by Prof. Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
Richard Miniter, “Baggage Claim: The Myth of ‘Suitcase Nukes,’ ” OpinionJournal.com , October 31, 2005.
about the author: Miniter is author of Disinformation: 22 Media Myths that Undermine the War on Terror (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2005), from which this article is excerpted. The following is from http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110007478 :
. . . A month after 11 September, senior Bush administration officials were told that an Al-Qaeda terrorist cell had control of a ten-kiloton atomic bomb from Russia and was plotting to detonate it in New York City. CIA director George Tenet told President Bush that the source, code-named “Dragonfire,” had said the nuclear device was already on American soil. After anxious weeks of investigation, including surreptitious tests for radioactive material in New York and other major cities, Dragonfire’s report was found to be false. New York’s mayor and police chief would not learn of the threat for another year.
The specter of the nuclear suitcase bomb is particularly potent because it fuses two kinds of terror: the horrible images of Hiroshima and the suicide bomber, the unseen shark amid the swimmers. The fear of a suitcase nuke, like the bomb itself, packs a powerful punch in a small package. It also has a sense of inevitability. A December 2001 article in the Boston Globe speculated that terrorists would explode suitcase nukes in Chicago, Sydney, and Jerusalem—in 2004.
Every version of the nuclear suitcase bomb scare relies on one or more strands of evidence, two from different Russians and one from a former assistant secretary of defense. The scare started, in its current form, with Russian General Alexander Lebed, who told a U.S. congressional delegation visiting Moscow in 1997—and, later that year, CBS’s series “60 Minutes”—that a number of Soviet-era nuclear suitcase bombs were missing.
It was amplified when Stanislav Lunev, the highest-ranking Soviet military intelligence officer ever to defect to the United States, told a congressional panel that same year that Soviet special forces might have smuggled a number of portable nuclear bombs onto the U.S. mainland to be detonated if the Cold War ever got hot.
The scare grew when Graham Allison, a Harvard professor who served as an assistant secretary of defense under President Clinton, wrote a book called Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (New York: Times Books, 2004). In that slim volume, Mr. Allison worries about stolen warheads, self-made bombs, and suitcase nukes. . . . [The] work has been widely cited by the press and across the blogosphere.
Let’s walk back the cat, as they say in intelligence circles. The foundation of all main nuclear suitcase stories is a string of interviews given by General Lebed in 1997. Lebed told a visiting congressional delegation in June 1997 that the Kremlin was concerned that its arsenal of one hundred suitcase-size nuclear bombs would find their way to Chechen rebels or other Islamic terrorists. He said that he had tried to account for all one hundred but could find only forty-eight. That meant fifty-two were missing. He said the bombs would fit “in a 60-by-40-by-20 centimeter case”—in inches, roughly 24-by-16-by-8—and would be “an ideal weapon for nuclear terror. The warhead is activated by one person and easy to transport.” It would later emerge that none of these statements were true. . . .
Nearly everything Lebed told visiting congressmen and [later Steve Kroft on “60 Minutes”] was later contradicted, sometimes by Lebed himself. In subsequent news accounts, he said forty-one bombs were missing, at other times he pegged the number at fifty-two or sixty-two, eighty-four, or even one hundred. When asked about this disparity, he told the Washington Post that he “did not have time to find out how many such weapons there were.” If this sounds breezy or cavalier, that is because it is.
Indeed, Lebed never seemed to have made a serious investigation at all. A Russian official later pointed out that Lebed never visited the facility that houses all of Russia’s nuclear weapons or met with its staff. And Lebed—who died in a plane crash in 2002—had a history of telling tall tales.
As for the small size of the weapons and the notion that they can be detonated by one person, those claims also have been authoritatively dismissed. The only U.S. Government official to publicly admit seeing a suitcase-sized nuclear device is Rose Gottemoeller. As a Defense Department official, she visited Russia and Ukraine to monitor compliance with disarmament treaties in the early 1990s. The Soviet-era weapon “actually required three footlockers and a team of several people to detonate,” she said. “It was not something you could toss in your shoulder bag and carry on a plane or bus.”
Lebed’s onetime deputy, Vladimir Denisov, said he headed a special investigation in July 1996—almost a year before Lebed made his charges—and found that no army field units had portable nuclear weapons of any kind. All portable nuclear devices—which are much bigger than a suitcase—were stored at a central facility under heavy guard.
Lieutenant General Igor Valynkin, chief of the Russian Defense Ministry’s 12th Main Directorate, which oversees all nuclear weapons, denied that any weapons were missing. “Nuclear suitcases . . . were never produced and are not produced,” he said. While he acknowledged that they were technically possible to make, he said the weapon would have “a lifespan of only several months” and would therefore be too costly to maintain.
General Valynkin is referring to the fact that radioactive weapons require a lot of shielding. To fit the radioactive material and the appropriate shielding into a suitcase would mean that a very small amount of material would have to be used. Radioactive material decays at a steady, certain rate, expressed as “half-life,” or the length of time it takes for half of the material to decay into harmless elements.
The half-life of the most likely materials in the infinitesimal weights necessary to fit in a suitcase is a few months. So as a matter of physics and engineering, the nuclear suitcase is an impractical weapon. It would have to be rebuilt with new radioactive elements every few months.
General Valynkin’s answer was later expanded by Viktor Yesin, former chief of staff of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces. Mr. Yesin was asked by Alexander Golts, a reporter at the Russian newspaper Ezhenedelny Zhurnal: “The nuclear suitcases—are they myth or reality?” [Yesin replied:]
“Let’s start by noting that ‘nuclear suitcase’ is a term coined by journalists. Journalistic parlance, if you wish. The matter concerns special compact nuclear devices of knapsack type. Igor Valynkin, commander of the 12th Main Directorate of the Defense Ministry responsible for nuclear ordnance storage, was absolutely honest when he was saying in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta in 1997 that ‘there have never been any nuclear suitcases, grips, handbags, or other carryalls.’”
“As for special compact nuclear devices, the Americans were the first to assemble them. They were called Special Atomic Demolition Munitions (SADMs). As of 1964, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps had two models of SADMs at their disposal—M-129 and M-159. Each SADM measured 87 x 65 x 67 centimeters [34 by 26 by 26 inches]. A container with the backpack weighed 70 kilograms [154 pounds]. There were about three hundred SADMs in all. The foreign media reported that all these devices were dismantled and disposed of within the framework of the unilateral disarmament initiatives declared by the first President Bush in late 1991 and early 1992.”
“The Soviet Union initiated production of special compact nuclear devices in 1967. These munitions were called special mines. There were fewer models of them in the Soviet Union than in the United States. All of these munitions were to be dismantled before 2000 in accordance with the Russian and American commitments concerning reduction of tactical nuclear weapons dated 1991. [When the Soviet Union collapsed, Boris Yeltsin reiterated the commitment in January 1992.] Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said at the conference on the Nuclear Weapons Nonproliferation Treaty in April 2000 that Russia had practically completed dismantling ‘nuclear mines.’ It means that Russia kept the promise Yeltsin once made to the international community.”
Mr. Yesin added that all “portable” nuclear weapons were strictly controlled by the KGB in the Soviet era and were held in a single facility on Russian soil, where they were regularly counted before they were dismantled. The special mines that the press calls “nuclear suitcases” are no more. American officials, including Ms. Gottemoeller, insist that there is no evidence that any are missing, stolen, or sold.
American experts charged with monitoring the destruction of these weapons have repeatedly testified to Congress that no special mines are unaccounted for.
What about the Russian army units trained to use the special mines? Is it possible that a few such weapons remain in their hands? According to Mr. Yesin, “they always used simulators and dummy weapons. Needless to say, the latter looked like the real thing—the same size and weight, the same control panel. Instead of nuclear materials, however, they contained sand.”
Despite Lebed’s many changing accounts, his reputation for exaggeration, and the denial of nearly every Russian official with knowledge of Russian nuclear weapons, his tale lives on in breathless newspaper articles and Web posts. Perhaps the most amusing was an article in London’s Sunday Express claiming that Al-Qaeda bought twenty “nuclear suitcases for twenty-five million pounds” (roughly $45 million) from “Boris” and “Alexy.” What, not Natasha?
Still, Graham Allison puts his faith in Lebed’s story. How does Mr. Allison account for the high-level rebuttals? He makes two brief arguments.
“Moscow’s assurance that ‘all nuclear weapons are accounted for’ is wishful thinking, since at least four nuclear submarines with nuclear warheads sank and were never recovered by the Soviet Union.” (One was recovered by the United States in 1974.) This is true, but beside the point; the subs were carrying nuclear missiles, not nuclear suitcases.
Mr. Allison’s more pointed rebuttal is this: The Russian government reacted to Lebed’s claim in classic Soviet style, combing wholesale denial with efforts to discredit the messenger. In the days and months that followed, official government spokesmen claimed that (1) no such weapons ever existed; (2) any weapons of this sort had been destroyed; (3) all Russian weapons were secure and properly accounted for; and (4) it was inconceivable that the Russian government could lose a nuclear weapon. Assertions to the contrary, or even questions about the matter, were dismissed as anti-Russian propaganda or efforts at personal aggrandizement.
Mr. Allison is unfairly summarizing the official Russian view. There is no contradiction between points (1) and (2) because (1) refers to suitcase nukes, a journalist term for a weapon that never existed. The portable nuclear devices—the special mines that filled three footlockers and weighed hundreds of pounds—were destroyed as required by U.S.-Russia treaties. We don’t have to take Russia’s word for this; the disposal and destruction of these weapons were supervised by expert American officials like Ms. Gottemoeller. So point (2) checks out. As for points (3) and (4), Russia’s claims have been independently verified by U.S. officials. If Mr. Allison has specific evidence of misplaced nuclear suitcases, he doesn’t provide it in either the hardcover or paperback edition of his book or in his speeches to the Council on Foreign Relations or elsewhere.
What about the testimony of Soviet defector Stanislav Lunev? Certainly his tale is cloaked in high drama. Mr. Lunev entered the congressional hearing room in a black ski mask and testified behind a tall screen. He described a portable nuclear device that was “the size of a golf-club bag” and testified that “one of my main directives was to find drop sites for mass destruction weapons” that would be smuggled into the United States using drug routes and detonated by special teams. Mr. Lunev did not testify that he saw those weapons, only that, as a TASS reporter working in Washington (his cover as a military intelligence officer), his job was to scout for “drop sites.”
I tracked Mr. Lunev down in suburban Maryland, where he is battling lymphatic cancer. Over the phone, he sounds like a bear of a man, with a charming Russian accent. He calls me “Riche,” as in “Riche, you must switch off all recording devices.” When I say I have no such devices, only a bad line, he agrees to call back. When he does, I ask him if he has ever seen a portable nuclear device. “No,” he says. Then he asks if I have ever heard of Albuquerque, New Mexico. There is a museum there, he explains, that displays America’s portable nuclear device, the SADM. “The Soviet model probably looks similar,” he says, adding that he is not an expert in such things.
Finally, there is Graham Allison’s book. It is a serious and valuable work, with many practical suggestions for arresting the spread of nuclear technology. Still, Mr. Allison’s concerns about a nuclear suitcase-sized device rest on three shaky pillars: that Lebed was right about the missing suitcase nukes, that Stanislev Lunev’s account is persuasive, and that Russian nuclear security is lax.
As we have seen, Lebed’s changing story is highly questionable, and the nuclear mines have long since been dismantled. Mr. Allison himself concedes that nuclear suitcases might not be operative. Speaking at a Council on Foreign Relations conference in September 2004, Mr. Allison said that the weapons Lebed referred to are now at least seven years old and that “many of these would be beyond warranty,” requiring extensive refurbishing to function at full power.
Allison does not refer to Mr. Lunev by name, possibly because he does not know it. Mr. Lunev is not named in his congressional testimony and discovering his identity requires a bit of sleuthing. Mr. Allison does not cite Mr. Lunev’s book or even acknowledge talking to him. (Mr. Lunev, a friendly and direct fellow, has never heard of Mr. Allison.)
As for Mr. Allison’s contention that the Russians do not keep their nuclear weapons as secure as we do, he is quite right. But the Russians probably do well enough. Allison cites a number of cases in which nuclear material—though not bombs—was stolen from Russian reactors. Yet in each of the cases he cites, the thieves were caught before they could transfer the material. And the small amounts stolen could not have been, even if combined, converted into a single bomb. And there is no evidence that any of the Soviet Union’s “special mines” have gone missing.
No one seriously doubts Osama bin Laden’s intense desire for nuclear weapons, suitcase-size or otherwise. . . . [Yet there] are only three ways for Al-Qaeda to realize its atomic dreams: buy nuclear weapons, steal them, or make them. Each approach is virtually impossible.
Buying the bomb has not worked out well for Al-Qaeda. The terror organization has tried and, according to detainees, been scammed repeatedly. In Sudan’s decrepit capital of Khartoum, an Al-Qaeda operative paid $1.5 million for a three-foot-long metal canister with South African markings. Allegedly it was uranium from South Africa’s recently decommissioned nuclear program. According to Jamal al-Fadl, an Al-Qaeda leader later detained by U.S. forces, bin Laden ordered that it be tested in a safe house in Cyprus. It was indeed radioactive, but not of sufficient quality to be weapons-grade. . . .
Al-Qaeda’s next attempt to buy bomb-making material involved Mamduh Mahmud Salim, a nuclear engineer. He was captured in Germany in 1998, before he could obtain any nuclear material. In a third case, Al-Qaeda paid the Islamic Army of Uzbekistan for some radioactive material. It turned out that the uranium Al-Qaeda received was not sufficiently enriched to create an atomic blast, though it could be used in a “dirty bomb.”
. . . Whatever the reason, there is simply no known case of the Russian mob selling nuclear devices or parts to anyone, let alone to Al-Qaeda.
What about theft? Stealing a bomb—or its component parts—is far more difficult than it sounds. The International Atomic Energy Agency maintains a detailed database of thefts of highly enriched uranium, the kind needed to make an atomic bomb. There have been ten known cases of highly enriched uranium theft between 1994 and 2004. Each amounted to “a few grams or less.” The total loss is less than eight grams, and even these eight grams, which have differing levels of purity, could not be productively combined. To put these quantities in perspective, it takes some 15,900 grams—roughly thirty-five pounds—to make a highly enriched uranium bomb.
Stealing highly enriched uranium is extremely difficult. Every nation with an active nuclear weapons program guards access to its breeder reactors and enrichment plants. Employee backgrounds are scrutinized and workers are under near constant surveillance. Transporting radioactive material invites detection and is a constant danger to those moving it without shielding. If it were shielded, the immense weight of the small container would be a giveaway to authorities.
Could terrorists storm a reactor and steal the radioactive material? Not likely. An investigation by Forbes magazine reveals the difficulties: “Assuming attackers could shoot their way past the beefed-up phalanx of armed guards, traffic barriers, and guard towers that now surround every nuclear plant, they’d still have to fight their way into the reactor building through multiple levels of remote-activated blast doors—where access requires the right key card and palm print—to get to the spent-fuel pond,” says Michael Wallace, president of Constellation Energy’s generation group, which operates five nuclear reactors. “The pond where highly radioactive used fuel rods sit in fourteen-foot-long stainless steel assemblies cooling under forty feet of water. Terrorists couldn’t just grab this stuff and run because, unshielded, it gives off a lethal dose of radiation in less than a minute.”
To avoid exposure, terrorists would have to force workers to use a giant crane inside the reactor to load the assemblies into huge transfer casks, then open the mammoth doors of the reactor building and use another crane to lift the cask onto a waiting truck—all the while being shot at by the National Guard. It may be easier to steal radioactive material outside the United States—but not much.
What about hijacking a plane and crash-diving it into a nuclear reactor? It would make a spectacular movie scene, but as Forbes explains, it would not cause much harm to those outside the plane: “Assume that terrorists could get past tightened airport security and fight off passengers to get through new, improved cockpit doors and take control of a plane. Even then they’d have to crash the jet directly into a reactor to have any chance of breaking containment.
In 2002 the Electric Power Research Institute performed a $1 million computer simulation to assess such a risk. Conclusion: A direct hit from a 450,000-pound Boeing 767 flying low to the ground at 350 mph would ruin a plant’s ability to make electricity but not break the reactor’s cement shield. Reason: A reactor, smaller in profile than the Pentagon or World Trade Center, would not absorb the full force of the plane’s impact. And, for all the force behind it, a plane, built of aluminum and titanium, has far less mass than the twenty-foot-thick steel-and-concrete sarcophagus enclosing a nuclear reactor. It would be like dropping a watermelon on a fire hydrant from one hundred feet.”
Another problem with theft is fencing the goods. Most uranium thieves have been caught when they tried to sell the small amounts of radioactive material they have stolen. And the difficulties of theft do not end once Al-Qaeda gets its prize. Even if Al-Qaeda terrorists managed to steal a nuclear device or bought one from those standby villains of choice, Russian mobsters, they would still have to figure out how to break the codes and overturn the fail-safes. All Russian and American devices have temperature and pressure sensors to defeat unauthorized use. Since intercontinental missiles are designed to pass through the upper atmosphere before descending to their targets, the terrorists would have to find a laboratory facility that could mimic the environment of the outer stratosphere. Good luck.
Council on Foreign Relations fellow Charles Ferguson told the Washington Post that “you don’t just get it [a nuclear weapon] off the shelf, enter a code, and have it go off.”
So could Al-Qaeda make its own bomb? It appears that the terror network has tried and failed. In August 2001, bin Laden was envisioning attacks bigger than what happened on 11 September. Almost a month before the attacks on New York and Washington, bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri met with Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Abdul Majeed, two officials once part of Pakistan’s nuclear program. Mr. Mahmood had supervised the plant that enriched uranium for Pakistan’s first bomb and later managed efforts to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
Both scientists were arrested on 23 October 2001. They remain under house arrest in Pakistan. At their meeting with bin Laden, they discussed plans to mine uranium from plentiful deposits in Afghanistan and talked about the technology needed to turn the uranium into bomb fuel. It was these scientists who informed bin Laden that the uranium from Uzbekistan was too impure to be useful for bomb making.
Al-Qaeda will keep trying, no doubt. But there is no evidence that they are near succeeding. A wide array of documents and computer hard drives found in Al-Qaeda safe houses reveals a serious effort to build weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. military also obtained a document with the sinister title of “Superbomb.” In addition, CNN discovered a cache of documents at an Al-Qaeda safe house that outlined the terror network’s weapons of mass destruction plans.
David Albright, a physicist and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, was retained by CNN to evaluate the Al-Qaeda documents.
In “Al-Qaeda’s Nuclear Program: Through the Window of Seized Documents,” a research paper for a think tank linked to the University of California at Berkeley, Albright concluded: “Whatever Al-Qaeda had accomplished towards nuclear weapon capabilities, its effort in Afghanistan was ‘nipped in the bud’ with the fall of the Taliban government. The international community is fortunate that the war in Afghanistan set back Al-Qaeda’s effort to obtain nuclear weapons.”
For now, suitcase-sized nuclear bombs remain in the realm of James Bond movies. Given the limitations of physics and engineering, no nation seems to have invested the time and money to make them. Both the United States and the USSR built nuclear mines (as well as artillery shells), which were small but hardly portable—and all were dismantled by treaty by 2000. Alexander Lebed’s claims and those of defector Stanislev Lunev were not based on direct observation. The one U.S. official who saw a small nuclear device said it was the size of three footlockers—hardly a suitcase. The desire to obliterate cities is portable—inside the heads of believers—while, thankfully, the nuclear devices to bring that about are not.
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