The recent disclosure that a nuclear fuel rod is missing from a research reactor in Congo-Kinshasa and could be in the hands of terrorists has underscored concerns that the former Soviet Union is not the only possible source of illicit nuclear materials. Experts say Russia is still considered the most likely source of any diverted nuclear weapons and materials that find their way into the wrong hands.
According to a new database compiled by researchers at Stanford University in California, about 40 kilograms of weapons-useable plutonium and uranium have been stolen from nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union over the past decade.
One of the Stanford researchers is Lyudmila Zaitseva of the National Nuclear Center of Kazakhstan who says the problem is that nuclear facilities in places like Russia and Georgia are poorly guarded. "It's just not protected," she said. "This is weapons useable. This is hot stuff. And if you steal 20 kilogram of that material you can create, you can build a nuclear weapon."
Ms. Zaitseva's assertions are backed up by the U.S. National Intelligence Council, a collaborative group including representatives of various government intelligence agencies. In a report to Congress earlier this year, the Council listed several incidents in which weapons-grade or weapons-useable material has been stolen from Russian institutes.
Perhaps the most dramatic involved the attempted theft in 1998 of 18.5 kilograms of highly enriched uranium from a facility in Chelyabinsk. Russian nuclear officials acknowledged it was more than enough to make a nuclear bomb.
Fortunately, most of the stolen nuclear materials have been recovered. U.S. officials say to the best of their knowledge, no nuclear weapons or weapons-useable materials have been successfully stolen and exported from Russia.
But the National Intelligence Council says it remains concerned about what it terms "undetected smuggling." It suspects there has been some though it concedes it does not know the extent or magnitude of such thefts.
Officials and experts say their concerns are largely focused on nuclear materials, not nuclear weapons. They say Russia's nuclear weapons remain tightly controlled and secured, despite old and unconfirmed reports of missing man-portable tactical nuclear devices.
The security is, in part, the result of the United States' spending billions of dollars to reduce the threat posed by former Soviet nuclear weapons. The Cooperative Threat Reduction program, a multi-year plan administered by the Defense Department, has funded the destruction of missiles, bombers and silos and paid for improved storage for nuclear materials.
In the meantime, most experts and officials remain skeptical about the prospects of terrorists actually manufacturing a nuclear bomb.
Instead, like University of Salzburg Professor Fritz Steinhausler, another researcher involved in the Stanford nuclear database effort, many fear a radiological or so-called "dirty bomb" combining conventional explosives with radioactive material.
Mr. Steinhausler says such a device would strike fear into the hearts of far more people than it would actually claim as physical casualties. "I'm not concerned about the terrorist designing the most sophisticated device to blow up a major city," he said. "I'm concerned about radioactive material having gotten into the wrong hands, combined with very simple explosive techniques and causing a devastating psychological effect on the public. I call this not a weapon of mass destruction but a weapon of mass disturbance."
Authorities say their nuclear fears have been heightened by the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington last September.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed El Baradei says that the "ruthlessness" of those attacks have alerted the world to the potential of nuclear terrorism.
The IAEA director says because radiation knows no frontiers, countries need to recognize the safety and security of nuclear materials is a legitimate concern of all states.