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Some images are destined for destiny. Certain news photographs or film footage transcend the moment, branded onto our collective memory. Take, for instance, the mushroom-shaped cloud of an atomic explosion. It has come to represent the face of destruction, a symbol of how our world might meet its Maker.

Another, more recent--and much closer--image comes from Oklahoma City: a dying baby carefully passed from one fire fighter to another, silhouetted against a background blaze that still burned.

But, as alarming and brutal as these images are, one can conjure a worse scenario. Imagine, for instance, a combination of Hiroshima and Oklahoma City. Imagine extremists (or extortionists, or anti-West terrorists) with nuclear capability. With some smuggled plutonium, it would take only a couple of people to fashion the kind of havoc usually associated with all-out war. Suddenly it's an entire city, perhaps an entire state, at stake. Suddenly Oklahoma is cordoned off as authorities try to deal with a half-million casualties. A radioactive cloud moves east, raining carcinogens. With the right material and a little expertise about explosives, any group of terrorists could make Hiroshima's bomb seem comparatively small. They could, as well, demand a king's ransom by threatening to blow up yet another area code.

Just as the Cold War is ending--just as East and West begin reducing their nuclear arsenals--a new and deadlier threat is emerging. A combination of political events, amateur and professional thievery, and bald opportunism have made the smuggling of nuclear materials a very real possibility. The dismantling of the Soviet Union has fractured a once-feared and omnipotent security system. Now scavengers of every stripe--merely enterprising or coldly professional--scour the Russian and East European countryside, hoping that lax security and poorly paid workers at military and civilian nuclear facilities will give them access to the most toxic material in the known universe--just the kind of material others might pay dearly to have.

Phil Williams, professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and director of Pitt's Ridgway Center for International Security Studies, has charted the muddy waters of nuclear smuggling. His conclusion is grim.

"I wouldn't be surprised if we had a case of nuclear extortion during the next couple of years," Williams says, almost matter-of-factly. "If there's blackmail involved, we might not even hear about it."

This is not a frightful prediction concocted by a crazed professor who also believes that aliens fired the second shot in Dallas. Williams' guess about nuclear extortion--and he admits it's a guess--comes at the end of an exhaustive study of recent "nuclear incidents" involving smuggling. Over the nine months, Williams and Paul Woessner (Public and International Affairs '94) have compiled a list of 175 incidents worldwide of possession, transfer, or attempted sale of radioactive material, much of it smuggled from former Soviet nuclear material stocks and research sites. Using only "open" sources--newspaper accounts, police reports, on-line journals and bulletin boards-- the pair are now tracking an average of one or two incidents a month, in addition to following up on previous events. The study's results, published in the Center's Ridgway Viewpoints, is now in the hands of government officials, foreign relations specialists, international studies scholars, and others involved in transnational security issues.

What Williams and Woessner have found is that nuclear pilfering was rarely successful before this decade. But over the past few years--roughly since the breakup of the Soviet Union, by no coincidence--the number of attempts to steal and sell material has skyrocketed. Despite the re-signing, by 170 nations, of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty last May, a new threat now arises from non-aligned criminal forces beholden more to money than country or principle.

In a nutshell, substituting a nuclear component for a conventional bomb gives more than just a bigger bang. Ordinary explosions work by changing the chemical structure of surrounding material, usually with a shock wave and fiery heat. When fissionable nuclear material like uranium and plutonium splits, it scatters its neutrons, some of which bang into other atoms, causing more fission. With enough weapons grade material (enriched by concentrating the easiest-to-split atoms into a central core) and the right trigger to create critical mass, you, too, can make a self-sustaining reaction with a force so powerful it can virtually vaporize anything near ground zero.

The question of how much nuclear element is needed to make a passable bomb depends upon the level of enrichment. All sorts of nuclear material--from the merely radioactive to the highly enriched, and everything in between--is stored in sites all over Russia. Russia's nuclear weapons, Williams says, are still closely guarded. Other nuclear material, however--especially from civilian-run nuclear research sites once patrolled by the KGB--has now been left to other (and probably poorer) forms of security. Without a reliable inventory system, theft from a Russian nuclear site can probably go undetected. As a result, the perceived laxity has created a climate of possibility: Thieves who may not have entertained the notion of nuclear smuggling are suddenly handed an opportunity. "I was once at a conference," Williams muses, "where a speaker talked about the KGB who guarded nuclear weapons as 'nuclear despots.' Well, I rather like nuclear despots over what we have right now. At least it was safer."

Several celebrated cases in Europe have sparked new interest in nuclear safety. In December 1994, three kilograms of highly enriched--but not weapons-grade--uranium-235 were seized in Prague. (Had the material been richer, three kilograms would be about half of what would be needed to make a one kiloton-bomb.) Two former soviet citizens and a Czech nuclear physicist were arrested. The physicist's arrest, Williams adds, "highlighted the danger that scientists themselves would become involved in the illicit trafficking of nuclear materials."

In August of 1994, three men were arrested after selling 330 grams of plutonium to undercover agents in Munich. Their arrest, however, produced significant controversy: Not only had the agents encouraged the men to acquire the material, hut they allowed the suspects to fly from Moscow to Munich with the plutonium on board a Lufthansa flight.

The Munich case raised important questions on the continent. Is the threat from nuclear smuggling real or imagined? As the Ridgway Center report proves, the possibility of theft more than just plausible--but is there a real market for the material once it is stolen? Is theft the result of a real black market economy, or the product of overzealous police forces and the journalists who write about them? Werner Leitner, a lawyer for one of the men arrested at Munich, argued that not only had his client been entrapped, but that the nuclear smuggling issue had been created by the authorities: "This is no way to fight crime; this is a way to create crime."

Surprisingly, Williams won't argue that deception and fraud are a big part of the nuclear smuggling story. "I think it's a very serious problem, but it's also a problem surrounded by a lot of noise," he says.

"There have been a lot of cases of radioactive materials that are not nuclear, and a lot of surrounding hype. It's difficult to sort it all out. And the press might sensationalize some of this."

But what worries Williams isn't the hand wringing over entrapment or sensational journalism. "My question is, how did these people get hold of this material in the first place?" No matter who the end-user may be--a terrorist group, a pariah state like Iraq or Libya, or simply a middleman interested in a buck--the issue is one of simple access: How can such dangerous material fall so easily into the hands of the highly unauthorized?

As it is now, breakdowns in former Soviet security measures have led to reported thefts so amateurish that they'd be laughable if they weren't so tragic. (In Poland, a smuggler died as a result of carrying some pilfered nuclear material in his shirt pocket. Near St. Petersburg, a butcher stole highly enriched uranium with the help of a relative at the Nuclear Energy Ministry. Then he kept the uranium in his refrigerator--in a pickle jar--so it wouldn't spoil.) In addition, nuclear technicians, once among the most rewarded of Soviet comrades, are now poorly paid, further enhancing their incentive for profit.

As Williams sees it, the real threat of nuclear smuggling is threefold. First, there's the obvious danger of passing nuclear material on to non-nuclear states such as North Korea. "It's a way for countries to get nuclear weapons on the cheap," Williams says, as well as a way of avoiding detection from more traditional trading routes. Secondly, there's the ever-present danger of extortion. "I think the extortion threat is greater," says Williams. "How much would a government be willing to risk to find if the threat is real?"

Finally, there's the far simpler but equally damaging environmental questions. Terrorists, for instance, wouldn't have to make a nuclear bomb. Simply dumping certain kinds of nuclear material into a water system or urban river would do the trick.

Williams' interest in nuclear smuggling grew out of his study of transnational organized crime--in smuggling guns, drugs, even people. (Williams has just returned from a summer in Belarus, where he analyzed drug trafficking and organized crime in that region for the United Nations' drug control program.) Information transfer on the Internet--plus easy transportation among interrelated economies--has helped to foster the warm 'n fuzzy "global village" concept. But "there's also the dark side of interdependence," Williams says. "People studying international political economy say interdependence is very good, very positive, and a lot of that is true. But the down side is that it also facilitates great illicit economic activity." The global village doesn't have the same global police cooperation, Williams adds. "When states try to combat illicit activity, they're often still bound by national sovereignty. So it can be slow, and cooperation can be difficult because law enforcement is such a sensitive area and different states have different legal systems. So we're lagging in response, and we need to cooperate much more.

We've made progress, but the criminals have the initiative." Williams' study of international crime organizations led him to two conclusions: first, that these criminal networks operated in some of the same ways as legitimate businesses, with similar (albeit illegal and more fluid) burdens of trade, cost, and supply-and-demand pressures. Secondly, Williams surmised that these same criminal methods of commerce and distribution could be used for ferrying other contraband--namely, nonconventional weapons.

Despite solemn promises made in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Pact, the entire issue is full of incongruities. The simplest structure in the universe, the atom, was found to have the most potential force. The Atomic Age was meant to secure a lasting peace. But once the genie was out of the bottle--once other countries went nuclear--the world was no longer safe. Instead, we built bomb shelters and practiced hiding beneath our school desks in pathetic preparation for nuclear attack. We hid behind the protection of the perverse MAD theory--Mutual Assured Destruction. No superpower, it was thought, would risk using nuclear weapons, knowing that instant and utter retaliation was certain.

The end of the Cold War has changed all that. Totalitarianism in the former Soviet Union has crumbled. But in the wake of triumphant capitalism and cooperation is the undercurrent of greed and conspiracy. Black market forces now have the opportunity to democratize the nuclear cartel.

Taken as a concept, nuclear smuggling seems like yet another avalanche of bad news, another problem sans solution, sigh and turn the page. In contrast, Williams' and Woessner's report offers, by ironically mixed metaphor, a wake-up call to arms. This compilation of the secret enemy's subtle shadowy activities provides the necessary lens for our overdue attention.

It's not the whole answer; it's barely a start. But information like this offers a chance to counteract those who want to buy legitimacy and respect born of brute atomic strength.

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