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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

On Nuclear Threat,Wake Up and Pay Up

Masked men armed with clubs -- clubs! -- last week forced their way into a once-secret plant. They beat the guards into submission, tied them up, and stole 460 kilograms -- 460 kilograms! -- of a powder used in nuclear reactors. And then they were gone.

How is this not news? True, it happened in one of the more obscure 'stans (Kyrgyzstan). And true, the europium oxide powder spirited away on Jan. 8 doesn't explode and isn't radioactive. It's just a pinkish-white powder that can be used in manufacturing the rods that control nuclear reactions.

But really, when do we finally, groggily pay attention to the loudest of wake-up calls? When do we get serious -- in Russia and America -- about ponying up the relatively small sums of political and financial capital needed to put in place real security measures around nuclear power plants, chemical weapons stockpiles and radioactive materials?

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Supposedly Sept. 11 was the moment we realized terrorists could mobilize on a massive scale (although Aum Shinryko had hit the Tokyo subway with nerve gas six years earlier). And then, last October, the hostage-taking at a Moscow theater supposedly reiterated the point: Well-organized bands of terrorists can carry out complex military actions deep in the heart of a national capital (although six years earlier Chechen rebels made a similar point, twice, in their hostage-taking incursions into the southern towns of Budyonnovsk and Kizlyar).

So what, if anything, have we learned?

There's a nuclear reactor in the heart of Moscow at the Kurchatov Institute. I've been underneath it, several years ago, as part of a tour of Moscow's sewers. (Aum Shinryko had recruits inside the institute.) What's to stop the next band of terrorists from seizing the reactor and Chernobyling it?

Russia has enough excess plutonium and uranium lying around in storage to build thousands of nuclear bombs. Some of it is "secured" and some of it ain't. But consider just the plutonium that's officially considered "secured": Could it be held against a surprise assault by, say, 40 well-armed and organized Chechens?

Before you answer, consider that in the United States, security guards at nuclear power reactors have expressed serious doubts their plant could defeat a terrorist attack. The Project on Government Oversight, a non-partisan good-government group, interviewed more than 140 nuclear power plant security guards across America. The guards say morale is low, they are under-manned, under-equipped, under-trained, and underpaid. Some of them say they would only use their guns to fight their way out of the plant and run away. Things are little better at the Los Alamos National Laboratory -- America's premier nuclear weapons facility -- where two top managers just stepped down amid allegations of corruption and sloppy security.

Here's the thing. Adequate security -- meaning maybe some fences, security cameras, a team of motivated (read, well-paid), well-equipped and well-trained individuals -- this costs somebody money. Tiny amounts of money, in the grand scheme of things. But amounts that bring no obvious return.

So why spend it? Whether it's Kyrgyz federal officials in Bishkek or an American utility company, no one likes handing out money unless "they have to," i.e., unless someone -- the public, the government -- makes them do so.

And so it will likely go, right up until the day a major city is incinerated -- by crazed men who, if not for our own carelessness and stupidity, would have been armed only with clubs.

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, is a fellow with the Nation Institute [www.thenation.com].