Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Enriched Uranium To Go

Two cases of attempted smuggling of enriched uranium in the Republic of Georgia that are reported in tomorrow's New York Times have underscored the difficulty of accounting for--and securing--all the fissile material available in Russia and the former Soviet republics at the end of the Cold War. According to the Times, both in 2003 and in 2006, individuals with ties to Russian middlemen were arrested in Georgia while attempting to sell small quantities of uranium. The 100 grams of uranium seized in the January 2006 case, a sample apparently intended to seal a larger deal, was enriched to almost 90 percent U-235. In larger quantities--six to eight kilograms--U-235 at that level of enrichment could be used to make a nuclear weapon.

As Dan Caldwell and I note in Seeking Security in an Insecure World (p. 70), there is enough fissile material worldwide to produce over 100,000 nuclear bombs. A number of states--India, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel, and Iran--are producing more even now. In the former Soviet Union, fissile material is often inadequately secured. Accounting systems are often in such disarray that the theft of stored fissile material can go unnoticed. Corruption among scientists, military officers, and government officials exacerbates the problem. While the United States has helped Russia to "blend down" large quantities of its highly enriched uranium and to secure even more, the two Georgian cases suggest that much more needs to be done.

The 9/11 Commission gave the government of the United States low marks--a "D," to be exact--in the area of preparation for nuclear terrorism. Given the news out of Georgia, it may be difficult to make the case for a higher grade.