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The Gold of the Nuclear Age: Lost and Stolen Nuclear Materials

As the Los Alamos National Laboratory (www.lanl.gov) in New Mexico halts much of its operations as of July 15, 2004, in an unprecedented, and open-ended, shut down, the open market for nuclear materials continues worldwide. Yet the supply of nuclear material is finite, if anyone cared.
The Gold of the Nuclear Age: Lost and Stolen Nuclear Materials
By Kirsten Anderberg

The Los Alamos National Laboratory (www.lanl.gov) in New Mexico, USA, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, has halted much of its operations as of July 15, 2004, in an unprecedented, and open-ended, shut down of important "secret work," until security breaches can be seriously addressed. Citing the loss of two computer discs containing classified information from the testing and design facility of the plant, during the first week in July 2004, as well as other security concerns, the nuclear plant is regrouping. In the last year and a half, Los Alamos has admitted losing classified materials four times, according to the Albuquerque Journal. And the Associated Press is reporting that in the last year, Los Alamos employees lost 9 floppy discs, a large-capacity storage disk full of classified information, and a recordable data storage device, and the lab officials say these materials are "believed" to have been destroyed. These continued security breaches at America's top nuclear facilities show that September 11, 2001 did not tighten up security at nuclear plants as one would have thought, and as the U.S. government touted it has.

Eight to nine countries have known nuclear weapons; U.S., Russia, U.K., France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and most recently N. Korea has shown up on the radar. Security of nuclear materials is most reliable in the U.S., Russia, France, and the U.K. We need to remember that the world's stockpile of nuclear weapons materials *is* finite. If terrorists cannot get nuclear materials, they cannot make nuclear bombs. But with plutonium being called the "gold of the nuclear age," the monitoring of all the nuclear material on this planet is becoming more and more a problem, as well as a ticking time bomb.

Russia's Atomic Energy Minister has said, "Fissile materials have not disappeared" anywhere in his country, but that is not believable, any more than it is believable that America has not lost nuclear materials. There are 58 nations with approximately 345 nuclear research reactors full of highly enriched uranium necessary to make dirty nuclear bombs. America exported approximately 750 kg of plutonium and 27 metric tons of highly enriched uranium to 39 countries, over 30 years, in its "Atoms for Peace" program. In 1999, Italian police caught people trying to sell enriched uranium on the black market. Research traced that uranium to a U.S.-supplied research reactor in former Zaire, where it was stolen or purchased. The U.S. Dept of Energy estimates 2/3 of the nuclear material in Russia remains inadequately secured, but as you can see, America is having challenges with its own security of nuclear materials. In 1981, the U.S. Dept. of Defense published a list of 32 accidents involving nuclear weapons, many involving lost nuclear materials. One submarine sank with two nuclear torpedoes, and there are other cases, such as nuclear bombs that were lost from planes. According to the Brookings Institution, 11 U.S. nuclear bombs have been lost and never recovered.

Since 1968, the U.S. claims 4 soviet nuclear submarines have sunk, carrying an estimated 43 lost nuclear warheads. In 1994, German police investigated 267 cases of suspected interactions involving the sale of radioactive material, as well as seized smuggled plutonium three times that year. Scientists were also arrested in Germany in 1994 with 7 pounds of weapons grade uranium in their possession. In Kazakhstan, 1000 pounds of highly enriched uranium sat unprotected in the mid-1990's, enough uranium for many nuclear weapons. Insiders working at a Russian nuclear weapons plant were caught in a plot to steal 18.5 kg of highly enriched uranium... the list of these accounts seems endless. With Russia's borders being twice as long as America's, and the routine smuggling of powder drugs, as well as people, over said borders, the possibility of smuggling nuclear materials the size of a football into America, does not seem that challenging, honestly. Additionally, hacking is becoming a new threat, where a computer hacker could turn a nuclear plant into its own weapon, much like using a plane as an unconventional weapon that is already in the area.

In the past, the nuclear risk to America was perceived to be coming via ballistic missiles from Communist countries like Russia or Cuba. This was an excuse U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld fell back on several times during the 9/11 Commission hearings. He kept complaining that the intelligence and defense departments had to revamp everything, as now they were looking for dirty bombs within our borders, as terrorism, rather than bombs coming from outside the U.S., via missiles aimed at the U.S. In 1964, the U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said, "A full-scale nuclear exchange between the US and the USSR would kill 100 million Americans during the first hour. It would kill an even greater number of Russians, but I doubt that any sane person would call this "victory." But the nuclear threat now perceived to be endangering the U.S., is potentially the use of a dirty nuclear bomb within American borders on Americans by terrorists. In 1995, the National Academy of Scientists identified surplus plutonium as a "clear and present danger" to the U.S. Four kilograms, the size of an orange, is enough material to make a nuclear bomb, such agencies warned. In an essay entitled "The New Containment: An Alliance Against Nuclear Terrorism," by G. Allison and A. Kokoshin, the writers predict what will happen after a nuclear attack on America: "Most officials will no doubt seek cover behind the claim that 'no one could have imagined" this happening. But that defense does not ring true. Today, we have unambiguous warnings that a nuclear terrorist attack could happen at any moment. Responsible leaders should be asking the questions now."

In 1986, in the former USSR, now Ukraine, the nuclear plant at Chernobyl melted down in the world's worst nuclear accident. The documentaries of the abandoned city around the nuclear plant tells the story well. You see houses, with pots on stoves, toys on chairs, everyday life, being led, and then abandoned, only to have curtains flapping in the wind, in the abandoned ghost town. In one documentary on Chernobyl, they showed how the government had piped in this creepy music to play so that the guards would not go crazy inside the contained area. And it was haunting, even through a TV screen. The world could end up looking like that. When Chernobyl first occurred, the USSR knew about it and did not tell. It was Sweden who detected the nuclear fallout, and traced it to the USSR. The nuclear fallout blew out of the USSR, and into areas where indigenous Scandinavian reindeer herders, the Sami, lived. Since the reindeer ate the moss on trees that was now radioactive, the government forced the slaughter of their reindeer food supply and made them dependent on government rations thereafter. The Sami people suffered greatly from the fallout of Chernobyl, and they were not in the immediate vicinity of the accident. Nuclear disaster follows the wind, and does not recognize country borders.

In 1961, JFK told Americans to build bomb shelters. Now, in 2004, the U.S. government urges Americans to visit www.ready.gov, where there are instructions on what you should do in the event of a nuclear disaster. The internet will probably be jammed with hits to that site for that information right after a nuclear hit, so you might want to review it now. They advise, for nuclear blasts, taking cover underground, and using thick shields for radioactivity protection. Do you have your thick shield to protect you from radioactivity stored away for that emergency? Los Alamos officials have said that the July 2004 loss of classified materials was an example of "willful disregard," but what does that actually mean in regards to our national security? Or our worldwide security, is more like it. Robert Foley, a part of the Los Alamos Laboratory management, said he believes scientists have been reluctant to blow the whistle on colleagues who don't follow the rules. Well, yes, that is problematic. As bumbling mistake after bumbling mistake happens on this planet at nuclear plants and nuclear research laboratories worldwide, one begins to wonder why it is, that no one ever saw, or sees, the oversight of all these nuclear materials, and their security, as a top priority. It makes you wonder if it is accidental that plutonium is named after Pluto, the God of Death. And that Chernobyl means some variation of Armageddon. And then we have Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in California, which means "Devil's Canyon." In 1983, Carl Sagan wrote about a "nuclear winter," where nuclear events would block out the sun, killing life on earth, to which Sagan adds, "The ashes of communism and capitalism will be indistinguishable."
 
 


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