While discounting the latest reports of Osama bin Laden's nuclear capability, weapons experts warn that the United States is doing far too little to safeguard bombmaking materials around the world, heightening the risk of a nuclear terrorist attack against America.
Security gaps, poor inventory records and excess plutonium production are not being fully addressed, they say, particularly in Russia and other republics that were once part of the Soviet Union.
"The U.S. has been complacent," said Matthew Bunn, an expert on nuclear theft and a White House adviser in the mid-1990s. "We need to be moving as rapidly as humanly possible to make sure that all the nuclear material worldwide is secure and accounted for."
In recent days, there has been considerable speculation over whether bin Laden, the alleged mastermind in the terrorist attacks, has a nuclear bomb. He told a Pakistani reporter that he possesses nuclear weapons, according to an account of the interview in Pakistan's English-language paper Dawn. And a Times of London journalist reported finding papers in an abandoned house in Kabul, Afghanistan, said to contain instructions on how to build a nuclear device.
U.S. experts and the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations body that monitors nuclear programs, said they have long believed it is highly unlikely bin Laden or other terrorists have nuclear arms.
What is more likely, they said, is that terrorists could make a "dirty bomb"--a conventional explosive packaged with radioactive material to contaminate a portion of a city and cause wide panic.
Officials also believe that bin Laden wants to acquire nuclear bombs and that there is an active black market for the materials needed to make the weapons. In January, an Energy Department task force said the most urgent unmet national security threat was the risk of nuclear weapons or material in Russia falling into the wrong hands.
`An unacceptable risk'
While the U.S. has spent millions of dollars on the problem, resulting in significant improvements, the effort has not been enough, leaving "an unacceptable risk of failure and the potential for catastrophic consequences," the task force said.
The General Accounting Office, Congress's investigative arm, has come to similar conclusions. In February, it reported that hundreds of tons of nuclear material in Russia was inadequately protected.
"At one nuclear facility that we visited, an entrance gate to a building containing nuclear material was left open and unattended by guards," the report stated.
Experts expressed doubt, however, that terrorists have nuclear bombs for several reasons. Despite some security concerns, ready-to-launch warheads are well-secured by the nations that own them, they said. The materials needed to make nuclear weapons are easier to obtain, but building a bomb from scratch is expensive and extremely difficult.
"Saddam Hussein couldn't succeed with almost unlimited resources in a 10-year effort, so we don't see how in the caves of Afghanistan you would be able to do that," said David Kyd, a spokesman for the atomic energy agency.
If terrorists did possess a nuclear weapon, they would have to find a way to deliver it and detonate it--again, no easy matter.
Making a nuclear bomb requires about 50 pounds of highly enriched uranium or 16 pounds of plutonium. To date, authorities have never caught smugglers with that amount of material, Kyd said. "What we have been seeing is typically just a few ounces," he said.
Since 1993, 175 cases of trafficking in highly enriched uranium and plutonium and 201 cases of trafficking in medical and industrial radioactive materials, such as cobalt, have been reported to the agency. "That may be only the tip of an iceberg," Kyd said.
Rose Gottemoeller, the Energy Department's assistant secretary for non-proliferation and national security in the Clinton administration, cautioned that the nuclear trade is not like the huge drug trade, where only a fraction of the contraband is intercepted.
"We are looking at a kind of boutique market with very few interested customers and a relatively small amount of material moving illicitly," she said.