- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 28, 2002

President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed last year to not only expand existing U.S.-Russian cooperative programs to safeguard nuke-usable materials in the former Soviet Union from theft or diversion, but to undertake in cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) joint operations in and with other countries to safeguard or secure their "nuclear" materials, including highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and radiological sources. Last week the first such joint U.S.-IAEA-Russia operation took place in Belgrade.
With the full cooperation of the Yugoslav parliament and armed forces, 105 lbs. of Soviet- supplied HEU reactor fuel, was removed from the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences, loaded onto a Russian aircraft, and transported to Russia, to be "blended down" into low-enriched uranium (LEU) reactor fuel all of it under the watchful eyes of the IAEA. Ted Turner's Nuclear Threat Initiative picked up about half the tab.
The pending Yugoslav operation had been kept secret out of fear that terrorists might try to hijack the HEU, in transit. Rumor had it that the105 lbs. of HEU enriched to 80 percent U-235 would have been enough for terrorists to make two or three nuclear weapons.
Well, it is a wondrous thing that we have finally secured that HEU at Vinca. It has been there in Belgrade under Slobodan Milosevic's thumb throughout all the recent Balkan unpleasantness, including Bill Clinton's bombing of Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia and the Chinese Embassy.
But, it's a little late in the day to be worrying about Osama bin Laden making nuclear weapons with that HEU. Just be thankful that Milosevic hadn't already done it.
Second, it's true that Los Alamos National Laboratory could probably modify one of its 1950s-era "implosion-type" nuclear weapons designs to accommodate Vinca's HEU. And 105 lbs. would probably be enough for two perhaps three specially modified 1950s-era implosion nuclear weapons. But terrorists probably couldn't design and construct even a 1950s-era implosion nuclear weapon on their own.
However, our nuclear weapons designers reckon that terrorists might construct a simple "gun-type" nuclear weapon, wherein one sub-critical mass of HEU is simply shot down a gun barrel at another sub-critical mass of HEU. The bomb we dropped on Hiroshima Little Boy was a gun-type nuclear weapon. We were so sure it would work that we never did a full-scale test. Little Boy contained 140 lbs. of HEU and weighed about 9,000 lbs.
During the 1980s, with Soviet-sponsored Cubans threatening its borders, South Africa developed an indigenous cradle-to-grave nuclear capability. And although the South Africans researched implosion-type nuclear weapons, they focused development on gun-type nuclear devices. They actually produced a half-dozen gun-type nuclear weapons, each requiring 120 lbs. of HEU (90 percent U-235), and weighing about a ton.
Hence, it appears that with only 105 lbs. of HEU (80 percent U-235) available even South Africa could not have produced one gun-type nuclear weapon of appreciable yield. How, now, could bin Laden?
Indeed, how then or now could Saddam Hussein, who was also engaged during this same period in the 1980s in developing a clandestine nuclear capability?
Saddam couldn't. And perhaps that explains why Saddam's nuclear development program which was HEU based focused on implosion-type nuclear weapons. He had an implosion nuclear design, which may or may not have been indigenous and might or might not have worked. But his uranium-enrichment program never worked properly, and was completely destroyed during the Gulf War and its aftermath. Saddam never produced anything like 105 lbs. of HEU.
But, if Saddam had got his hands on Milosevic's 105 lbs. of HEU could he have made an implosion-type nuclear weapon or two? Perhaps.
Thanks to Messrs. Putin and Bush and Ted Turner he never will.
You're probably wondering how Mr. Turner got into the act.
Well, Congress was never happy funding U.S.-Russian cooperative nuclear proliferation prevention programs, especially when Hazel O'Leary was in charge. Furthermore, our scientists and engineers were prohibited from even participating in certain activities involving many of the 17 states including Yugoslavia where Messrs. Bush and Putin propose to secure Soviet-supplied nuclear-related materials.
Well, Congress didn't prohibit Mr. Turner from coming to our rescue. So, he did. Perhaps because everyone realizes that what Mr.Turner did, needed to be done, but that our own president was prohibited from doing it, there appears to be broad bipartisan support in Congress for authorizing the president to do other things for example in Pakistan and India to prevent nuclear weapons and nuclear materials from getting loose that we should have done ten years ago.

Gordon Prather served as national security adviser to U.S. Senator Henry Bellmon, as a Reagan appointee in the Pentagon, and as a nuclear scientist at Sandia National Laboratory.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide