Browsing the 'Atomic Bazaar'
William Langewiesche tried to imagine what it would take for a terrorist to build a nuclear bomb. Research for his new book The Atomic Bazaar took him around the world.
Where you begin, he says, depends on which radioactive element is in your bomb.
A likely choice is highly enriched uranium, which is easy to work with and abundant in the world, primarily in Russia and other former Soviet republics, the author says.
Steve Inskeep talks to Langewiesche about how would-be terrorists could obtain the material and the flimsy barriers keeping them from doing it.
As part of reporting for this book, did you go take a look at some of the places where highly enriched uranium might be concentrated in Russia?
I did. There are, as you know, 10 formerly secret cities just east of the Urals in Russia where the Soviet nuclear arsenal was built. Those cities still exist. They're still closed cities. You can't get into them. And I went there to look at the possibilities with a sort of terrorist idea in mind of how difficult it would be to acquire highly enriched uranium there.
Just to be clear on this, somebody may be listening and thinking, he's giving a guide to terrorists. What are you trying to do here?
It could be taken as a guide. On the other hand, I have been assured many times over that the discoveries that I made are well known to the world. One guy told me I was basically dealing with Boy Scout merit badge level of information. And unfortunately that's enough information to create a bomb.
So ... you've gone east of the Urals in the former Soviet Union and you're trying to think like a terrorist. You know that somewhere in that closed city is some highly enriched uranium. You need about 100 pounds of it. What options do you have?
Well, there are two choices really. You can either attack it with a commando-style raid or find a way to steal it more quietly. The commando raid idea turns out to be a pretty bad one. For one thing, these places are protected. OK, they are protected by troops who may be drunk, who may be on drugs, with all kinds of morale problems, but they can still shoot. And they can make noise.
The larger problem is that if you make noise, if you go in with a commando group, you're going to have to get away. You have hundreds of miles of voyage in front of you and you will be intercepted. You have to acquire the fissile material in such a way that the Russians don't know, at least for several days and maybe preferably never, that you have acquired it.
What is the way that would be practical then? An inside job?
An inside job — corruption. And there's plenty of corruption in Russia, of course. But it's not that easy. There are not a lot of strangers around that part of the world. You're going to be noticed. So you can't just sort of go there and corrupt somebody. It has to be done through Russian intermediaries, but it's a difficult process.
Russian intermediaries meaning you find the right crime boss who is willing to make the right connection or pay the right person and produce the fuel that you ask for?
That's correct. And of course with every intermediary, with every level, you increase the risk that you will be betrayed, that they will just take your money.
Well, let's say that you get through that step and there you are outside this closed city in the former Soviet Union with 100 pounds of uranium. What do you do then?
If they have not noticed it, at that point you're in pretty good shape. You start moving for the borders of Russia. You move toward your assembly point, which you will have chosen in advance. Probably you want to assemble it in some very large Third World city where a small industrial project will not be noticed and where the state control is loose. The obvious city is Istanbul, and you would almost certainly get there.
In other words, the defense that the United States and Europe has built against this possibility pretty much breaks down once you've acquired the fissile material.
When you talk about defense, you're talking about guarding borders. What kind of facilities did you find in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which is one of the places you identified as a possible route on your way to a safe city to assemble a bomb?
It's just incredible, actually. We went down there and found this huge border crossing point that had been built by the United States at the cost of millions of dollars, with a dormitory and air conditioning and helipad. But if you have stolen 100 pounds of HEU (highly enriched uranium) and you are seriously in the business of building a weapon, you're not going to go through those borders.
You'd go over the mountains.
Go over the mountains or just across the fields. The borders are wide open. So we fail completely. And the reason we fail, they're trying to apply a governmental solution — building ports of entry and all of that — to a non-governmental problem. There are many networks of power in the world that are not governmental.
You're saying that if somebody were able to get their hands on 100 pounds of highly enriched uranium and they're trying to slip it across the border through various former Soviet republics, [there are] lawless areas where there are local leaders who might be able to help things move or help stop things for that matter.
There's no such thing as pure anarchy in this world. So if you look at the areas which we believe are lawless, in fact they're full of laws. They may be traditional, they may be clan-based, they may be new, they may be business-based. But there's always some form of order.
What sort of order did you find along that possible smuggling route that you outlined and traveled along?
Well, what one might expect. I went to the border between Iran and Turkey and spent quite a lot of time in the mountains there among the Kurds, who are moving opium and ... smuggle diesel fuel across the mountains that divide the two countries. These are basically very large families. They may have thousands of members in them. They the call them clans.
Believe me, nothing escapes their notice. Now, it entirely escapes the notice of the Turkish government, let alone the United States, the U.S. government. So if a load of HEU is moved through on horseback, we have no way of knowing that. But, of course, [the clans] know it. But they're not talking to us .... It's not a question of hostilities, it's that we haven't sent people in there to talk to them.
After you met with some clan leaders, did you get a sense that an American could build a relationship with them to the point where they might tip you off if some suspicious material was passing through?
Did you get a sense that if you made friends with them and then came and said, 'You know, I have some packages that I need to pass through quietly,' do you think that those clan leaders might help?
What is the farthest that anyone is know to have gotten through these steps that you have laid out?
The best information is that no one has gotten anywhere near this. I mean, if you look carefully and practically at this process, you see that it is an enormous undertaking full of risks for the would-be terrorists. So far there is no public case at least known of any appreciable amount of weapons-grade HEU disappearing. And that's the first step. So, if you don't have that, you don't have anything.
In Part 2 of the interview, airing on Wednesday's Morning Edition, Langewiesche discusses how additional countries could soon have the bomb.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.