The May arrest of Jose Padilla, the Brooklyn-born Muslim accused of planning to build a radiological “dirty bomb” within the United States, has helped focus attention on the issue of access to radioactive materials. The Caucasus and Central Asia have emerged as a particular area of concern, as reliable controls over radioactive materials in those regions have broken down. U.S. officials are now pushing for better monitoring of such materials.
There is scant substantive evidence that the Caucasus and Central Asia are fertile ground for radiological commerce. However, international agencies are concerned that investigators may be overlooking clues to such trafficking. Both the United Nations-backed International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the National Academy of Sciences have expressed concern about the monitoring of several ingredients of possible future dirty bombs.
“No one knows how big the problem of clandestine trafficking in radioactive materials is, but enough people have been arrested that, where there’s smoke, there must be fire,” says John Pike, director of a Virginia information firm called GlobalSecurity.org. The IAEA’s failure to recover two nuclear generators in Georgia underscores the possibility of radioactive materials falling into the hands of terrorists.
Like other barometers of life in the former Soviet Union, the distribution of harmful elements is very difficult to track. Pike says “radioactive source inventory control” is a massive problem. While the United State has made some progress working with Russia on monitoring uranium and plutonium, Pike adds “there isn’t a specific program” focused on other former Soviet republics.
Kazakhstan produced nuclear arms, and has cooperated to some degree in dismantling its nuclear factories. But, says Pike, American officials have not visibly worked to suppress small-scale radiological sabotage. “Over the past decade, improving security of fully assembled weapons and weapons grade material has been the priority, not tracking radiological sources,” he says.
When asked about the U.S. Department of Energy’s program to donate radiological detection equipment to border posts throughout Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus, Pike says it will “almost certainly not make a difference, because of the porosity of borders in the region.” Pike challenged the IAEA to come up with a program to “assess radiological inventories and vulnerabilities” at places like hospitals, labs, and industrial facilities.
Indeed, inspectors may not know where someone might assemble a crude bomb. “There must be an accounting of all sources of radiological materials creating a comprehensive inventory, especially of plutonium, uranium, and certain isotopes of strontium, cesium, and cobalt,” says Arjun Makhijani, president of the Maryland-based Institute of Energy and Environmental Research. At the same time, Makhijani calls for tight control over all these materials, because a failed attempt to combine them could be disastrous.
“It’s not easy to make dirty bombs,” he says. “Handling and transporting these elements is extremely dangerous.” On this logic, the most minimal personal contact with these elements could result in immediate sickness, and possible death. Russian and U.S. investigators, along with IAEA experts, are now combing through records in an effort to track down where radioactive materials may lie, and are focusing suddenly on the Caucasus and Central Asia.
On June 25, the IAEA told the Associated Press that “uncontrolled radioactive sources are widespread” in Central Asia’s five former Soviet republics. While the agency says that more than 100 countries may fail to adequately protect their radioactive materials, recent incidents in the former Soviet Union make that region especially troublesome. The IAEA cited a 1997 episode in which 11 Georgian border guards fell ill with radiation poisoning after cesium capsules in their barracks exposed them to radiation.
The hunt for missing equipment has spread across the region. In addition to the hunt for the missing generators in Georgia, there is also a case of missing containers reportedly containing cesium-137. On June 25, the Guardian reported that the tubes were used in experiments by the Soviets in the 1970’s to stop corn germination. They were stored in protective casing, but since the breakup of the Soviet Union, they have strayed. The Guardian report said the IAEA has located nine of the tubes, four in Georgia and five in Moldova. While the Bush administration has leaked plans to spend up to $25 million this year on finding radiological material in the former Soviet Union, it is not clear how this money would practically improve inspection methods.
Indeed, the methods used by investigators may face increased scrutiny. On June 25th, the National Academy of Sciences issued a series of recommendations that “gives the government a blueprint for using technologies and creating new capabilities to reduce the likelihood of terrorist attacks and the severity of their consequences.” Protecting and controlling the sources of potential explosives tops the list.
The former Soviet republics remain basically uncharted, though the continuing detention of Padilla may drive investigators deeper into the region. The government has worked to suppress information about the Padilla case, but Pakistani investigators have said that radioactive trafficking has gone on in the new nations of Central Asia. Officials have said that Padilla probably traveled in Pakistan and Central Asia, and may have joined an al Qaeda mission to Chechnya to learn about making bombs.
He may well have gotten across borders with relative ease. In recent years, agents have stopped several nuclear smugglers on or near the borders of Central Asia and Russia. In one case, an Uzbek in Kyrgyzstan was nabbed en route to the United Arab Emirates with a plutonium capsule.
On June 26, the nonpartisan General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report criticizing the U.S. anti-smuggling program. The GAO report said the United States has spent more than $90 million on equipping more than 30 countries, including Russia and several of the nations of Central Asia, with radiation detection equipment, mobile X-ray vans, inspection tools, and training. But the ways inspectors have spent this money, like the materials in question, are very hard to trace.