- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 30, 2002

First of three parts
TBILISI, Georgia On a date unknown, via unknown hands, the 361 black pellets were carried over a two-mile-high pass in the jagged skyline of the Caucasus, and down into the wide valleys of this former Soviet state.
The little delivery from Russia was then driven 170 miles cross-country to the Black Sea coast. There, in the smoky port of Batumi, one of four Georgian traffickers took personal charge of the contraband and traveled a final few miles over the border into Turkey.
The Georgians thought they had a buyer for the pellets 3 pounds of enriched uranium. But somehow the deal fell through. When the front man returned, the four found another interested party waiting for them, the police.
"It's happening everywhere, but Georgia seems to have become a favorite route," said Valerian Khaburdzania, the state security minister who described last July's operation, when his investigators tailed the smugglers from the Caucasus Mountains and then arrested them.
"Georgia is close to where the material is" Russia "and close to the people who want to buy it, in Turkey, in Iran," he said.
Laboratory tests found that the haul by Mr. Khaburdzania's men was not sufficiently enriched loaded with the fissionable uranium-235 isotope to be ready-made for a nuclear bomb. But it could have been, as it was 15 months earlier when 2 pounds of highly enriched uranium was seized and another smuggling ring undone, also in Batumi.
It was bomb-usable in Paris, too, last July, when French police seized three men with a small amount of U-235 apparently a "sample" international nuclear authorities say.
And there may be bomb-grade material, either uranium or plutonium, passing even today through any one of countless airports, seaports or unfenced borders, on its way to clandestine weapon builders.
"That's the hell of all this," a U.S. anti-proliferation official said privately. What "material of concern," as he put it, has leaked or may leak from Russia or nuclear sites elsewhere?
"You don't know what you don't know."
In the lengthening shadows of September 11, a nightmare of doomsday weapons is taking hold in the world. America may have the most to fear. Federal prosecutors say Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network has been trying since 1993 to obtain the makings of a nuclear weapon.
The fear reaches well beyond Washington, however to the Middle East, for example, where many believe Iran and Iraq are in the market for bomb-usable material to counter Israel's nuclear force or U.S. pressure; or having fought one long war against each other to avoid falling behind; or to dominate the oil region.
The fear extends even to this small, poor ex-Soviet republic. Georgia's remote Pankisi Gorge harbors anti-Russian guerrillas from neighboring Chechnya who have been joined by dozens of Arab fighters, Mr. Khaburdzania said.
"Maybe they're connected with al Qaeda," the Georgian minister suggested. "Maybe they're interested in nuclear terrorism. This trafficking is a very dangerous situation."
Washington is reacting: accelerating its $1 billion-a-year effort to lock down "loose nukes" in the former Soviet Union; sending radiation detectors to crossing points on U.S. and distant borders. American "weaponeers" are tinkering with primitive bomb designs in the sanctums of national laboratories, to see how terrorists might make one.
In a world stocked with an estimated 30,000 nuclear bombs, a new arms race is unfolding a race to keep the next weapon out of a cargo container, or interstate truck, or the hold of a suicide pilot's light plane bound for New York, Washington or some other unlucky city.
Stealing one would be the direct route to a terrorist bomb, but the warheads are rigidly guarded. The easiest route would be a "dirty bomb," a conventional, non-nuclear explosion that would spread radioactive cesium, for example, from medical radiotherapy equipment.
But the threat that haunts the sleep of strategic planners is the potential for a terrorist group to obtain enough fissionable material to fashion a crude bomb like the one America dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945 a bomb that could kill tens of thousands and burn the heart of a city.
Can they build one? Official pronouncements and technical nuances cloud the answers.
Some specialists contend that the amounts the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regards as the minimum for making a bomb are several times too large that in reality, and with the right design, as little as 2 pounds of plutonium and 7 pounds of uranium processed to over 90 percent U-235 might achieve a nuclear explosion.
Official U.S. and international agencies counter that such engineering would be beyond terrorists' capabilities. But no one puts too fine a point on this balance between technical abilities and "bomb amounts."
"I don't have any reason to believe there's any sophisticated nuclear capability in al Qaeda. But I don't want to find out," said Linton Brooks, deputy chief of the U.S. Energy Department's nuclear security operations.
The way not to find out is to keep "material of concern" out of unwanted hands.
The former Soviet Union alone possesses an estimated 1,350 metric tons of it half in weapons, half removed from warheads and stored, or in use in such places as civilian research reactors.
Bits of that material have vanished since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The IAEA, which guards against nuclear material going astray, has recorded hundreds of trafficking cases out of Russia and elsewhere since the early 1990s, most involving waste or other radioactive material not useful for nuclear bombs. But a handful have involved bomb-usable material.
One of the most troubling cases played out in Prague, where Czech authorities, breaking up an international band of traffickers, seized 6 pounds of nearly pure U-235 in December 1994. The next year, ominously, the Czechs confiscated smaller samples apparently drawn from the same secret store of bomb uranium.
But it's the "dark" statistic the undetected traffic that worries investigators most. "It's hit or miss," said George A. Anzelon, the American who runs the IAEA trafficking database. "For every important seizure, it's not hard to imagine how it might have gone undetected."
It's also not hard to imagine it going undetected when no one's trying: Two of four U.S. radiation monitors donated to Georgia were simply turned off by customs officers after being installed at border crossings last year, American officials told AP, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Washington is trying to lead a global effort to block nuclear terrorism, sponsoring a conference here in Tbilisi in March, for example, at which officials from former Soviet republics were instructed in how to intercept nuclear contraband. The IAEA's advocates, meanwhile, say it's time the U.N. watchdog agency's budget long frozen because of Washington's anti-U.N. sentiment be increased.
The IAEA, in the near term, is pushing to complete multilateral negotiations by year's end on a sweeping expansion of a treaty protecting nuclear materials. The treaty now sets security standards only for international transport, but would be broadened to cover the deadly commodities when they're in civilian use or storage anywhere.
In the longer term, nonproliferation advocates say, the world should adopt a treaty to cut off production of fissile material, the stuff of bombs.
In an interview at his headquarters in Vienna, Austria, Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA's director-general, said a second step after that would be "a gradual reduction of stockpiles, putting the excess irreversibly in the civilian sector under IAEA safeguard." He called this "a practical way to move toward nuclear disarmament."
But the first thing the nonproliferators want to cut off is the seepage from the former Soviet Union, the source in at least 13 confirmed cases of trafficking in "material of concern" since 1991.
Tomorrow: Threat reduction

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