Report on Threat From Nuclear Bombs Cites Urgent Need for Global Security

By David E. Hoffman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

When armed men attacked South Africa's most closely guarded nuclear facility a year ago, they penetrated the detection systems at the perimeter, cut through an electrified fence and broke into the emergency control center, shooting one worker there in the chest before escaping.

The Pelindaba facility holds hundreds of pounds of weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium. Although the attackers last November did not steal any of it, the assault highlights what a new report describes as the increasingly global challenge of keeping nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists.

The South African facility was better protected than dozens of other sites around the world that hold bomb-grade nuclear materials. Yet a team of four armed men made it into the control room and out without being caught.

The report, "Securing the Bomb 2008," the seventh annual study from Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, is to be released today. The study was commissioned by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonproliferation organization co-chaired by former senator Sam Nunn of Georgia.

President-elect Barack Obama pledged during the campaign to secure all nuclear materials at vulnerable sites within four years. Nunn said the challenge will be to keep that an urgent priority, given so many other competing demands.

"You have to decide whether it is urgent enough and important enough to be on the front burner," Nunn said. "Getting the other parts of the world to understand the urgency is also important."

In an agenda for the incoming administration, the report urges "a global campaign to lock down every nuclear weapon and every significant stock of potential nuclear bomb material worldwide as rapidly as that can possibly be done." The report also calls for the appointment of a senior White House official with daily responsibility for preventing a nuclear terrorist attack.

While there has been progress in the former Soviet Union in recent years, the report recommends broadening the effort to secure nuclear materials to include China, India, Pakistan and South Africa. The report says the weapons and the ingredients for a nuclear bomb exist in hundreds of buildings in dozens of countries.

About 130 research reactors around the world still use highly enriched uranium as fuel, and many of them have only "the most modest security measures in place -- in some cases, no more than a night watchman and a chain link fence," the report says. The South African break-in "is a reminder that nuclear security is a global problem, not just a problem in the former Soviet Union."

In that case, according to the report, the intruders spent 45 minutes inside the secured perimeter of the nuclear compound without being engaged by security forces, then disappeared. It is not known who they were or what they were after. South African authorities arrested three people but released them without charge. The security manager and several of the guards on duty were fired.

South Africa had refused U.S. offers to remove the highly enriched uranium or to help improve security at the facility, the report said.

Matthew Bunn, associate professor of public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and author of the report, said many nations need to address weaknesses in guarding bulk supplies of bomb-grade uranium and plutonium. In the past, "almost all the cases of theft are bulk materials," as opposed to finished weapons, he said.

The report notes that "it is a sobering fact that nearly all of the stolen HEU and plutonium that has been seized over the years had never been missed before it was seized," referring to highly enriched uranium.

Russia still possesses "the world's largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons and materials, located in the world's largest number of buildings and bunkers," an estimated 250 structures at dozens of sites, the report found. The study concluded that "some serious weaknesses still remain" in Russia, including "widespread insider corruption and theft," "poorly trained and motivated conscript guards forces" and a poorly developed security culture.

The report also calls on the United States to get its house in order, pointing to the inadvertent flight of six nuclear warheads last year to Barksdale Air Force Base.

The report says it is plausible that a sophisticated terrorist group could make a crude nuclear weapon, but so far none has. "The use of a nuclear bomb would be among the most difficult types of attack for terrorists to accomplish," the report says, "but the massive, assured, instantaneous and comprehensive destruction of life and property that would result may make nuclear weapons a priority for terrorists despite the difficulties."

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