Tracking the Stuff That Bombs Are Made Of

Sixty years ago, the United States triggered the nuclear arms race with the former Soviet Union by dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima. Now America and its former foe are engaged in a sometimes-clandestine and always-expensive effort to prevent terrorists from getting the stuff that bomb was made of.

“We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe and the threat is outrunning our response,” former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn said in a recent speech.

The Hiroshima bomb, which killed more than 100,000 people on Aug. 6, 1945, used highly enriched uranium as its explosive, unlike the plutonium bomb tested three weeks earlier at the Trinity site in New Mexico or the bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later, on Aug. 9, 1945.

The Hiroshima bomb was a simple “gun” device that fired one block of uranium at another block of uranium. Weapons-control experts say this is the type of atomic bomb that is within the means of a terrorist group like al Qaeda to make, if its operatives could steal or buy about 55 pounds of highly enriched uranium.

Fortunately, that’s still a big if.

“It’s not a trivial amount of material,” said Doris Ellis, director of International Security Programs at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M. “And it’s particularly deadly to deal with and essentially unusable if it’s been irradiated for a long period of time.”

Still, the world is a target-rich opportunity for terrorists seeking bomb-grade uranium. The United States saw to that _ and the Russians, the French, the British and the Canadians.

Six decades ago, it took a crash program and thousands of workers at Oak Ridge, Tenn., to enrich enough uranium for scientists at New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory to fashion into the Hiroshima bomb.

But in 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower announced that the United States would donate reactors and bomb-grade uranium to other countries.

Eisenhower’s advisers mistakenly believed there was only a small amount of uranium in the world that could be mined. So he reasoned that giving it away for peaceful purposes would actually limit the uranium available for bombs.

The Atoms for Peace program distributed research reactors and uranium to more than 40 countries, including Iran.

Not to be outpaced, the former Soviet Union gave away uranium to its client states. Canada sent a research reactor to India, which used it in a weapons program. France sent a research reactor to Iraq, the one Israel bombed in 1981.

In the last decade, the United States has helped convert 40 research reactors to low-enriched uranium, like the kind used in nuclear-power plants.

But 150 research reactors in the world still use highly enriched uranium, including at eight U.S. universities. After 9/11, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordered the universities to upgrade their security.

The University of Florida and Texas A&M will convert their reactors to low-enriched uranium in 2006. The Senate Appropriations Committee added another $7 million to President Bush’s budget to speed up conversion of reactors at Purdue, Oregon State, Washington State and the University of Wisconsin.

But two other university reactors, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and the University of Missouri in Columbia, cannot stop using highly enriched uranium until a new type of low-enriched uranium fuel is developed, according to the Energy Department. Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois is working on the problem.

And under the energy bill the president is expected to sign in Albuquerque, N.M., on Monday, the United States will continue exporting highly enriched uranium rods to plants in Canada and Belgium that make radioisotopes.

Companies representing the makers and users of radioactive dyes told Congress that those rods are the only source for the solutions injected by U.S. medical professionals into patients an average of 34,000 times a day for brain scans, bone scans and other diagnostic tests.

But it’s the uranium behind what used to be the Iron Curtain that has U.S. experts most worried. All of the 10 thefts or attempted thefts of bomb-grade uranium tracked by the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1993 to 2003 involved Russia, former Soviet states or Eastern Bloc countries.

The Soviet Union was so unconcerned about the risks of terrorist-created bombs in the ’50s and ’60s that it used strontium-90, a dangerously radioactive isotope, to power lighthouses and plutonium in navigation buoys.

The Soviet navy stored uranium fuel for its nuclear submarines in 20 different locations across 11 time zones, said Sandia’s Ellis.

“If I was a terrorist, I would have gone there first,” said Ellis. “We’ve removed all that fuel into two hardened facilities where it’s protected around the clock.”

The National Nuclear Security Administration has claimed other victories after usually secret missions. The United States has repatriated more than 238 pounds of uranium to Russia from seven countries _ Libya, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Uzbekistan, Latvia and the Czech Republic.

It’s also brought back more than 2,600 pounds to the United States for conversion.

The Department of Energy is budgeted to spend almost $1.5 billion on non-proliferation activities this year. But experts say a lot more needs to be done.

“The most urgent need is to make sure it’s all safe and secure,” said Laura Holgate, vice president for Russia/New Independent States Programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a group co-chaired by Nunn and CNN founder Ted Turner.

One-third of the research reactors using highly enriched uranium cannot convert to low-enriched uranium and some countries, like Pakistan, are unlikely to convert, she said.

While uranium is the most likely terrorist option for a nuclear bomb, they could use even small amounts of plutonium or other radioactive isotopes like cobalt-60, which is used to irradiate food products, in combination with conventional explosives to make a so-called “dirty” bomb.

Dirty bombs do not cause a nuclear explosion, but people could develop cancer if they breathe the particles. Experts say the major problem is the psychological fear of radiation and the cost and disruption of cleaning up contamination.

If a dirty bomb had been used in the London tube attacks, “boy, would you have a mess,” said Ellis.

(Contact James Brosnan at BrosnanJ(at)