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The US decides to oversee the removal of two nuclear weapons’ worth of nuclear material from the Vinca Institute in Serbia, part of a defunct Yugoslavian nuclear weapons program. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has cut funding for the government’s nuclear nonproliferation programs so drastically (see January 10, 2001 and After) that it is forced to rely on the efforts of a private foundation. The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), founded by former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn and media tycoon Ted Turner, contributes $5 million to the effort—double the funding contributed by the State Department. US and Serbian authorities, in conjunction with NTI, transport 5,000 rods of highly enriched uranium from the site, most likely to be stored at Russia’s Ulyanovsk Nuclear Processing Plant. “Serbia might have decided to sell this material to Iraq,” says national security expert Joseph Cirincione. “It’s a good thing for all of us that that possibility has now been eliminated.” When the operation is successfully concluded, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, whose department oversees the securing of “loose” nuclear material from around the world, learns of it through newspaper reports. (Nuclear Threat Initiative 8/23/2002; Dao 8/23/2002; Scoblic 2008, pp. 208)
“Suitcase nukes”—nuclear weapons that can fit inside a suitcase or duffel bag and be planted in buildings or football stadiums with relative ease—may be a staple of Hollywood movies, television shows such as Fox’s 24, and thriller novels, but in reality do not exist, says Vahid Majidi, the assistant director of the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate. Nevertheless, the idea is so prevalent in the American conscious that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has issued warnings about “threats” from such devices, warnings repeated on the White House’s Web site (see May 2006). Officials such as Majidi say that any such device would be highly complex to produce, require significant upkeep and cost a small fortune. Majidi and other counterproliferation officials do not believe such a threat remains today. “The suitcase nuke is an exciting topic that really lends itself to movies,” Majidi says, but “No one has been able to truly identify the existence of these devices.” The real threat, say Majidi and other officials, is from less deadly and sophisticated devices assembled from stolen or black-market nuclear material. But governmental sources have played up the threat. Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) once said in a hearing, “Perhaps the most likely threat is from a suitcase nuclear weapon in a rusty car on a dock in New York City.” And former representative Curt Weldon (R-PA) was known for carrying around a mock-up of a suitcase nuke made out of a briefcase, foil, and a pipe.
Origin of story - The story took hold in the public mind in the 1960s, based on information from Soviet defectors. The information leaked to the media, but no US officials ever actually saw such a Soviet-made suitcase device. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the US constructed a “backpack nuke,” called a Special Atomic Demolition Munition, to be used by two-man teams to destroy dams, tunnels, or bridges. These devices now only exist in museums. In 1997, retired general Alexander Lebed, the former national security chief of Russia, told reporters that Chechen rebels had portable nuclear devices. However, his story changed radically over time and Russian government officials said it was inaccurate, and he may have been misled by training mock-ups. Russian defector and former intelligence officer Stanislav Lunev wrote in 1998 that Russian agents had suitcase nukes inside the US in preparation for some future conflict. He testified before Congress, but never gave any specific information about such devices.
Technical problems - Colonel-General Viktor Yesin, former head of the Russian strategic rocket troops, said in 2004 that such suitcase nukes would be too expensive for most countries to produce and would not last more than several months because the nuclear core would decompose quickly. Laura Holgate of the Nuclear Threat Initiative says the biggest threat is from a terrorist cell that uses stolen nuclear material to improvise a device. Such a device would be, at its smallest, “[l]ike SUV-sized. Way bigger than a suitcase.” (Shrader 11/10/2007)
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