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Fuel for nuclear bomb in hands of unknown Russian black marketeer, officials say (publicintegrity.org)
188 points by yurisagalov on Nov 13, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 128 comments

So, when the USSR disbanded, many ex-soviet states (i.e. Ukraine) were stuck with a nuclear arsenal they couldn't maintain and didn't want.

In theory, Russia took the warheads back and looked after them.

In practice, there was an initial period of everything that wasn't bolted down disappearing from silos, and the response was to fill them with concrete to prevent any further access.

What then happened is gangs came in the dead of night with diggers and drills and unearthed silos, and took who knows what.

My source is a lengthy chat with a chap at Pervomaisk, a Soviet missile silo in Ukraine, who used to be the guy who'd press the button (there are two buttons and two keys, but he explained that you could use the soviet flagpole in there to press the other button). Now he gives tours to tourists. $1 for Ukrainians. $5 for Russians. $10 for ex-USSR members. $20 for foreigners. $100 for Americans - or something like that. I laughed heartily at their pricing structure, before straddling the Satan missile for the obligatory "riding the bomb" photo.

This same phenomenon was mirrored elsewhere in the ex-USSR, and wasn't limited to fissile material - Degelen mountain in Kaz, for one, where they not only dug up left over Pu, but also thousands of tonnes of radioactive copper (cabling used for remote monitoring, power, and detonation of subsurface tests), which made its way into the global electronic supply chain, and was only discovered after they installed x-ray detectors at Dover for scanning for stowaways. My original source for that was a British truck driver who was paid to keep hush and not talk about why he'd ended up with (mild, flu-like, had to retire) radiation sickness - but it hit the press a few years later anyway.

> many ex-soviet states (i.e. Ukraine) were stuck with a nuclear arsenal they couldn't maintain and didn't want.

An important side point: Ukraine definitely wanted nuclear weapons, in particular as a viable threat against being re-annexed by Russia. Ukraine gave them up only after receiving a solemn promise by the US and UK that they would protect Ukraine's territorial integrity.

"On December 5, 1994 the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Britain and the United States signed a memorandum to provide Ukraine with security assurances in connection with its accession to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state."


It is a weirdly common misconception that the agreement in question requires the US and UK to protect Ukraine's territorial integrity. All it does is require them to respect it. This is the actual wording, taken from your link:

"The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations."

Basically, everybody involved pledged not to attack Ukraine. They made no pledge to protect Ukraine from other attackers. The only signatory who has violated the agreement here is Russia. The agreement does not require the US or the UK to protect Ukraine from Russia.

(Strictly speaking they are required to ask the UN to defend Ukraine if they are attacked or threatened by nuclear weapons, but that hasn't happened.)

The whole crux is the line you've left as a parenthetical.

"The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine, as a non-nuclear-weapon State party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used."

How could a country be militarily attacked by a nuclear-weapons-armed state (Russia) and yet not be threatened by nuclear weapons? Because Russia pinky swears they won't use them?

That's fair, but I see two big problems with this.

First, to what degree can we say Ukraine is threatened by nuclear weapons, when we know (not because of empty promises, but just the realities of nuclear weapons) that nukes are not on the table? Would we say that Iraq or Afghanistan were threatened by nuclear weapons? I certainly wouldn't.

Second, let's say the mere possession of nukes by the attacking party does qualify as a threat. The US and UK then go to the UN Security Council and seek assistance for Ukraine. Russia has veto power there, so this will do nothing useful whatsoever. You could say that they ought to do as they promised even if it's useless, but it would still do nothing to actually protect Ukraine.

I think there is easily a greater than 5% chance of Russia using nukes in the case of an all out war between Russia and Ukraine. (Remember how realistic it was for the US to develop small bunker-buster weapons just a few years ago? What sorts of tactical nukes do you think Russia has stored away somewhere?) Any that's plenty of risk to dramatically influence the conflict, whether diplomatic or violent.

So now you're talking about a case where the US is violating both the spirit (no UN petition) and the letter (no meaningful aid) of the memorandum, although doing each in different ways. At that point, I think the damage is done. Other countries will not and should not expect the US to honor agreements it makes, even on the deathly serious issue of voluntarily giving up nuclear weapons.

I think there's a 0% chance of Russia using nukes against Ukraine. The Russians aren't stupid, and they know how that would end. They also have no reason to do so, since they would have no trouble winning conventionally. Russia has been going out of their way to keep that war low-key to avoid provoking outside intervention, which is the only reason they don't already own the place completely.

Agree that they would have no trouble winning conventionally, but are you sure they know how that would end?

A few years ago, I think consensus would have been that Russia wouldn't annex a sovereign state or deploy military assets in support of a separatist movement.

... I think reality is a lot more complicated.

If they decided to go for a big push, and realized they could hasten victory substantially by deploying a few low-yield tactical devices? The international community has proved nothing other than "It's easier to ask forgiveness than permission."

Besides, in a hypothetical case of annexing all of Ukraine, does "Russia used some tactical nuclear devices" really look that much worse than the also-present "Russia invaded and annexed a sovereign state"?

It's not an agreement that requires anything. It's just a memorandum (IOW a memo) no more binding than the famous verbal promise not to extend NATO towards Russia's borders.

> famous verbal promise not to extend NATO towards Russia's borders

Famous promise that no one can remember exactly but it was spun up by Russian propaganda anyway?

Remind me never to sign a memorandum with Britain or America...

Ukraine itself didn't learn from what happened to Poland in 1939. We had treaties that said we're to be aided by France and the UK...

Which they did at enormous cost in lives and money. Ditto for Belgium in 1914.

If you had said Czechoslovakia in 1938 that would have been a much better example.

When did the UK and France aid Poland after the 1939 invasion?

The timeline is something like:

1939 - Poland gets conquered by Germany and the USSR.

1941 - The USSR-occupied part of Poland gets conquered by Germany.

1944-45 - German-occupied Poland gets conquered by the USSR.

1989 - Poland reasserts independence as the USSR slowly collapses from within.

As far as I'm aware, no significant British or American forces got anywhere near Poland as part of any of this.

Not only that, but I think it was due to an explicit deal with the USSR to stay away from there so they can have Poland and Czechoslovakia.

They deliberately let the Germans go in there and kill the local uprisings, so that the USSR could then move in and take what is left.

1939 we declared war. We had virtually no army at the time and virtually no air force. Certainly nothing that could have defeated Hilter's forces.

That would be a reason why they didn't help Poland, not something that made it so that they did help Poland (as was claimed above).

I also don't believe that's true. At the time, the French had about 5 million men, 4,200 tanks, 11,000 guns, and 3,000 airplanes. The Germans had about 4 million men, 3,500 tanks, 7,000 guns, and 4,000 airplanes. That's rough parity, not even counting the UK's potential contribution. And the German army was busy subduing Poland in the east, so there wouldn't have been a whole lot available to defend against an attack from the west.

Your numbers are meaningless. The German weapons were modern. The French were not and the UK's were virtually non-existent.

The UK had no reason to declare war in 1939 other than their promise to defend Poland. We went into a global war that lasted 6 years, took half a million of our lives, bankrupted us and caused us to lose a global empire (well that was a good side effect). Bear in mind that this was ~20 years after a previous war after which the general view in the UK was that we would never fight another.

What's the point of declaring war on the basis of their promise to defend Poland, if they never actually did anything to help Poland?

It's not nearly so simple as that. For example, the French had better tanks, as well as more tank. There were plusses and minuses on both sides, but the result is far from clear and certainly not an overwhelming advantage in either direction. Combine this with the German army being busy in Poland for several weeks, and the French and British had a great opportunity to start their part of the conflict on their own terms. Some highly-placed Germans stated after the war that they would have been totally screwed if the Allies had invaded then.

The Battle of France revealed that the Germans were capable of completely smashing the Allied forces. This was partly because the places where the Germans had the advantage (aircraft, communications, doctrine) were key. But it was also just that the leadership was so afraid of getting drawn into a repeat of WWI that they let themselves be overrun. It's interesting to note that nobody expected the Germans to have that level of success, not even the Germans. Even Hitler, who was the optimistic one, thought they'd lose a million soldiers in that fight. I don't know if you're basing things off this experience, but it can't be used to show that the Allies thought they couldn't beat the Germans, nor probably even to show the Allies couldn't actually beat the Germans if they had struck first.

The hope was that declaring war would be enough to cause Hitler to not actually invade. The reality was that the UK (who are the ones we were talking about) really didn't have much in the way of army or air force at that time.

As for the French tanks. In 1939-1941 tanks were fairly useless. The German dive bombers were the dominant weapon system -- it was only when the allies had decent air forces that the dive bombers became irrelevant.

The UK had no reason to declare war in 1939 other than their promise to defend Poland.

That's the whole crux of this thread: that British military assistance promises are worthless.

He propably refered to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoney_War - the Allies did basically nothing until Germany invaded France

>Which they did at enormous cost in lives and money.

They half assed tried it by declaring war on germany without actually starting the war. But they let the USSR--which also invaded Poland--keep the country after the war.

As the saying goes, possession is nine tenths of the law. Doubly true when said possession is enforced by the largest military in the world.

Yeah, USSR got to keep the part of Poland they invaded. But the treaty between Poland, UK and France only covered aid against a German invasion, so that treaty was honored in the end. In any case, UK and France were not strong enough to beat Germany without help from the USSR.

How can you call fighting to save their own damn asses only after they were attacked by Germany coming to Poland's aid?

At that stage the UK had no reason to declare war on Germany other than our promise to Poland. We could have sat back and just watched things play out. Indeed Hilter thought that we would do exactly that.

(Bear in mind that there was not evidence of the holocaust for another 2 years. The huge (and real) moral basis of the European side of the second world war was largely discovered post facto.)

You think a shooting war between the US and Russia, or nuclear brinksmanship between Ukraine and Russia, would be preferable to what's happened instead?

The argument would be that certainty of an invasion of Ukraine prompting an American military response, or a Ukrainian nuclear one, would have deterred the Russians from carrying out the invasion in the first place.

This is of course arguable, since it rests on a counterfactual. But given the pains Russia took to camouflage their invasion as a domestic uprising (see http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26532154), it seems at least plausible, since the only reason for them to disguise their involvement would have been to reduce the risk of retaliation.

I was thinking the same thing... but then I don't know that the current Ukrainian government has requested military assistance, have they?

The UK has learned a valuable lesson. We entered the first world war due to a treaty guaranteeing Belgium's safety and the second due to a similar guarantee to Poland.

If you read your link you'd see that it couldn't actually launch the weapons, only the RF could.

> everything that wasn't bolted down disappearing

> This same phenomenon was mirrored elsewhere in the ex-USSR

This wasn't limited to military hardware. I visited Russia right after the dissolution (summer 92), and there as a mixture of celebration and uncertainty about what was going to fill the power vacuum.

Organized crime was simply buying both land and power. With the exchange rate crashing 5 RUB:USD per day[1], literally everyone was panicking to get hard currency or anything that would otherwise hold value. I wouldn't surprise me if this attitude extended to military hardware if the price was right (and in the right currency).

[1] banks were giving ~95-100 RUB/USD when I arrived. A bit over two weeks later it was >180 RUB/USD.

> I wouldn't surprise me if this attitude extended to military hardware if the price was right (and in the right currency).

It did. I was in Krosno visiting there right up against the Ukranian border (about 35 km) around that time and there was a 'black market' there that sold just about anything that could be carted across the border or that could move by itself. Regular army gear (including weapons and munition) were openly for sale, vehicles as many as you wanted and 'larger stuff' (unspecified but it was pretty clear what they meant) to order.

Apparently you could even buy warplanes if you had the means to pick them up, and one dutch scrap metal trader did just that (and promptly got caught with 2 more-or-less combat ready Mig 21's at the Dutch border in a large truck...).

> In practice, there was an initial period of everything that wasn't bolted down disappearing from silos, and the response was to fill them with concrete to prevent any further access. What then happened is gangs came in the dead of night with diggers and drills and unearthed silos, and took who knows what.

Yeah, and it wasn't just in the silos, either. The notorious arms smuggler Viktor Bout (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viktor_Bout), for instance, built the private air force he used to deliver his goods around the world by grabbing Soviet Air Force transport planes wherever he could. The story goes that his people even pried one off a pedestal that had been placed in front of an air force base as a display piece.

back at the time even military ships in active service (not in conservation) lost a lot of electronic hardware - the Soviet electronics was "rich" in various valuable metals - and of course various cabling and wires connecting that electronics. Some of those few new Navy ships what were being built at the time had the same electronic hardware delivered several times as it was stolen right after installation (or even before, while stored at or near the ship waiting to be installed)

Actually, it is un-explainable miracle to me - a Russian who has lived there and saw what was happening at the end of 198x and through the 199x - that the world's black markets weren't flooded with USSR nukes and related materials. USSR had 40000 nuclear warheards. Sure there should had been a couple lost :)

Maybe it's harder to rationalize letting a nuke get into the wrong hands. Stuff like this is usually rationalized with something like, "Why should I do the right thing? It doesn't help me any, and nobody gets hurt, or at least the people who get hurt are far away." But even an idiot might pause and think about the possibility that their life might be negatively affected if they end up starting a global thermonuclear war.

> USSR had 40000 nuclear warheards. Sure there should had been a couple lost

Unable to find a fence. Even I could fence gold and silver or copper. Rare earths would have me scratching my head a bit, but I could probably figure it out.

Uranium or plutonium? How would I even start? I'd have to try to sell to North Korea, Iran, or Pakistan or who else? How would I even come into contact with the appropriate people?

Wait. Radioactive copper in the global electronics supply chain?

What strategies can an average joe use to minimize exposure to that?

Radioactive copper can't stay radioactive long. The longest-lived isotope is 64Cu, with a half life of 12 hours.

Mildly radioactive junk is not that rare. Stanford used to have a little fenced area near the toxic waste incinerator with stainless steel parts left over from accelerator experiments cooling off. 55Fe has a 2.7 year half life, so you let it cool off for a decade or so, then recycle. The only protection was an chain-link fence, a radiation warning trefoil, and a street light. One day somebody cut the fence and stole the stainless steel, prompting a search of scrapyards. But the metal was near the end of its storage period anyway, and wasn't detectable as radioactive.

The quantity in an individual device is likely to be so tiny (milligrams) that it's not a risk. It's also likely to have been melted down and put through the global recycling chain which would have substantially diluted it. But it was a risk to people handling the original material in bulk. An unknown number of workers in the global copper supply and recycling chain were likely exposed to above-limit doses.

A lot of materials safety concerns are more for protection of workers than end users. Lead removal from electronics is an example. There's not really any risk to owning electronics with lead in them unless you are incinerating them or enjoy licking circuit boards, but it is a serious occupational risk to factory workers and also a disposal problem.

Geiger Counter / Radiation Sensor: http://www.adafruit.com/categories/73

In the article:

"The FBI has privately discounted Moldovan claims that radioactive materials seized in more recent smuggling incidents here were being sought by the Islamic State terrorist group."

Everything's safe, then?

Let's investigate: According to the Moldovan police presentation:


The person interested in buying was of Arab-Islamic origin, Yosif Fiasal Ibrahim, 1975, citizen of Republic of Sudan, Africa.

Also, Sky News:


"Investigators found contracts made out to a Sudanese doctor named Yosif Faisal Ibrahim for attack helicopters and armoured personnel carriers.

There was a copy of Ibrahim's passport, and evidence that Chetrus was trying to help him obtain a Moldovan visa. Skype messages suggested he was interested in uranium and the dirty bomb plans.

The deal was interrupted by the sting, but it looked like it was well advanced. A lawyer working with the criminal ring had even travelled to Sudan, officials said."

There are extremists in Sudan endorsing IS, Reuters, 2014:




"The legal system in Sudan is based on Islamic Sharia law." "Stoning remains a judicial punishment in Sudan. Between 2009 and 2012, several women were sentenced to death by stoning.[61][62][63]"

FBI's and the article's claim could still be technically true (Ibrahim from Islamic Sudan, not ISIS) but it helps us being better informed.

Why is this being downvoted?

because Sharia law is a non sequitur?

Because it surely can't mean that the environment can be stimulating for the sympathisers, supporters or members of ISIS?

You do know there's not one monolithic body of Sharia jurisprudence, right? ISIS supporters hew to specific juristic readings and would abhor the Sharia of many other sects...

ISIS members and supporters would certainly not be against stoning, as a small example. Both stonings and beheadings are the things done by Mohammad, and Sharia's principle is, in simplest, "do what Mohammad have done." I agree, not everybody actually wants to do everything he did, but some do try.

There are countries, luckily, with Muslim majority which don't employ Sharia officially. Even some of the countries that do today, didn't only a few decades ago, like Pakistan:


I also agree that we should not mix the logical relations: => and <=> aren't the same. Of course we can't conclude that everybody who supports Sharia in his country directly supports ISIS. But there was never a claim like that here.


According to the estimates, there are more active ISIS fighters coming from Sweden than those coming from Sudan, even if Sweden has four times less people.

I'm amazed that no one in this thread has mentioned Project Sapphire yet. It's my favorite bit of 90's spycraft.

Project Sapphire Wikipedia Entry:

Project Sapphire was a successful 1994 covert operation of the United States government in cooperation with the Kazakhstan government to reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation as part of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. A warehouse at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant outside Ust-Kamenogorsk housed 1,322 pounds (600 kg) of weapons grade enriched uranium to fuel Alfa class submarines (90% U-235). Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the fuel was poorly documented and secured, and in danger of being sold for use in the construction of nuclear weapons.



Thank you! I remembered reading this story in the Post years ago, but couldn't remember the name of the operation so my Google-fu was insufficient to dig it up. Glad you shared it.

> Photos of the arrests show a policeman in a ski mask holding a Kalashnikov while Chetrus knelt on a sidewalk in front of the bank. He would eventually be sentenced to five years in prison.

This guy is involved in the sale of enriched uranium and he gets FIVE YEARS?!

It's not like he did something really bad, like illegally access a website.

Or torrent movies

I read "torture movies"

Ten kilos of HEU may or may not be a concern, it's hard to say and I don't see the actual enrichment in the article. "Highly enriched" means any enrichment above 20% enrichment but below "weapons grade" (85%). It usually means something close to 20%... 10 kg of 20% enriched is scary but is a small fraction of what you need to make a bomb, so while it's scary it isn't necessarily that some terrorist group almost bought a pit for a bomb. I expect that has something to do with the apparently light sentence.

From the article:

*>> Rockefeller asked then-CIA Director Porter Goss whether enough had vanished from Russia’s stockpile to build a nuclear weapon. “There is sufficient material unaccounted for so that it would be possible for those with know-how to construct a nuclear weapon,” Goss responded.

Previously in the article they mentioned that this 10kg of Uranium believed to be for sale on the black market is a fifth of what you would need for a Hiroshima-type weapon but it's just about enough for a well designed implosion nuke. It's not clear whether these statements are connected or if the journalist is making a mistake but Douglas Birch, the coauthor reporting from Russia & Maldova, has been reporting on nuclear issues for the Center of Public Integrity for a few years now.

> Previously in the article they mentioned that this 10kg of Uranium believed to be for sale on the black market is a fifth of what you would need for a Hiroshima-type weapon but it's just about enough for a well designed implosion nuke.

With 60kg of HEU I could build Little Boy by myself in my garage with parts I can get at Home Depot and Cabela's.

With 10kg of HEU I could build Fat Man with a breeder reactor, a couple hundred thousand in precision machine tools, several tens of thousands in specialty electronics, and a small team of specialists.

Both are possible, but one is far more feasible to do than the other for a terrorist group. That said, 10kg in a Little Boy type device would still cause a pretty big boom. The damage from the radiological hysteria that would follow its use would be far greater than the explosive damage, though.

That estimate for an implosion weapon is a little low by my reckoning, for it to be even remotely in that ballpark it'd require extensive reflection and other trickery. Without doing the math, I'd guesstimate a more realistic number to be about 1/3rd to 1/2 that neededfor a realistic implosion weapon.

But an implosion weapon is infinitely more complicated, even if I hand you all the material it just isn't going to happen that someone would be able to build it in their garage. The concept is pretty simple, but there are a lot of little gotchas and also the machining and electrical tolerances are impossibly difficult without very specialized tools even if you had detailed plans. The design for the initiator in particular was notoriously a major problem during the Manhattan project and they really weren't sure if any of the ideas they had would work.

Gun-assembled weapons are simpler but still pretty complicated. I'm not sure there would be much benefit to using only 10kg of U-235, which is way subcritical. You'd get a tiny bit of extra boom and some nasty isotopes from the fissions, but strapping some Co-60 to a bomb would probably be more effective. For comparison, Little Boy used around 64 kg, though that was more than the minimum needed.

Welcome to the list.

There is enough information floating around for almost any reasonably competent engineer with a knack for physics (or vice versa) to build an implosion device. The list is long.

I'm going to have to dispute that one... an implosion weapon is very complicated. Even if you had detailed plans, you simply can't build them without access to very high precision tools. The tolerances necessary to make them work are extremely severe, especially in the construction of the initiator (the thing that initially injects neutrons to kick off the reaction) and in the triggering for the explosives. The basic concept is really easy to grasp, but the nitty-gritty engineering details are much harder than is readily apparent.

Gun-assembled weapons are simpler, but still complicated. The big issue with them is that they tend to go critical as the target and projectile are coming together and blow themselves apart before the bang really gets going. Getting them to come fully together and stay confined long enough to get good yield is not as easy.

I believe the 20% threshold was chosen because that represents the largest plant and processing cost step in enrichment.

In other words once it is at 20% you can use a much smaller enrichment plant to take it to weapons level due to the nature of the cascade. My back of the envelope calcu-guess is that 20% enriched represents about 95% of the work on the way to weapons grade. [edit: guess based on only isotope ratios, not any specifics of yield of the various enrichment processes]

The calculations for it are a little weird and involve a rather strange unit called the SWU (separative work unit) and which is actually independent of the separation process, but it works out to be more like ~75% of the effort to go from natural -> 20% enriched as it is to go from 20% -> 95%.

You still need the raw mass though. To get enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb (~15kg) from 20% enriched feed stock and discharging 2% enriched depleted uranium waste you need about 65kg of 20% enriched.

So 10kg (assuming it's 20%) is definitely concerning, but it's not enough to make a bomb.

This is a late reply but for posterity readers I was able to learn a lot from this article [1]. I'm still not certain how to interpret the 3rd graph in terms of relative work or cost for the 20% vs 90% enrichment levels.

[1] http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/nuclear-fuel-cycle/convers...

What about using this stuff for a dirty bomb?

It's not very radioactive, I've held weapons grade uranium in my hand before (well, it was in a metal container). It is chemically very toxic since it's a heavy metal, very similar to something like arsenic.

HEU isn't that dirty - nothing like as nasty as something as Cobalt 60 which is fairly widely used as a radiation source.

Just got through reading "The Dead Hand", which is the story of the end of the Cold War. Highly recommended for those interested in how it all played out.


It's frankly amazing that this hasn't happened much sooner. The amount of biological, chemical, and nuclear material lying around the former Soviet Union, basically guarded by people with starvation-level salaries and no future, was beyond alarming.

In fact, as bad as this is, the chemical and biological material was much worse. Some of that stuff could take out a city, then proceed to decimate an entire nation. Extremely scary stuff.

Some friends spent time volunteering at a charity in Russia in the early/mid 90s. When they went out, the charity had just been given an entire army base. Everything was left except the weapons – equipment, uniforms, personnel files, the lot.

If that's what a charity managed to acquire through official means, it's quite scary to think what others might have got their hands on.

And my friends got some very warm hats.

It was -- and is -- an insane period of time to live through.

What concerns me is that during the last days of the old Soviet Union, they knew the jig was up. They knew it was all falling apart.

So they started hiding stuff. Everywhere. Papers were destroyed. Chemical and biological weapons were taken out and buried.

So there's one problem with "dangerous stuff we know about and we're worried that it's not being protected well", then there's an entirely different (and more dangerous) problem of "dangerous stuff we never acknowledged existed and nobody has records for where it is any more."

luckily almost all biological and chemical weapons are not stable, and quickly degrade without sophisticated storage.

This is especially true of the most nasty stuff (nerve gas, viral agents, etc), which can break down within days of lacking precisely controlled refridgeration.

Thank you for reminding us of this. This was also in the book, and I forgot to mention it. It's a little ray of hope.

Of course, between CRISPR and the fact that much of the knowledge about these bio agents have been in people's heads for decades, there is still a considerable amount of risk in this area.

Also of interest is this table showing prior siezures (by law enforcement and government security agencies, I assume) of nuclear material, including over a dozen instances of highly enriched uranium (!)


Dang (or whoever is minding the store right now): A minor concern, but something is wrong with the time on comments:

* I posted the parent comment yesterday

* Currently, it says "2 hours ago"

* If I click "2 hours ago", the new page still says "2 hours ago"

* If I click "reply", the new page says "22 hours ago", which seems plausible.

It's because of the experiment I described here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10537417.

Not sure what to do about this. I suppose we can make the older comments keep their original timestamps and just be older than the timestamp at the top. That already happens when we merge threads anyway.

In some cases, articles that the HN staff find interesting are reposted at a later date if they don't 'connect' the first time around.

Holy shit. Where is all of this being sourced? Is this all "fall of the Soviet Union" stuff where someone wandered into a silo and took apart a bomb?

Given this list: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_states_with_nuclear_..., NK, Pakistan, India, Israel... To say nothing of the others... Every individual in every step in the supply chain is beyond corruption? Or blackmail? The door doesn't even need to be left open.

Israel is only "widely believed" to have nuclear weapons.

No they definitely have nuclear weapons. Relating to this article is the fact that Israel stole and smuggled 100kg+ of uranium from Pennsylvania http://thebulletin.org/did-israel-steal-bomb-grade-uranium-u...

A few years ago there was a report [0] listing weaknesses in the protection of nuclear material and smuggling possibilities.

[0] http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/print/2006/12/how-to-get...

It is curious -- it's not like enriching Uranium is easy. It's a very expensive process with incredibly low yields if I understand it correctly.

The USSR and the US have enriched probably a million tons of it by now, the EU has enrichment capacity of about 20,000 tSWU which they used to enrich Uranium to about 4% (some to higher levels for research/breeders/medical plants). They are the 2nd largest producer of low and high level of enriched Uranium in the world, and also due to various security blunders also helped to proliferate nuclear technology. It's expensive but it is still done at very high scales, heck feeding a 1000MW fast nuclear reactor today require much more enrichment than running a weapons program. That fact was actually was one of the main "fear factors" in the Iranian deal, they have a huge enrichment operation however oddly enough it would not be sufficient to drive a power program. The part of the nuclear deal with Iran was actually a bit ironic because cutting down on their centrifuge numbers means that they could not actually sustain a "civilian" nuclear program as they will not manage to enrich enough fuel to keep any commercial energy producing reactors running. So while they will be able to enrich uranium capping their centrifuges (at what 5000?) actually means that outside of research the only other use would be to make a bomb. And this is simply because bombs don't care about time lines, if you are running nuclear energy you need to be able to continuously feed it with fuel fast burning light and heavy reactors consume fuel at a very high rate so if you can't have an enrichment process which can keep up with your reactors the whole program is pointless. The nuclear deal with Iran pretty much means that they'll need to enrich Uranium for 2-5 years then run their reactor for 6 months till it burns out and repeat which is obviously nonsensical.

> The nuclear deal with Iran pretty much means that they'll need to enrich Uranium for 2-5 years then run their reactor for 6 months till it burns out and repeat which is obviously nonsensical.

So the deal was just for show? Surely both sides are aware of this specific issue?

It was mentioned couple of times on the news and in various places i would assume. A quick google search shows relevant result in the top findings from earlier this year.


Not sure what politifact's standing is exactly, from the Wikipedia page there isn't much contraventions surrounding it and it seems to be hated by both right and left wing so it might be "ok".

As for the Iran deal, well it is some what of a show it is a breakout state and always will be however it doesn't mean that the deal won't be effective if it will be used as a gateway for further political concessions within the state. For the time being Iran is not really owning up to the deal it's halted the dismantling of it's centrifuges http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/11/10/us-iran-nuclear-de... and it's just the recent hurdle in the implementation of the deal. The deal was a big win for the US as it needed to regain some form of legitimacy on the world stage and it at least gave them couple of more years till they'll actually have to deal with the issue, for Iran it's also not a bad delay even if they'll have to slow down the process if in fact they are building a bomb, as their delivery systems aren't complete and their long range missile program wasn't progressing at the same pace. If it will end up well or will it blow up in everyone's face only time will tell. The Iranian deal was inevitable China and Russia wanted it, and most importantly the EU was in desperate need for new markets and new energy sources especially with relations with Russia circling the drain. If the sanctions couldn't hold Iran could do what it wants anyhow, this way the US has at least some way to try to keep it accountable to something and at least some way to justify a military action if one would ever take place (even tho i doubt it could be ever considered successful, not at the usual expected costs as set by the US public anyhow).

Weren't breeder reactors solving that problem?

Yes, but they aren't that common* , especially in very large installation pretty much since the 60's and 70's most nuclear reactors that were build were light water fast reactors. The advantages of breeders started to fade away when the cost of enrichment dropped significantly and when new stockpiles of Uranium were found, after the fall of the USSR when Russia became an exporter of Uranium it made them pretty much non-viable. They are still used to create medical and research isotopes, and Plutonium for either weapons or for nuclear batteries. Today there are 2 maybe 3 actual breeder reactors that are used for commercial power production. Most next-gen reactor design are breeders, or breed-capable (you can alternate between power-production and fuel breeding cycles) but none of them were built as of yet.

*Pretty much all reactors are create new fissile material even in normal fission Plutonium is created in the fuel rods and about 30% of the thermal energy produced by a power producing reactor comes from PU decay and fission. But breeder reactors are ones that designed to breed fissile material from fertile material (reactor based enrichment) so they create more fuel than what they consume but they can't really be used to produce power at that time. Some reactors combine the 2 and they'll have a power producing phase and a breeding phase usually they'll have several cores and move the fuel around to either breed or burn it.

Thank you!

How much of that production between the US and USSR is weapons-grade?

If you have links or books to recommend that would be great.


I don't really know those numbers (not sure if anyone does, and you know various treaties make any numbers published debatable because the official should be 0 or very close to it) officially they aren't supposed to make any new weapons and they have to disassemble existing ones and to dilute their highly enriched uranium stockpiles (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, probably some others too). Uranium enrichment is usually measured in SWU's that's separation work units which basically means your capacity to separate Uranium with 1 ton of raw Uranium as the feeding source. Basically to get 90% or higher enriched uranium you need about 1000-1200 SWU's which will produce 5-6kg* of weapons grade uranium from 1 ton of raw feed. If you have en enrichment capacity of 20,000,000 SWU you should be able to produce about 100,000 tons of weapons grade uranium per year (enough for about 2000* non salted/boosted bombs)

As for books don't have anything on top of my head but this is a good source of info http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/nuclear-fuel-cycle/convers... The association of american scientists and similar organizations should also have plenty of nuclear related information. As I had to Google this earlier, and you might do it now, may I be the 1st one to welcome you to the watch list.

* may vary based on your enrichment process

* based on common publicly known weapon designs (50kg per fissile core) not sure how low an Uranium fissile core can get once you start getting into salting and multi staged fission.

Edit: Just to elaborate on the previous comment.

The difference in effort required between weapons grade and fuel grade uranium is almost negligible (this is why breakout is so easy for nuclear powered states). A 1000SWU on average will produce 5KG of weapons grade Uranium and about 100-120KG of reactor grade uranium. A 1000MW nuclear power plant needs about 75 tons of fuel per year (or upto 18 months depending on the burn rate), a bomb needs under 50kg of Uranium.

Perhaps they found a nuclear landmine and defeated the 1950's anti-tamper mechanisms.

It's kind of odd that uranium smugglers write each other sales reciepts and label the samples. It seems like something you'd want to downplay in your paperwork...

"The guard found a receipt, written in Cyrillic, for the purchase of “uranium 235,” and then, after pulling apart an air compressor in the trunk, found a lead container inside with that label on it."

Everything about this whole thing seems kind of implausible, and poorly substantiated by anonymous "intelligence sources." Kind of reminds me the Valorie Plame incident.

Ahem.. I mean, we should all be very afriad, and obey the nearest authority figure!

  trying to find a buyer for 39 kilograms of 
  highly-enriched uranium

  one kilogram of highly-enriched uranium for 
  roughly $36 million

  $330,000 as an initial payment

  a small glass ampoule ... containing a blackish 

  using genuine samples weighing a total of 5 
  grams as a lure

  dozens of such samples on its shelves

  meant to be the first of several shipments of 
  highly-enriched uranium totaling 10 kilograms
Doesn't sound like these are simple transactions. It's probably a bit of a horse trade to pawn off million dollar packages to people interested in murdering entire cities with nuclear fire.

Also, I'd imagine a "receipt" in this case is not merely a set of carbon slips in salmon, canary and goldenrod. There are probably code words, used to mask meaning and ensure authenticity.

But hey, you never know. Maybe it was just a coffee stained napkin with the following written on it in ballpoint pen:

  Dear Sergei,
  I.O.U. $360M - re: 10kg U235 4 bomb

If western intelligence knows about this and wants to get it off the black market, why don't they just buy it themselves? Surely the criminals selling it don't care where the money comes from.

Exactly. This makes no sense. If we think there is a enough to be concerned about, we don't want a terrorist to get it. Just by the stuff. 3 middle man have been arrested for delivering samples. How about just hire some Russian mobster to meet with the next middle man and get it off the street. Seems like they are too focused on catching the current owner of it which seems stupid to me.

> But no one in the West knows exactly who has this nuclear explosive material, and where they may be

Probably because of this.

I'm also quite certain that the criminals do care very much where the money comes from. Most criminals I know understand this is the difference between a pay day and a prison sentence.

Surely the US has a few spies with deep enough cover to pass as arms dealers? Or have I been watching too much TV?

I know.

Make a standing offer: the US will give a 110% price match for these materials, no questions asked, or between the US and Russian security services we'll do our best to shoot you in the head. Choose.

Maybe it's just not true that there are 50+kg of weapons grade Uranium are out there, somewhere. Maybe it's all just a couple of grams that were specimens of production runs.

I wouldn't be remotely surprised if this had happened several times already, quietly.

i'm guessing they are just waiting for the auction to be near the end so they don't have to spend too much outbiding the terorists.

speaking of that anyone manage to see when it ends? this new silk road redesign is really confusing me.

I'm interested in how technically difficult building an actual nuclear weapon would be if you got your hands on one of these samples. The idea that crazy islamic extremists could one day get their hands on this uranium and cause significant, extended damage is truly terrifying.

In the 60's the government enlisted two fresh physics PHDs to see if they could design a plausible bomb, as a stand in a random country. In they end they succeeded in creating a detailed plan, and it didn't even take them that long.

There's much more public info out there now, and machining has improved significantly in the past 50 years, so the main barrier to building a crude bomb is material rather than the expertise or machining.


And they designed the, much more complex, implosion style weapon rather than a simple gun based design.

You could probably 3d print a device now to a high degree of precision, after modeling it in SolidWorks.

I know 3D printing is fashionable these days, but is there a reason it would be any better than boring old CNC milling that's been around for decades?

I'd imagine that building a proper bomb, i.e. large and efficient one, is quite hard --- the geometry and timing of the implosion charges is complex, fiddly, and difficult to get right the first time.

However, building something which squibs, i.e. undergoes a partial criticality and goes bang in a reasonably large but not city-killing way, and spreading a bunch of radioactive material about, is probably much easier. (This is the 'dirty bomb' thing that was getting the press excited a couple of years back.)

(Fun fact: if you're locked in a room with a nuke on a timer, your best option is probably to beat the shit out of it with an axe. Provided you can physically damage it enough to upset the implosion geometry, it won't go off properly. Of course, you'll still die, but...)

> However, building something which squibs, i.e. undergoes a partial criticality and goes bang in a reasonably large but not city-killing way, and spreading a bunch of radioactive material about, is probably much easier. (This is the 'dirty bomb' thing that was getting the press excited a couple of years back.)

My understanding is that dirty bombs don't even necessarily undergo any nuclear reaction. You don't even need the right kind of material for them. It's just a traditional bomb with radioactive material strapped to it.

Mmm... fair point. I'd expect the nuclear bomb to do a better job of vapourising the plutonium than conventional explosives, but I don't know whether that would actually do more damage.

Maybe we're better off forgetting about a bomb completely. Grind it up fine, watch while it spontaneously catches fire (plutonium chemistry is weird!), dissolve the plutonium oxide in nitric acid, water down and then drive around the city spraying it into the air in a fine mist...

Think much more like a grenade; the dirty bomb is looking to use explosives to disperse and 'poison' an area with radioactive contamination.

It depends on exactly how much skill these guys have. It's trivially easy, compared to getting the weapons-grade materials in the first place. It's also impossibly difficult, compared to building suicide bomb vests and such. You do need enough of a science and engineering base to be able to build something new, based entirely on theoretical calculations, when you've never seen an example before.

If ISIS starts turning out their own rifles, ammo, truck repair parts, maybe some drones or something, or otherwise demonstrates dedication at a societal level to designing and building things, then I'd start to worry. As it is now, it's pretty hard to buy.

And speaking of potential damage, a nuclear blast is just the start of the potential issues. The real question, if somebody managed to pull that off, is how would the target of such an attack reply? How would the allies of that target think and expect, and how would any countries that are rivals to the target and/or allied/sympathetic to the suspected attackers react to the response?

With enough uranium and no expectation of high efficiency it is probably not too hard to build a gun type device and I think very well doable by a terrorist group. The tricky part is doing it with little material and high efficiency. And of course a dirty bomb is trivial but also not nearly as scary as often portrait.

Yep. Implosion devices are tricky and require serious hydrodynamic engineering, but you could build a "gun" or "layer cake" type device without too much expertise. They have the added "advantage" of being very dirty (inefficient).

It's pretty easy if you have resources. The hard part isn't building the bomb if you have weapons grade fissile material. The hard part is doing it without FVEY getting wind of it.

And yet I had gotten downvoted when I said that eventually there will be no privacy at all in cities, because it is too much of a problem. What can go wrong, will go wrong. You just have to wait for the first incident.

Even North Korea pulled it off. Nuclear weapons are 70 year old technology.

A dirty bomb would be trivial to create, but an actual nuclear device would require some serious expertise and hardware to create

The expertise and hardware would mostly be required to enrich the uranium up to weapons-grade levels. If you can get uranium that's already been enriched, you can skip all that. Hence the concern.

This is true for a modern bomb but not so much for something simple. Hell, you can take two subcritical masses and slam them together with your bare hands to start a chain reaction.

The two masses will blow themselves apart before much energy is released. You'll kill yourself but not do much damage. That's why gun-type bombs use explosives to drive the two pieces together.

Less terrifying as opposed to governements hoarding massive amounts of weapon-grade enriched Uranium?

It's terrifying that anyone has their hands on this material.

Unknown Russian black marketeer OR an unknown state's spy agency with a very effective honeypot for targeting and eliminating terrorist organizations? If the latter its a terrific self-funding operation taking some very bad people off the street. If you're going to worry about nuclear detonation then concern yourself with command and control of existing weaponized stockpiles. Stewarship is a challenge for developed nations, its got to be a nightmare for developing countries.

I don't mean to engage in conspiranoia here (and I highly doubt there's an overt conspiratorial explanation), but right now I'm finding 'murmurs' like this especially alarming.

When I look back at history, it seems like major economic turmoil is very often followed by outbreaks of major warfare or at the very least significant flirtations with major conflict. The Great Depression was followed by WWII, the decline toward the end of the 60s by the hottest period of Vietnam, the dot.com crash by 9/11 and Iraq, and the 2008 crash by the Ukraine crisis and what seems to have been a near miss between the USA, Russia, and possibly other powers. 2008 was also followed fairly shortly by the rise of ISIS and a re-heating of Iraq and its general region.

We're hearing a lot about an impending emerging market debt crisis, and we know China has gone to 'heroic' efforts to backstop its stock market and real estate markets against the first stages of what appeared to be an unfolding crash. It's entirely possible that another economic crisis is brewing in China and other 'emerging' markets, and it could be a bad one. If that's the case at some point it will exceed the ability of even China's autocracy to prevent it with currency and market manipulations.

As I led off with above, I doubt that there's an overt decision that happens. I doubt anyone says 'well, the economy's down so we better have a war!' Instead I suspect it's a bit like tectonic plates. When an economic crash happens it exacerbates stresses that are already present in the system and quite likely pushes some people and/or state actors over the edge. People often behave more desperately and irrationally under economic stress; you can see this in the willingness of former Soviet officials to actually distribute such deadly material during the waning days of the USSR. Not being able to eat is a powerful motivator.

Edit: not deleting this, but I hate to have posted it hours before hearing about Paris.

If this group has had enriched uranium for sale for the past sixteen years you would think that they would have sold it to North Korea or Iran a long time ago.

I don't think North Korea or Iran have much need of a single bomb's worth of enriched uranium. They have far more interest in producing their own.

It might be of use for a couple of reasons. One, you can compare the purchased material to that which you're trying to produce. Second, with the purchased material you can assemble and test-detonate a bomb, which not only causes other countries' intelligence agencies to question the value of their sources but gives you leverage in future negotiations.

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