What does it take to make a bomb?
It is much less difficult to make a nuclear bomb than many people imagine. The
great expense of the Cold War weapons research effort leads one to suspect that
the mechanism of an atomic bomb is arcane and intricate. The Cold War
scientists did develop very complex designs for powerful bombs, but that
doesn't mean that early nuclear bombs of the 1940s were any less servicable.
The level of technology which was used in the Manhattan Project is now readily
available to almost anyone with a personal computer. In fact, even during
World War II, the scientists at Los Alamos were so certain that their design
for a uranium bomb would work that they didn't even test it before it was
dropped on Hiroshima, because they didn't want to waste the limited amount
highly enriched uranium that they had. (The plutonium bomb was more complex
and there was a test blast in New Mexico before it was used on Nagasaki.) The
example of the Manhattan Project also illustrates that the main determinant of
the speed of an atomic weapons project is how quickly one can obtain the
necessary fissile nuclear materials. If it were possible to obtain highly
enriched uranium on the black market, the time necessary for a country to
develop a nuclear bomb would be cut from years to weeks.
[for more information, see: "A Primer on Fissile Materials and Nuclear
Weapons Design" by Owen R. Cote, Jr.]
How much material exists in the world? Where is it?
Uranium is an element which exists in nature primarily in the form of
uranium-238, a form unsuitable for fueling an atomic reaction. Other isotopes
of uranium (such as U-235) are fissile. Fissile materials have the valuable
property that when their atomic nucleus is hit by a stray neutron, the atom
will split and release several other neutrons. If the percentage of the
fissile isotopes is high enough, a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction will
occur. Because energy is released each time the atom splits, these chain
reactions can be harnessed to power nuclear reactors and atomic bombs. In
nature, only a fraction of a percent of all uranium is U-235. To make
weapons-grade uranium, a complex enrichment process is required to raise the
percentage of U-235 to around 90%. At the end of the Cold War, it is estimated
that the United States had produced over 750 tons of highly enriched uranium
(HEU) and the Soviet Union had produced over 1200 tons.
Plutonium is a man-made element, a by-product of irradiating natural uranium
in a reactor. Fifty years ago, only a few kilograms existed on the entire
planet. Pu-239 shares similar fissile characteristics as uranium-235, making
it also a suitable nuclear fuel for bombs. By the end of tthe Cold War, the
United States' total plutonium inventory was about 100 tons and the Soviets had
twice that amount.
Uranium and plutonium are spread around the entire nuclear production and
research complex in both Russia and the United States. Most of the HEU and
plutonium is in warheads or military stockpiles. The amount in other countries
with nuclear weapons is dwarfed by the hundreds of tons in Russia and the
United States. As the number of warheads shrinks as a result of weapons
reduction agreements, the material recovered will have to be either stored,
utilized, or destroyed. Currently, most of the plutonium recovered from the
destruction of U.S. weapons is stored at the Pantex site in Texas. The
Russians currently lack a central storage area, so their stores tend to be
more dispersed around the complex.
[for more information about the disposition of Russian materials, read "An
Overview of the Stockpile and Complex" by Thomas Cochran, Robert Norris, and
[for more information about the disposition of U.S. material, visit the
Pantex WWW site
How easy is it to smuggle nuclear materials?
Contrary to common belief, it is not necessarily very dangerous to handle
fissile materials when certain precautions are taken. In fact, the radiation
hazard posed by weapons grade uranium is relatively low. Plutonium has been
produced in a nuclear reactor and therefore is more radioactive and more
dangerous to handle. But a smuggler may be less interested in plutonium
anyway, because it is more difficult to build a crude plutonium bomb than a
uranium bomb. The material most attractive to nuclear smugglers is highly
enriched uranium (HEU) because it is easier to use and easier to handle.
HEU can be shielded to reduce the radiation to a level which would be very
difficult to detect by the standard tools available to most customs agents. As
in drug smuggling, interdiction of illicit nuclear materials is unlikely unless
authorities have prior knowledge of the materials' whereabouts. Plutonium and
uranium may be even more difficult to detect than drugs because they have no
odor, so the dogs used to find drugs are of no use.
In Russia, most customs points are equipped with no more than a hand-held
radiation meter which provides a very low probability of detection in high
traffic areas. New technical systems sensitive to far lower fields of
radiation are being developed; Russia plans to implement them over the next few
years, but for now a smuggler would have a good chance of passing through
Even without technological solutions to this problem, there are indications
that standard customs control could be more effective. The smuggler in the
Munich case testified that he got past controls in the Moscow airport by
kicking his bag with his foot past the x-ray machine at customs. The smuggler
in the Prague case hid his uranium canisters in his pants as he crossed
international borders by train.
[for more information about how Russian Customs is responding to this
threat, read the FRONTLINE interview with Nikolai Kravchenko, head of the
Nuclear Materials Division of the Russian State Customs Committee.]
[for more information about the threat the U.S. faces from smuggling, read
the FRONTLINE interview with David Kay, former U.N. Nuclear Inspector in
What are the scariest incidents to date?
For a listing of the major weapons-grade nuclear smuggling incidents which
have occurred over the last five years, look at the timeline.
All of these incidents served to illustrate that it was feasible for
bomb-quality nuclear material to be procured in the former Soviet Union and
transported across international borders. Each case was more frightening than the last because
larger quantities of material were recovered.
However, it is not the incidents of materials seizure in Europe that ought to
worry us most. The low security and poor accounting in the Russian nuclear
system means there is no way to know for sure what material may be
These shortcomings are now being rectified as part of the joint U.S.-Russian
programs to improve nuclear materials protection, accounting, and control.
However, until this work is completed, the possibility of undetected diversion
of uranium and plutonium still exists.
The fact that there have been no major interceptions in Europe since December,
1994 ought not be reassuring. Many observers have noted that the chaos of
Russia's southern borders provides many open smuggling routes where it is
possible to export almost without hindrance. After the highly publicized
stings of 1994, the chances are low that a would-be nuclear smuggler would head
What is scariest is that we don't know what we don't know.
[for a graphic chronology of the major incidents of nuclear incidents, look
at the timeline.]
[for more information about the implications of these incidents, read
"Before the Deluge" by William Potter".]
What is the US doing about this threat?
The United States, led by Senators Sam Nunn (D - Georgia) and Richard Lugar (R
- Indiana), initiated the Soviet Threat Reduction program in 1991, often
referred to as the Nunn-Lugar program. About 1.8 billion dollars has been
spent on this program over the last five years. It remains the core of U.S.
activites to help the Russians dismantle their nuclear weapons and increase the
security of nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union.
The program was initially handled by the Department of Defense and it got off
to a rocky start. Many American Cold Warriors were suspicious of giving money
to a former enemy. Also, the program was restricted by a clause stating that,
where possible, the program's money should be spent in America. After having
heard promises of much needed financial support, the Russian partners were
disappointed and started calling the visiting American consultants "nuclear
tourists." As they encountered the intricacies of American bureaucracy, the
Russians declared it far more arcane than anything the Soviets had ever dreamed
By 1994, a new approach was initiated by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
Rather than relying on contacts between government officials, the DOE began the
Lab-to-Lab program which promoted partnerships between U.S. and Russian nuclear
scientists. The scientists spoke a technical language that each side could
understand and a level of mutual trust was developed that overcame the
obstacles the program faced.
The U.S. identified some "quick fixes" that would dramatically improve
security. Technical equipment was supplied. Training and funding were
provided to the Russians scientists so that the technical solutions to the
safeguards problems would actually be implemented. The DOE approach was so
successful that all responsibility for nuclear materials accounting and
protection was transferred to them. The program has now expanded to cover two
dozen Russian nuclear sites.
The Department of Defense continues to administer other aspects of the threat
reduction program. The United States is planning to spend a combined total of
450 million dollars for both programs in 1997.
[for an inside account of the development of U.S. nuclear policy under
President Clinton, read "A Personal Report" by Frank von Hippel.]
[for a weekly summary of all DOE activities including some related to
Russia, visit -- http://www.doe.gov/html/doe/whatsnew/briefs.html]
What is Russia doing about it?
There are many Russians who recognize the seriousness of the threat of
diverted nuclear materials. Articles on the subject appear periodically in the
Russian press. The scientists who work at the nuclear facilities have a
detailed understanding of the security shortcomings at their institutes. They
also understand that although the potential for nuclear theft is a threat which
puts the whole world at risk, in all likelihood the country most threatened is
In spite of this, government officials are reluctant to speak openly about the
matter. A Presidential decree last fall redefining which areas of government
activity are "secret" made many officials fear that nuclear security ought not
be spoken about at all. As a result, the threat is often downplayed by the
Russia's economic collapse has also hindered action by the Russian government.
Budget shortfalls have meant that many factory workers have their wages delayed
for months. The nuclear complex has not been immune to such difficulties.
In such an economic environment, the Russians don't have the money to fund the
necessary safeguard improvements at their nuclear facilities by themselves.
But working in partnership with the U.S., the initiatives to increase security
in the Russian nuclear complex are steadily progressing. It is clear to
observers that this work must continue and be carried out as quickly as
[for a sampling of articles from the Russian, click here.]
[for one Russian scientist's view of the safeguards problem, read
FRONTLINE's interview with Gennady Pshakin of the Obninsk Institute of Physics
and Power Engineering.]
[for information on the improvements made at the Obninsk Institute, visit --
What is the condition of the United States' nuclear complex?
As the custodian of almost as much nuclear material as the Russians, the
United States shares the responsibility to keep these materials under control
and accounted for. For decades, the United States has faced the issue of how
to develop adequate security measures in a free society. Information on the
condition of the U.S. nuclear complex and the disposition of U.S. nuclear
weapons material can be found at the following sites:
[for information on the condition of the U.S. complex, visit --
[for more information about the disposition of U.S. material, visit the
Pantex WWW site ]
[for more information, visit the Office of Fissile Materials Disposition]
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