Moving target: Nukes in transit

Deproliferator1.0THE DEPROLIFERATOR — A large part of the lore of crime is the history of those transporting precious goods and the highwaymen who prey on them. Valuables are most vulnerable when in transit. Removed from safe storage and the constancy of inanimate walls, they become susceptible to the capriciousness of the human element. For example, their guard corps may be infiltrated by agents of those who covet them. This is as true of nuclear materials as anything else.

In one of the most controversial articles of his career, Seymour Hersh sums up this issue for Pakistan:

Nuclear-security experts have war-gamed. . . and concluded that [nuclear] triggers and other elements are most exposed when they are being moved and reassembled — at those moments there would be fewer barriers between an outside group and the bomb.

Before continuing with Pakistan, let’s examine what might seem to some like the least likely locale for such a theft — the United States. In a 2008 Nonproliferation Review article, William Potter, director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, wrote:

A good-sized component of the global stockpile of HEU rarely if ever is moved. … However, a portion of the stocks is more difficult to safeguard because it is sometimes in transit.

Where to, pray tell?

. . . within and between facilities, en route to fabrication into fuel pellets, delivery to different reactor locations, removal to spent fuel storage, reprocessing, or blending.

The life of enriched uranium can be a busy one. Like a prominent business executive vulnerable to kidnapping. . .

Not only is such material in motion more vulnerable to diversion, during normal industrial operations it also generates ‘”Material Unaccounted For” (MUF). … For example, in one famous case in the mid-1960s involving a U.S. nuclear fuel facility in Apollo, Pennsylvania, it was rumored that a huge amount of MUF concealed the diversion of HEU [weapon-enriched uranium] to Israel for its nuclear weapons program.

Next, Potter provides an example of how. . .

. . . this bookkeeping device [MUF] provides potential cover for would-be thieves and terrorists. Indeed, the perpetrator of the first confirmed case of diversion of fissile material from a Russian nuclear facility in 1992 relied upon his insider knowledge of
the established MUF figure. . . to divert small quantities of HEU.

While trans-national transport of HEU has declined, it still occurs, such as when of Soviet-era HEU is shipped to Russia for reduction from nuclear-weapons fuel to nuclear-power plant fuel. Meanwhile, outside of Russia’s loose nukes, no nuclear material is more coveted than Pakistan’s “crown jewels,” as its nuclear weapons are sometimes described.

Britain’s Shaun Gregory is one of the foremost experts on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in the world. In the Sentinel, the West Point Counter Terrorism Center’s authoritative publication, he writes that. . .

. . . Pakistan’s usual separation of nuclear weapons components is compromised to a degree by the need to assemble weapons. . . and refurbishment cycle at civilian sites, and by the requirement for co-location of the separate components at military sites so that they can be mated quickly.

The words that are emphasized mean that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons can be flushed out. As I reported in an Asia Times Online piece early this year:

[The same professor] Gregory writes, to facilitate maximum anticipation of an attack on its nuclear weapon sites (as well as to foil a quick ground strike) by India, Pakistan has located them in its west. “The unanticipated consequence,” he explains, is that the nuclear weapons are “either within or close to the more volatile tribal regions of Pakistan to the west and northwest of Islamabad”.  …

The London Independent’s Johann Hari quotes Scott Sagan, a nuclear security expert: “If Pakistan fears they may be attacked [by India or presumably jihadis], they have an incentive to take [the weapons] out of the [more secure] bunkers and put them out in the countryside.” Where, of course, there’s that much greater a chance they’ll be apprehended by jihadis. 

In fact, the [New York Times’s David] Sanger reports that a top George W. Bush administration official expressed his fears to him that “some groups could try to provoke a confrontation between Pakistan and India in the hope that the Pakistani military would transport tactical nuclear weapons closer to the front lines, where they would be more vulnerable to seizure. Indeed, when the deadly terror attacks occurred in Mumbai [other] officials told [Sanger] they feared that one of the attackers’ motives might have been to trigger exactly that series of events.” [Emphasis added.]

Bet you never heard that before.

Furthermore, as Professor Gregory writes in the Sentinel:

Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda have proved that they have good intelligence about the movement of security personnel, including army, ISI and police forces, all of whom have been routinely targeted.

The irony is that nuclear weapons in Pakistan are moved and most vulnerable to apprehension at exactly the moment when they’re best left in place.

First posted at the Faster Times.

1 reply »

  1. This is true of all “valuable” cargo that I can think of, actually. It’s easy to make both ends secure, but about the only thing you can do during transportation is trust to secrecy, guards (who can be bribed or shot), and passive defenses that hopefully slow a thief down long enough for another round of security to show up and reclaim the stolen goods.