Stanford Database Tracks Lost Radwaste to Stem Nuclear Terrorism

Publish date: May 2, 2002

Written by: Charles Digges

In the Baltic Sea republic of Lithuania, investigators recovered material from a decade-old uranium heist — but not all of it. On April 3, Zirconium cylinders that used to hold uranium were discovered buried in a forest near the Ignalina nuclear power plant. Weeks earlier, police said they recovered another highly radioactive cylinder from the same fuel assembly lying in a field, containing 20 kilograms of uranium.

Searches over the past 10 years have recovered 80 kilograms of the uranium itself, buried in fields near Vilnius and Ignalina. But around 15 kilograms — enough to make a crude nuclear weapon — remain missing.

Amazingly, this is a routine story. More than two kilograms of highly enriched uranium that went missing from a research reactor in the former Soviet Union years ago remains unaccounted for.

Consider as well the recent announcement by American officials about a top al Qaeda field commander in their custody who said his network is capable of making a radiation spewing “dirty bomb” that could easily be smuggled across international borders.

And just this month, Akram Jurayev, Tajikistan’s atomic energy chief, admitted to the Asia-Plus newspaper that his agency had lost track of seven highly radioactive cesium-137 radioisotope sources from various local industries. “We have lost control of out radioisotope sources,” Jurayev told the newspaper.

If terrorists have that lost uranium, it would not be the first time poorly guarded radioactive materials in Russia and republics of the former Soviet Union were passed to people with bad intentions. In recent years, there were the Chechen rebels who planted a container holding the cesium-137 core of a radiography machine in a Moscow park and then alerted Russian media.

And in 1993, a thief outside a shipyard near Murmansk squeezed through a fence hole and cut the padlock on a container of nuclear submarine fuel — making off with more than 15 kilograms of highly enriched uranium. Mikhail Kulik, the incident’s chief investigator, was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying there were no alarm systems, no lights and few guards. “Even potatoes,” he told the paper, “are probably much better guarded today than radioactive materials.”

Then again, the three creators at California’s Stanford University of the world’s most comprehensive database of smuggled, missing, stolen and abandoned radiation sources assert that the former Soviet Union is nothing short of a supermarket for the would be terrorist.

Their Database on Nuclear Smuggling, Theft and Orphan Radiation Sources documents some 850 incidents from the past decade — everything from radioactive trash carelessly tossed out by a cancer clinic to weapons-usable plutonium and uranium smuggled out of the former Soviet Union.

Sept. 11 accelerated the project. Although most experts think Osama bin Laden’s boast of nuclear capability is a bluff, they think there might be some truth to al Qaeda field commander Abu Zabaydah’s claim that the group can build a “dirty bomb” out of the kind of radioactive material available in clinics, colleges and poorly guarded nuclear waste storage facilities in Russia and worldwide.

Rigged with ordinary explosives and then detonated, such a device could shower an area with radioactive contamination — not so much a weapon of mass destruction as mass disruption and hysteria.

Radioactive materials are not just up for grabs in the former Soviet Union either. In the United States itself, disappearing radioactive material is almost a daily occurrence.


“Within the United States, you’re losing track of radioactive material literally every other day. Every other day. And controls there are among the highest in the world,” said nuclear physicist Fritz Steinhausler — who fostered the database as a visiting professor at Stanford — in a telephone interview from Austria with Bellona Web. He said that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) lists an average of 200 radiation sources that are stolen, lost or abandoned within the United States every year.

Nonetheless, with Russia’s comparatively lax controls and accounting procedures, Steinhausler said that annual figures for stolen or lost radioactive material is “impossible to assess, but certainly higher,” than figures posted by the NRC.

Many countries in the database either do not even have a central register of radioactive materials or, like Russia, have registries that are often years out of date, which causes difficulties in tracking radiation sources.

At Stanford, Kazakstan-born researcher Lyudmila Zaitseva pours over databases, government records, technical journals and newspapers to identify cases and assess their credibility. She then enters them into the Stanford database and categorizes incidents by three ratings of veracity.

The highest rating goes to incidents of loss or smuggling that are reported by governments to the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA). But the advantage that Stanford’s database has over the IAEA’s is that it takes into account incidents that governments are reluctant to officially report, which is especially important in Russia’s case.

Zaitseva’s medium level of probability is founded on newspaper article and other reports that include comments about lost or stolen radiation sources from law enforcement agents but are not officially acknowledged by the concerned governments. In Russia, this often includes comments from the Ministry of Emergency Services. The lowest level is founded on articles and reports that give a technical description of the lost or stolen device but include no official comment.

The data are also classified by material type of incident perpetrators presumed destination and intended use.

Her assessment: Accounting, protection standards and border detection capabilities have been so weak in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere that the database probably lists only a fraction of the incidents that occur every day somewhere around the globe. Some 650 of the incidents she’s established to date involve nuclear smuggling.

“Right now, law enforcement is picking up only about 10 to 30 percent of other illicit contraband” such as smuggled drugs, illegal immigrants or conventional arms, said Zaitseva in a telephone interview from California.

“Using those patterns as a model, we calculate that what (radioactive material) is being detected as missing or stolen is probably 10 to 30 percent of what’s really gone. So much goes unreported, so much we simply don’t know about.”

Zaitseva’s figures on intercepted nuclear contraband from Russia, Kazakhstan and other former Soviet republics offer a chilling contradiction to those posted by authorities, who say they foil 60-70 percent of the attempts to smuggle radioactive materials out of those countries. In Zaitseva’s assessment, the situation is the reverse: 60 to 70 percent of smuggled materials leaving those countries actually get through.

Individual countries, nonetheless, do not like announcing their oversights to the world. A spokesman for the IAEA told Bellona Web that the agency had documented 18 cases of nuclear trafficking in the past 10 years involving small amounts of plutonium or enriched uranium. Practically all of them came from the former Soviet Union, but each time material was seized. The spokesman added that manifests at the effected facilities showed that nothing was missing.

So far only one country has given the Stanford database a full accounting, though researchers will not say which. They did add, though, that it was not Russia or the United States.

Most estimates put the world stock at hundreds of tons of plutonium and highly enriched — that is, weapons grade — uranium. A small nuclear bomb could be made with less than 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, or from a sample of plutonium small enough to fit in the palm of one’s.

“Those seeking to acquire nuclear material will go wherever it is easiest to steal, and buy it from anyone willing to sell,” said George Bunn, a former US arms control negotiator, now a Stanford professor and the third member of the database trio in an interview with Bellona Web from California.

But perhaps a ray of hope lies in the general ineptitude of an average radioactive materials thief.

“Most people stealing and purchasing radioactive materials are common criminals who know simply that the material is considered valuable,” he said.

Indeed, said Bunn, the bulk of known smuggled material is not close to weapons-grade. Some of the peddled plutonium, said Steinhausler, has been extracted from trace amounts in overseas home smoke detectors. Furthermore, potent weapons grade material is uncontrollable by anyone but a sophisticated bomb maker and would certainly poison or kill a bungling amateur.

Nonetheless, law enforcement has seized more than 40 kilograms of missing Russian uranium and plutonium since the Soviet Union disbanded in 1991. The United States alone has spent more than a billion dollars over the past decade under programs like the Comprehensive Threat Reduction Act to help upgrade facilities there by fortifying storage sites, installing alarms and putting up fences. Even so, progress is slow and only a third of former Soviet stockpiles have been secured.

Other dangers are underpaid nuclear scientists and plant workers in the closed nuclear cities. Once the pride of the Soviet military complex, they now earn pariahs’ salaries to sit on material and knowledge worth millions.

This particular danger to Russia’s nuclear security system were made dreadfully visible in 1998, when a police official in Chelyabinsk publicly exposed a conspiracy to swipe more than 20 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium from one of the closed nuclear sites near the city — though authorities have never said which.

“This was especially serious because it was a group of people probably working inside the nuclear facility: and it was a lot of material,” said Zaitseva.

“[The Russians] certainly didn’t want the public or the world to know about that and the police official was reprimanded for making it public,” Zaitseva said. “The public, however, has an absolute right to know about these things.”

While authorities in Russia and Europe recently have reported fewer theft attempts and seizures of nuclear material, Bunn said thieves may be getting more clever or redirecting their supply routes to the Middle East and Central Asia, where borders are porous and detection is less likely than on the more established smuggling routes through Germany.

A recent report by the CIA warned that nuclear material inside Russia remains vulnerable. It noted several incidents, including a day last year when US investigators found a storage site fence gate open and unguarded. Steinhaulser, who read the classified report, would not divulge which site that was.

The report’s conclusions were buttressed by Duma Deputy Sergei Mitrokhin, who — accompanied by a television crew of three and two activists from Greenpeace — walked into a Siberian nuclear waste storage facility via a two-by-two-meter hole in a security fence. Mitrokhin and his crew followed a well-worn footpath that took them directly into the facility, where they posed for pictures next to 3,000 tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel. “The guards drove past us several times and we passed by their sentry boxes,” but were ignored, Mitrokhin recounted at a February press conference in Moscow.

According to Steinhausler, there is really no way of knowing how much nuclear waste should be in Russia, though the Russian Nuclear Power Ministry and environmental groups fix the figure of only spent nuclear fuel to be at more than 14,000 tonnes.

“In Soviet times, you accounted for the waste, sealed it and forgot about it,” he said from Austria. “But the seals on many of the containers are easily opened and if someone stole the contents years ago, you could be guarding an empty container.”

Even outside the realm of terrorism, the Stanford database lists enough incidents of orphaned sources of radioactivity in Russia and worldwide to strike environmental fear.

Last December in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, international investigators scoured the countryside by land and air, searching for small abandoned radioactive power generators filled with strontium-90. The hunt was launched after three Georgian lumberjacks stumbled across two such nuclear batteries. The remaining batteries were recovered as of last week, according to Russian press reports, but the lumberjacks remain in the hospital, battling severe radiation poisoning.

There are dozens more of these batteries in the Arctic region both in the western part and in coastal Chukotka. According to Russian government documents recently cited by The Washington Post: “The generators are placed on open land, are clearly visible from the sea and are visited by staff no more than once a year (in recent years, staff has not visited the sites at all).”

According to Stanford’s Institute for International Studies’ website, accidents from abandoned radiation sources abound worldwide.

Take for instance a case from Goiania, Brazil where, in 1987, scavengers sold a junkyard operator a canister from an abandoned cancer clinic’s radiotherapy machine. Opening the canister, the operator discovered it filled with glowing blue granules.

As news of the discovery spread, the web site said, townspeople were fascinated. Children spread it on their faces like glitter and one man rubbed it on his penis to boost his sexual performance.

The glowing blue granules turned out to be cesium-137. Of the 100,000 people tested for contamination, the web site said, 249 tested positive for exposure and four people died.

“The level of effort devoted to securing and accounting for stocks of even a few kilograms of fissile material should be even higher than that devoted to protecting stores of millions of dollars worth of cash, gold or diamonds,” Stanford’s Bunn maintained in a recent scientific article quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle. “This is manifestly not the case at many facilities in many countries today. Indeed, a strong case can be made that the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons should be protected roughly as rigorously as nuclear weapons themselves are.”

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