Jane VaynmanTwo horses + commandos = Russian HEU

The Atlantic Monthly has a long article in the December 2006 issue on How to Get a Nuclear Bomb. [Sorry, it’s subscription only past the first page, so I am putting in some good quotes from later in the article.]

It seems at first glance very similar to Jeffrey’s Terror Farm article in Foreign Policy but actually the overlap is mostly in topic rather than content. Jeffrey and Peter Zimmerman were going for buying HEU on the black market and assembling the bomb in Texas or Wyoming, while William Langewiesche tells you all about how to and how not to steal HEU from Russian storage facilities.

Langewiesche (who also wrote the AQ Khan articles for Atlantic Monthly) starts out with a brief discussion of purchasing HEU, and notes there several places where black market access may be possible. How would one transport HEU, perhaps along the Turkish border? On a horse like many other smuggled goods. Actually make that two horses just in case:

I asked the physicist to imagine that a terrorist had acquired two bricks of weapons-grade HEU, each weighing fifty pounds: how far apart would he have to keep them? He said that a yard would be enough. I had arrived in Washington from remote mountains along the Turkish border with Iran, where every night hundreds of pack horses are led across the line by Kurdish smugglers, carrying cheap fuel for Turkish cars and opium for the European heroin market. This is the Silk Road revived, and it is one of the prime potential routes for the movement of stolen uranium. With this in mind, I told the physicist I assumed from his measure that the two bricks could be slung on either side of a saddle.

He said, “One on each side should be all right …” He hesitated. “But what is the moderating effect of a horse?”

I had no idea. He said, “Look, if someone’s smart enough to have snuck in and gotten a hold of these two ingots of metal, he’ll be smart enough to negotiate for a second horse.”

But let’s say you were going to go ahead and steal the stuff. How vulnerable are specific nuclear sites? It’s not clear, and Langewiesche notes that the intelligence community has never gotten a clear picutre of the kind of local information that would be needed to make this assessement:

I spoke to a former high U.S. official who said that during a decade spent securing stockpiles in Russia and receiving countless intelligence briefings, he had never once found information that would have helped him to calibrate the risks specific to a site. Who lives in the neighborhood? Who lives just outside? Who has just arrived? How the hell do any of them survive? What is meant here, tangibly, by organized crime? … Now start all over again, and tell us about the nuclear technicians, the FSB agents, and the ordinary guards. Tell us about their lovers, their holidays, the furniture they dream of buying at IKEA. Tell us about their inner lives.

You might, as Langewiesche suggests, do this kind of investigating in Ozersk, formerly known as Chelyabinsk-65, where you would find the Mayak storage facility, and other less fortified locations where HEU is stored. You could, maybe, get a raiding commando group in and out of a secure HEU storage site in a few hours. (You better look Russian though; they are on the look out for Chechen types.)

Then you have to make your grand escape, and they do have guards after all, drunken and second class as they might be:

Called “the dregs of the dregs” by some critics, they are second-round conscripts, picked up by the Interior Ministry only after they have been rejected by the army. They in no sense constitute an elite corps, as the ministry sometimes claims. NTI has catalogued a string of known incidents of Mayak guards killing each other, committing suicide, stealing weapons, running away, buying narcotics, drinking on duty, and in one case imbibing a bottle of antifreeze and dying.

The problem for you, in your quest for a bomb, is that even these soldiers will fight. This is less a possibility than a fact. They will fight whether sober or drunk. Their presence at Ozersk means that no raiding party will be able to hit without provoking a noisy response.

There is more info about corruption, drug use, and smuggling in Ozersk in this PONARS Policy Memo.

But let’s say you make it past the guards. Too bad Russia is so big, because now you need a convenient border. The Caucuses are 3 days away, and if you went for the commandos storming the facility route, you would probably not have such a great head start.

Not so easy after all is it? Scratch the raid then and get someone to steal it for you, someone on the inside. Unfortunately, out of a 16 page long article, Langewiesche spends two paragraphs on insider threat issues. I was disappointed since I think the question of insider threats is just as serious, and perhaps even more so, than outsider theft.

The conclusions of the article are the same as in Terror Farm: building a bomb is very difficult, but not impossible.


  1. James O'Brien

    So, does this mean that DTRA’s Cooperative Threat Reduction folks need to do a little more to secure these sites? I think so!

  2. John Smith

    I don’t think stealing HEU is particularly relevant. Iran can just get some decent Russian scientists to sort out its centrifuges and live happily ever after. After all, one nuclear bomb doesn’t solve its problem.

  3. Allen Thomson (History)

    >I asked the physicist to imagine that a terrorist had acquired two bricks of weapons-grade HEU, each weighing fifty pounds:

    Just to note a note, uranium is dense, about 19 kg/liter. So a 50 lb brick has a volume of 1.2 liters, something a little larger than a quart of milk. Of course, it doesn’t have to be a brick, a single object, or even elemental uranium for smuggling purposes.

    As for the neutron moderating qualities of horses, horses are mostly made, even as you and I, of water. Use a horse-sized bag of water for the calculation.

  4. Lab Lemming (History)

    Has the horse been drinking normal or heavy water? Hydrogen, plus the nitrogen in protein, would be the main inhibiting elements in a horse.

    Note that a 50 lb brick of HEU would be several times the critical mass. So even a light water horse suffering from Gadolinium Borate poisoning wouldn’t prevent a reaction.

  5. Alex (History)

    I read the Atlantic article — turns out we subscribe to it now, who knew? — and was somewhat appalled. There are lots of factual errors all over the article, both in its discussions of the science of bomb making (his discussions of the dangers of handling plutonium seemed somewhat overwrought to me, among other things) and in its discussion of the history of nuclear weapons. I mean, he even spelled Niels Bohr’s name wrong — it’s the least of the inaccuracies, but one of the easiest to get right the first time (don’t they have fact checkers?). For all of its attempted bombast I would have been more impressed if he had gotten the easy stuff right before I trusted him to get the hard, speculative stuff right. I was disappointed and surprised. This guy’s writing a book about nuclear terrorism? Oy.

  6. Rob (History)

    ”…he’ll be smart enough to negotiate for a second horse”

    Oh no no – that would be almost the worst thing he could do. If each horse is carrying one ingot then if the horses stand side by side the ingots could come within inches of each other. But if one horse carries both ingots, on opposite sides and at opposite ends of the horse, then this cannot happen.

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