made Russia and its former satellites a key marketplace -- a virtual "Sharper Image" -- for terrorists.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that there are 603 tons of weapons- grade nuclear material inside the former Soviet republics, enough to build 41, 000 nuclear weapons.

So far, only about 200 tons of this material have been properly secured with fences, alarm systems, detection sensors and gates, according to a recent study by the U.S. General Accounting Office. The Department of Energy estimates that security measures will not be in place at all Russian facilities until 2020.

A Department of Energy report issued earlier this year by a task force headed by former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker and Washington power lawyer Lloyd Cutler put the peril posed by weak Russian nuclear safeguards bluntly:

"The most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States today is the danger that weapons of mass destruction or weapons-usable material in Russia could be stolen and sold to terrorists or hostile nation-states and used against American troops abroad or citizens at home."

The Izmailovo Park device offers a glimpse at the real threat that terrorists might devise and use a dirty, or radiation, bomb.

"What it (the incident) demonstrates is that acquiring the materials you need to make a dirty bomb is really fairly trivial," Blair said. " . . . What this reveals is the attention that one terrorist group was willing to give to the potential for this type of weapon."


The material used in the Izmailovo Park weapon appears to have been stolen from one of Russia's many unsecured nuclear facilities. A week after the cesium was recovered from the Moscow park, Russian authorities found four 198- pound lead vessels in an abandoned mine shaft in the Ural Mountains that contained the same material.

The cesium found in the Urals had been stolen from an industrial plant a short time before.

It was not the first time radioactive material was lifted from a former Soviet facility, nor would it be the last.

In 1993, scientists at the Sukhumi nuclear research center in Georgia fled oncoming Georgian insurgents, leaving behind two kilograms of highly enriched uranium, enough to make a deadly radiation bomb. When a Russian team returned four years later, the radioactive material was gone.

"That is actually the most serious case," said Blair. "It doesn't get much more serious than that. That's the kind of material you use to make a real nuclear weapon, not just a dirty bomb."

In 1996, Russian officials reported that a large cache of nuclear waste -- including plutonium and uranium isotopes used in atomic weapons -- was missing from a storage site in Chechnya.

And just last year, authorities at the border between Uzbekistan and Pakistan seized ten lead-lined containers of strontium 90, a material that can be used to turn a conventional explosive device into a radiation weapon.

There is little question that bin Laden has coveted nuclear weaponry for years. He once said that acquiring weapons of mass destruction for use in the war against the West was a "religious duty."

In 1998, an aide to bin Laden, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, was arrested in Germany for reportedly attempting to obtain highly enriched uranium in the mid- 1990s. Testimony during recent trials of bin Laden associates in Egypt and the United States included word of his al Qaeda terrorist group's repeated efforts to buy nuclear weaponry and radioactive material.


In the past five years, bin Laden has spent more than $3 million attempting to acquire a portable nuclear device from sources in the former Soviet Union, said Yossef Bodansky, the staff director of the U.S. Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare and author of "Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America."

Bodansky said bin Laden had been most interested in obtaining a "suitcase bomb" that would be harder to detect and easier to deliver than a conventional bulky military weapon.

"Although there is debate over the precise quantities of weapons purchased, there is no longer much doubt that bin Laden has finally succeeded in his quest for nuclear suitcase bombs," Bodansky said.

Since 1991, the United States has spent roughly $2 billion on various programs to help prevent Russian nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists.

The effort has succeeded in securing nuclear weapons and facilities in a number of parts of the former Soviet Union, and eliminating them entirely in Kazakstan and Ukraine.

But policymakers and disarmament experts say the program has been underfunded and complicated by the fact that many Russian officials remain reluctant to allow U.S. personnel to enter secret facilities or have data on their nuclear arsenal.

Whatever the reasons, experts say U.S. efforts to deny terrorists access to the store of Russian nuclear materials so far just haven't been good enough.

"It's a serious threat, and one that requires serious attention," said Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and an assistant secretary of defense during the Clinton administration.

"But if you look at our performance on preparing for chemical or biological or nuclear weapons, it looks a lot like airport security did before Sept. 11," he said. "If we were giving a report card, you would have to say we are failing."

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