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Dirty Secrets

ISSUE:  Fall 2011
If a dirty bomb attack ever occurs, the radiological material is apt to come from the land of Chernobyl.


The moon is reflected in a puddle outside the locked-up Electron-Gaz plant in Zholtiy Vodi, Ukraine.
The moon is reflected in a puddle outside the locked-up Electron-Gaz plant in Zholtiy Vodi, Ukraine. Once one of the largest defense contractors in Europe, specializing in control systems for nuclear submarines, the company is now bankrupt, and its plant is abandoned.
The gas station in Zalishchyky where the Ukraine's state security service apprehended a regional legislator attempting to sell a container of plutonium-239.
The gas station in Zalishchyky where the Ukraine’s state security service apprehended a regional legislator attempting to sell a container of plutonium-239. (steve featherstone)

In April 2009, a regional Ukrainian legislator arranged a secret meeting at a gas station in Zalishchyky, a rural town 300 miles southeast of Kiev. He agreed to hand over a gray metal container emblazoned with a yellow and black radiation trefoil in exchange for $50,000. (The original ask was $17 million, but like everything in Ukraine, including government ministries, the price was negotiable). Not a bad deal considering that inside the container was 3.7 kilograms of plutonium-239, half the amount required to build a nuclear weapon.

The buyer was an undercover agent from Ukraine’s state security service (SBU). The SBU’s anti-terror unit swept in and seized the container, which was sitting on the floor of a Volkswagen microbus parked in the woods nearby, along with two of the legislator’s business associates. In a single operation the SBU had netted ten times the amount of all the plutonium-239 confiscated by authorities around the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to a database maintained by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The sting made international headlines.

Then the SBU issued a lab analysis of the container. Despite documentation suggesting it had been smuggled from a nuclear weapons facility in Tomsk, Russia, it held not plutonium but americium-241, a common radioisotope unsuitable for nuclear weaponry. Attempting to salvage something newsworthy from their six-month investigation, the SBU’s spokeswoman pointed out that americium-241 could be used to make what is known as a “dirty bomb,” a conventional explosive that disperses a radioactive payload. But the press had already moved on, and the Zalishchyky incident disappeared into the IAEA’s database to join the ranks of hustlers, scammers, and traffickers caught in similar schemes.

Two months later, Olga Makarovska, deputy chairperson of Ukraine’s State Nuclear Regulatory Committee (SNRCU), corroborated that the container indeed held americium-241. “How much?” I asked her as we sat together in her Kiev office. Half smiling, Makarovska pointed to the water-stained ceiling tiles of the dilapidated conference room.

“Smoke detector,” she said.

The other SNRCU officials sitting around the table, who had maintained a bland façade of bureaucratic detachment throughout the entire interview, stifled a few chuckles. Radioactive isotopes smuggled across international borders, a secret rendezvous in some post-Soviet backwater, undercover agents, a crooked politician, sleazy businessmen, a mysterious metal container, guys in SWAT gear shouting in Ukrainian. And what set all this intrigue in motion? A smoke detector. Funny, yes. Unprecedented, no.

Dhiren Barot, often described in the press as an Al Qaeda “mastermind,” is serving a thirtyyear prison term in Britain for conspiracy to commit murder by smoke detector. Pry the plastic shell off a common smoke detector and you’ll find a metal capsule no bigger than a watch battery that contains around 0.3 milligrams of americium-241. In a report to his Al Qaeda superiors, Barot estimated that 10 fellow jihadists cracking 10,000 smoke detectors would give him enough americium-241 to set aflame in a “busy area (Inshallah)”—and presumably poison the population. Ironically, Barot based his estimate on the work of Charles Ferguson, a physicist at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies who in 2003 published the first exhaustive report on commercial radiological sources and how they might be used in radiological dispersal devices (RDDs), as experts refer to dirty bombs. Although Barot cribbed verbatim from Ferguson’s report, his math was off. A workable RDD would require americium-241 from millions of smoke detectors, not thousands.

Soon after 9/11, national security analysts put the chance of an RDD attack in the US at about 40 percent within 10 years, yet there have been no terrorist attacks involving radioactive material of any kind, anywhere in the world. Assuming that the experts know what they’re talking about, and that the threat is more sophisticated than Ukrainian smoke-detector peddlers and Al Qaeda plagiarists, why haven’t we seen an RDD attack yet? Forget suitcase nukes. Where are the dirty bombers?

“That’s the question that’s been gnawing at me for years now,” says Charles Ferguson, who is now the president of the Federation of American Scientists. “There are some reasons for concern that they’re not all out there like Dherin Barot, who are saying, ‘Let’s just do a smoke detector bomb.’ We can’t count on all of them being remedial.”

If there was ever a place where any halfwitted, would-be mass-murderer could get his hands on radioactive material, that place is Ukraine. Much of Ukraine’s industrial base was tied to the Soviet military. One such company, Electron-Gaz, built control systems for nuclear submarines. It was among the largest defense contractors in Europe. Now it’s bankrupt. SNRCU’s 2007 annual report describes the company’s vacant plant in Dnipropetrovs’k as a “serious problem.” Until last December, 3,900 radioactive sources were scattered around the plant, with a cumulative total of 14,675 curies— a virtual supermarket of RDD material. For sake of comparison, the IAEA considers 1,600 curies of americium-241 to be a Category 1 radiological source, capable of causing permanent injury or death within minutes of exposure.

“There’s no doubt; we know Al Qaeda would like to get hold of something like this and light something up,” says Wayne Leach, who at the time was the deputy director of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), the agency responsible for cleaning up the Electron-Gaz facility.

I met Leach over a couple of beers one warm spring evening at an outdoor café in Kiev’s Independence Square. A tall, lanky, former Navy submarine officer, Leach declined to go into detail about ongoing GTRI projects because he didn’t want to give “the bad guys” any ideas, or screw up sensitive negotiations with Ukrainian authorities. Ukraine still had some hurdles to jump, Leach admitted, but it had come a long way in the past few years. He arranged for me to visit Izotop, a radiological storage complex on the outskirts of Kiev.

Lida, fifteen, finds shelter from a passing rainstorm in an abandoned athletic facility across the street from the old Electron-Gaz plant.
Lida, fifteen, finds shelter from a passing rainstorm in an abandoned athletic facility across the street from the old Electron-Gaz plant. Parts of the plant are now being salvaged for other commercial enterprises.

I had no reference point for what such a place should look like. This being Ukraine, I expected the typical Soviet brutalist architecture of concrete slabs and barbed wire. But when our van turned a corner and halted in front of a rusty steel gate, I thought we’d made a wrong turn at a scrap yard. The gate rattled open on lengths of creaking chains to reveal a dusty courtyard surrounded by brick warehouses. Volodmyr Motinov, director of Izotop’s main storage unit, stood in the shade of a lone tree to greet us. He had white hair and grave blue eyes, and he began with what had become a familiar ritual in my dealings with Ukrainian officials: a rote outpouring of gratitude for every US government agency that has ever spent a penny on a project involving him. I was flattered to learn that I was the first journalist ever allowed inside the “classified” storage building since it opened in 1968.

“I would like actually to apologize for all these years past,” he said through an interpreter. “It looks old now, and probably doesn’t meet all modern requirements.” In fact, the building’s design eschewed the very notion of modernity, and probably predated the invention of the vacuum tube. Made of red brick, it resembled a neglected railway station in some faraway province. Motinov swung open a heavy metal door and ushered us down a long, dim hallway. Wayne Leach could sense my misgivings.

“You have to look at it from the inside out,” he whispered as we put on white lab coats. “There’s a certain amount of delay built into the system.” Motinov swiped an access card (one of GTRI’s upgrades, Leach pointed out) in another metal door that opened to reveal a three-story vault about the size of a large high-school gymnasium. A raised concrete platform honeycombed with hundreds of storage casks ran all the way to the opposite wall. The cumulative curie level of the “targets” stored in the casks, most of them medi- cal isotopes, measured in the millions, more than enough to turn every major city in the US into radioactive ghost towns.

“Once again I would like to apologize for looking this way,” Motinov said.

I scanned the vault for signs of the “system” Leach had referred to, but I couldn’t see past the peeling green paint and crumbling plaster, the yellowed plastic sheathing on the floor that crackled underfoot, the streaks of rust and mold where water had leaked in from one corner of the glass-block windows. Then I spotted something white—a pigeon?—high up on the dingy wall behind me. On the ledge below it, a pile of fresh drill shavings. I realized it wasn’t a pigeon at all, but rather one of the new motion detectors GTRI had installed. There were cameras, too, but I didn’t see them.

I listened politely as Izotop engineers explained how radioisotopes were transported into and out of the vault. They invited me up onto the platform to observe as they lifted the thick concrete lid off a cask using a crane that moved on rails high above our heads. Inside the cask was a blue pail that looked like a five-gallon bucket of drywall plaster, except this one held iridium. An engineer attempted to carry the pail through the entrance, setting off an alarm. He stood in the doorway, smiling sheepishly as if to say, “See, the system works!”

I asked Motinov where he thought security could be improved. The perimeter and gate needed replacement, he said, glancing at Leach, but they lacked the funds to do this. GTRI’s strategy, Leach said once we were outside and out of earshot, was based on the premise that no facility was ever going to be 100 percent secure. Otherwise, nobody could get into it, including the workers. Security had to be applied in layers, from the inside out. Every layer, from the electronic access controls on the doors to the block of wood that prevented the crane from lifting the concrete lids off the storage casks, slowed down the bad guys long enough for the police to arrive.

The nondescript courtyard of Izotop, a radiological storage complex on the outskirts of Kiev.
The nondescript courtyard of Izotop, a radiological storage complex on the outskirts of Kiev. (steve featherstone)

“If somebody can jump the fence, however long it takes them to get over the fence into this building, that’s what you gain for the billions of dollars you spend on a perimeter,” he said. “They would love to have a perimeter, because, frankly—” Leach thought the better of it and diplomatically stopped his thought, but his point was clear. The Ukrainians would always ask for more assistance than what US and international programs had budgeted for them. And who could blame them? Aside from some dogs and armed guards, the only thing standing between Alexey Shertsov, Izotop’s affable chief engineer, and determined bad guys was a panic button that he carried around in his back pocket. It looked like a garage door opener. He handed it to me and said something in Ukrainian.

“You can press,” the interpreter said.

“Thank you,” I said, “but that’s not necessary.”

I wasn’t comfortable pulling a false alarm at the largest radiological storage facility in Ukraine. But Shertsov happily insisted. So I pressed the button. Nothing. No sirens; no helicopters. Satisfied, Shertsov grinned and led us into his cramped office. Sun streamed in through the flyspecked windows.

“Would you like tea or coffee while we are waiting for our brave police?” Shertsov asked. “I don’t offer you anything stronger because it is hot.” It was also ten o’clock in the morning, but that wasn’t a factor, apparently. He opened a tin of cookies and a box of chocolate candy that he kept in a battered filing cabinet.

We made small talk. I mentioned that I’d been up in Chernobyl the previous week. Izotop had played a big role in the disaster’s aftermath, Shertsov said. It was like a war. They sent equipment and drivers to the front lines. All the drivers were now dead of cancer, except one. “Because he drank a lot of vodka,” Shertsov said, only half-joking.

Two policemen appeared outside the door, sweating under their black bulletproof vests. Automatic weapons lay on the seat of their car. As Shertsov explained the situation, they eyed me suspiciously. To prove I was a journalist and not a terrorist with an Uzi hidden in my lap, I pulled out my notebook and asked a few innocent ques- tions. Were they made aware this morning that Izotop would test the alarm system? No. Were they nervous about coming out here? No. Have they come out here before? Yes, one of them sneered, when somebody accidentally pushed the panic button.

A lock hangs around an entry way into the old Electron-Gaz plant.
A lock hangs around an entry way into the old Electron-Gaz plant.

After the policemen left, I asked Shertsov if they’d ever had a break-in at Izotop. Not once in the thirty-five years he’d worked there had anyone tried to steal anything more valuable than some hand tools, he said. In the Soviet days, neither security nor safety was much of a concern. Powerful radioactive material was trucked around the country without so much as a sticker indicating the dangerous cargo. Leach later explained to me that Ukraine was still adapting to a Western “culture of security” that didn’t rely on state oppression to keep people in line. He’d witnessed Soviet security practices firsthand while working as a nuclear weapons inspector in Russia under the START I treaty during the early nineties.

“You could take a truck with nuclear weapons on it and you could drive it out into the countryside, and that’s the way they did it,” Leach told me. “They weren’t worried about security. They weren’t worried about protesters. Protesters? They would beat them down with a pazhalusta stick.”

The same lax attitude toward security was evident from the first assessment Leach performed in Ukraine for GTRI in 2005. Then, a building was considered secure “if somebody had welded two little pieces of metal with a hole in it and stuck a padlock on it,” he said. “There was no security, absolutely zero.”

Fancy electronics were all fine and good, but the best security was Izotop’s name, Shertsov insisted. “We are actually confident that regular robbers, as they read the title of our enterprise— Izotop—they would be scared to get in,” he said.

He was referring, of course, to Chernobyl, the memory of which lingers in Ukraine’s consciousness like a radioactive cloud, burning into the country’s mind a regard for public safety that borders on paranoia. When people stumbled upon abandoned or “orphaned” radioactive material, an SNRCU official told me, they immediately called the police. When materials were lost, damaged, or mishandled during everyday use, the workers responsible always reported the accidents and cooperated with investigators. A Ukrainian friend even refused to eat fresh strawberries I’d bought from an old babushka along the roadside north of Kiev out of fear they were radioactive. Ukrainians intimately understand the potential consequences of radiological terrorism because Chernobyl was, in one sense, the most catastrophic dirty bomb the world will ever see.

The term “dirty bomb” entered the public lexicon nine months after 9/11 when US Attorney General John Ashcroft boasted about the capture of “known terrorist” Abdullah Al Muhajir, or as we now know him, José Padilla, a mentally disturbed “Al-Qaeda operative” who made Dhiren Barot look competent. Ashcroft famously accused Padilla of planning to blow up a bomb that “not only kills victims in the immediate vicinity but also spreads radioactive material that is highly toxic to humans and can cause mass death and injury.”

This was, of course, an outrageous exaggeration, a swing at the rhetorical fences. Mushroom cloud! Maximum fear! “It was like a miniature nuclear weapon he was talking about,” said Charles Ferguson, who blames Ashcroft for creating confusion about radiological terrorism that persists today.

Such talk may have served some forgotten political agenda back in 2002, but today it is merely an obstacle to the serious work of combating the spread of WMD. Mike Curry, chair of the State Department’s Interagency Nuclear Trafficking Response Group, said that hyping the threat hinders international cooperation. “It creates a mystique about Americans, that when they’re talking about nuclear terrorism, others think that, ‘Oh, those Americans are just waving the bogeyman at us again,’” Curry told me. “Are they going to cooperate with someone who’s just fear-mongering? Or do we all want to take sensible, rational steps?”

Fear mongering wouldn’t have worked without a complicit press. Two weeks prior to Ashcroft’s 2002 horror show, the New York Times Magazine published a cover story entitled “Nuclear Nightmares.” The author, Times columnist Bill Keller, began with the certainty that people living in New York City or Washington, DC, would one day be “barbecued” by nuclear terrorists. Loose nukes were already a shopworn Hollywood plot device by then, but 9/11 had breathed new life into old frights. However, the probability of terrorists exploding a stolen A-bomb is infinitesimal compared to the likelihood of said terrorists blowing up a RDD, and that’s as true now as it was back when Ashcroft and Keller were evoking mushroom clouds before the smoke had even cleared from the World Trade Center rubble.

The fourth reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
The fourth reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

The credible threat is not as sexy, not as scary. But it is messy, ugly, dirty. “It’s so damn easy to do—that’s the troubling thing,” said Friedrich Steinhausler, a physicist at the University of Salzburg and custodian of the Database on nuclear Smuggling, Theft, and Orphaned radiation sources (DSTO), an open-source clearinghouse of illicit trafficking information maintained at the University of Salzburg, Austria. “And it’s so very expensive to clean up afterwards.”

Unlike nuclear weapons, RDDs would not turn cities into rubble or vaporize people by the millions. Take the Chernobyl accident. The initial explosion killed two people. Dozens more perished from high doses of radiation in the ensuing weeks. But hundreds of thousands received small doses of radiation, and an entire city had to be abandoned almost overnight. The economic burden to care for those affected by the radioactive fallout, and to remediate contaminated land, continues to be a tremendous economic drain on the economies of three countries twenty-five years after the disaster. That’s why RDDs are considered weapons of mass disruption.

Chernobyl doesn’t teach us anything about RDDs in practical terms. Short of crashing an airliner into a nuclear power plant—9/11 ring leader Mohammad Atta considered the idea unfeasible—there’s no way that terrorists could build an RDD that could achieve anything close to the levels of radioactivity released by tons of burning nuclear fuel. It’s an unfortunate historical irony that we know more about the consequences of a nuclear meltdown or detonation than we do the outcome of comparatively minor RDD attack, especially considering that the latter is easier to create and is more likely to occur.

“We will see radiological terrorism, I have no doubt,” Steinhausler said. “But we will not see it yet, and we will see it before we see nuclear terrorism.”

In Steinhausler’s view, a dirty bomb attack won’t happen until conventional modes of terror have exhausted their power to grab front-page headlines. Why should a group of terrorists suffer the added risk in constructing and planting a RDD? It’s far easier and almost as effective to blow up a crowded bus or subway car, as they have in London, Madrid, and Moscow. The arrests of three men suspected in a plot to bomb New York City’s subway system in September 2009, the unsuccessful attempt by the “underwear bomber” to bring down an airliner en route to Detroit, Al Qaeda’s nascent plans, discovered in the trove of information gathered from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, to attack the US rail system on the anniversary of 9/11—all seem to bear out Steinhausler’s theory.

But if terrorists are the rational criminals Steinhausler presumes them to be, the 9/11 attacks themselves don’t make a lot of sense. It was a maximum event that struck maximum fear; it was not preceded by, say, gradually escalating attacks on the citizens of New York City. And a RDD attack is one of the few events that could raise the high stakes set by 9/11. For a terrorist, it would be hard to beat the spectacle of thousands of people evacuating their homes and offices while workers in hazmat suits bulldozed landmark buildings in the heart of a major American city.

Two days before my visit to Izotop, the NNSA commissioned a new radiation detector at the Odessa airport; they invited me to attend the ceremony. But my flight from Kiev was cancelled. I ended up riding six hours in the backseat of a car driven by a skinny kid with purple acne scars and a MP3 player loaded with sappy American rock ballads jacked into the stereo.

“Bun joy!” he shouted, turning up the volume. I listened to the first few chords and realized he’d said Bon Jovi. “Eets my liiife!” He sang, slapping the shifter to the beat. “I am going to leeeve forever!”

The kid wasn’t a kid, just an underfed, overworked young striver who taught high school history and drove foreigners around Ukraine in his spare time to make extra money off the books. Reeling from the global recession and looted by well-connected oligarchs, Ukraine’s industrial economy was, and still is, in shambles. Where financial analysts saw an economic mess, however, the kid saw opportunity. Halfway to Odessa his eyelids began to flutter, and he roused himself by chugging from a liter bottle of fluorescent-green Fanta. I talked to him to help keep him awake.

“Who’s that?” I pointed to the picture of an Orthodox saint swinging in a plastic fob from his rearview mirror.

“Saint you not broke,” he said.

“Saint Christopher?”

The kid made a gesture as if to throw the Fanta bottle out the window. “Saint you not broke buddle,” he said, then muttered something in Russian.

“Saint of lost things—um, Saint Anthony?”

“Da! Da!” The kid said. A Guns n’ Roses song came on. The kid turned up the volume. “Don’t you cry tonight,” he sang as we hurtled through the dark.

The next morning I sat in the customs terminal at Odessa airport as a panel of officials lauded the new radiation detector NNSA had installed there. It wasn’t much to look at: a thin metal gate about eight feet high that scanned pedestrians as they passed under it. A red bow drooped on a length of ribbon knotted to each side of the frame. The first to speak was General Melnikov, deputy chief of the Border Guard Service. He read a prepared statement while the other dignitaries stared into space or rolled pencils on the table, waiting for their turn to bore.

Tracy Mustin, the director of the NNSA program that furnished the equipment, spoke next. She installed radiation detectors at key border crossings, seaports, and airports around the world, and she’d flown from Washington, DC, for the occasion. Then they cut the ribbon on the radiation detector while cameramen shouldered each other out of the way to get a close-up of the ceremonial scissors.

We clambered aboard a minibus and were soon winding along narrow country roads flanked by green fields of sunflowers and wheat bronzed by the scorching sun. Babushkas sat under umbrellas, selling strawberries and dried fish on strings. Mustin shed her blazer and pulled her blonde hair back in a ponytail. I asked her why NNSA was focusing on Ukraine. There were no terrorists here. Sipping from a bottle of water, she acknowledged that this was indeed the case, but terrorists were only one part of the threat.

“You have people with radiological material— they’re just in it to make money,” she said. “Then you have that whole stretch in the middle, the criminals. They’re sort of the connection between the people who have it and the people who want to use it to kill you.”

According to the DSTO, Ukraine—specifically, the Odessa region—is the only country outside of Russia where organized crime has dabbled in trafficking radiological or nuclear material. Right now the market is lopsided, dominated by sellers searching for buyers. The balance could shift radically if crime syndicates were to decide there’s real profit to be made; that is, if terrorists ever came up with the dough. The potential confluence of these two groups in a demand-driven market, where terrorists simply place orders with crime networks to get what they need to build a dirty bomb, or worse, an improvised nuclear device, is the most frightening scenario. And there’s some precedent for it. Terrorists already collaborate with criminals in trafficking drugs, the opium trade in Afghanistan being the most prominent example. It remains to be seen if the two groups will find mutual benefit in the radiation business, and few places rival Ukraine as an ideal location to set up shop.

“You can lie in bed at night and worry about what you don’t know, or what’s already gone on,” Mustin mused. “I hope that it’s still, for some groups, it’s still sort of a bridge too far.”

Our bus stopped at the Kuchurgan border checkpoint, about fifty miles west of Odessa. It was mid afternoon and over 100 degrees. Major Oleksandr Bizhan, the checkpoint’s commander, stood stiffly with his arms at his sides, hands balled into fists. He wore a short-sleeved white shirt and a bright green military cap with the circumference of a dinner plate. Beads of sweat rolled into his eyes as he spoke haltingly about the reliability of the checkpoint’s radiation detection equipment NNSA had installed last year, the first in Ukraine.

“This is a dream site,” Mustin whispered to me. “One way in, one way out.”

Kuchurgan straddles a main smuggling route to Transnistria, a semi-independent region of Moldova and a haven for drug runners, human traffickers, currency counterfeiters, and arms dealers. Last June, six men were arrested in Moldova— two were from Transnistria—for trying to sell 1.8 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU, or nuclear bomb-grade uranium-235) to undercover agents posing as buyers from a country in North Africa. Seizures of HEU are very rare, and very worrisome. In cases like this, more often than not the HEU turns out to be a more common form of uranium unusable in a nuclear weapon. But so far the initial police reports have not been contradicted. In a press conference announcing the sting, one Moldovan Interior Ministry official described Transnistria as a “black hole” where security services had no control over the black market. In fact, there aren’t even any border police on the Transnistrian side of the Kuchurgan crossing to filter the steady stream of vehicles and pedestrians that enter Ukraine every day.

“And now you will see the actions of the relevant personnel to respond in alarm,” Major Bizhan said.

The Lada jerked to a stop, and a man jumped out and began running across a field. Two border guards tackled him, hauled him to his feet, and dragged him back to their vehicle. It looked like a scene from a seventies spy movie.

A high-pitched whistle sounded, barely audible above the chirping barn swallows swooping over our heads. Four guards wearing berets and camouflage uniforms, black truncheons strapped to their backs, loped through lanes of stalled traffic, converging on a gray sedan at the back of the line. Dumbfounded passengers in the other cars craned their necks to see what was going on. The guards interrogated the driver and rifled through the trunk. Another guard stood to the side, pointing a pistol at the ground.

The performance went on all day. From Kurchugan we drove to a border station near Stepanivka. There was no checkpoint here, just a concrete blockhouse sprouting communications antennas. We were escorted into a stifling, windowless room lit by the soft glow of computer monitors. Sweating guards tapped on keyboards. This time I skipped the lecture and stepped outside to get some air. Parked in the courtyard was a van crammed with surveillance electronics operated by a young border guard. Using a joystick, he trained a remote camera on a grassy ridge about three miles away. The grainy image on his computer screen showed a boxy old Lada sedan approaching a border guard jeep. I could see them in the distance from where I stood, two sun-glinted dots converging on each other. On screen, the Lada jerked to a stop, and, to my surprise, a man jumped out and began running across a field. Two border guards tackled him, hauled him to his feet, and dragged him back to their vehicle.

It looked like a scene from a seventies spy movie, and the guard in the van even gave me a thumbs up. That’s when it clicked. The whole thing had been staged for the visiting Americans; it was another elaborate demonstration of hi-tech border policing carried out with impressive efficiency.

I found General Melnikov posing for pictures with the Stepanivka guards, and asked him what the Border Guard Service had seized using the new radiation detectors. The list wasn’t impressive: an old aircraft radio, some fertilizer, a camera lens, three capsules of spent cobalt-57 with improper documentation, and lots of scrap metal. None of it pointed to the involvement of terrorist or criminal networks. But wasn’t that the point, I asked, to catch bad guys?

“Everything is relative,” Melnikov said with a shrug. Ukraine shares a long border with Transnistria–Moldova, and only five of the seventy-five crossing points were equipped with radiation detectors. “Should we have more radiation systems installed,” he said, “inevitably we’ll have more detection of the radioactive material.”

In other words, give us more money and equipment and we’ll find more radioactive trash. Here’s the thing: radiation detectors are superb at discovering junk like this, but if smuggled nuclear material is well-shielded they don’t see a thing. The new generation of monitors will eliminate these shortcomings—at twice the cost—but nonproliferation experts are skeptical that better machines will deter terrorists or experienced traffickers. Machines can always be circumvented; guards can simply be bribed to switch them off. Even when they work, they can’t verify whether or not radioactive cargo is legal. Human beings still have that job for now, and they’re just as easily fooled as machines. Using fake documents, an undercover team from the Government Accountability Office drove two radioactive parcels into the US through portal monitors on our borders with Canada and Mexico in 2006. The few minor success stories where radiation detectors helped catch smug- glers may well have been deliberate attempts by crime groups to probe the detection capabilities at specific border crossings.

A lonely road near an abandoned uranium mine on the edge of Zholtiy Vodi.
A lonely road near an abandoned uranium mine on the edge of Zholtiy Vodi.

Tracy Mustin was the first to admit that radiation portals aren’t foolproof. But she didn’t see the point in quibbling over the radioactive material they snared, or who qualified as a bona fide terrorist versus an ordinary smuggler. Every micro-curie out of regulatory control added up to a potential RDD, and anybody caught smuggling radioactive material was linked down the trafficking chain to a potential terrorist.

“I mean, anybody who gets this stuff and makes a dirty bomb and blows it up is a terrorist,” she said.

Last September the SBU, Ukraine’s Secret Service, arrested four policemen for helping smugglers steal 25 tons of radioactive scrap metal from Chernobyl’s restricted zone, a deathly waste land an hour north of Kiev. The only remarkable aspect of this news was the revelation that there’s any scrap metal left in the zone to steal. “Recycling” radioactive metal, lumber, and bricks is a cottage industry in Ukraine. Three years ago, the SBU arrested members of a smuggling ring, including checkpoint police, who had attempted to steal a military helicopter that had been used to snuff out the nuclear fire in Chernobyl’s burning core. The smugglers planned to turn the chopper, which emitted radiation thirty times higher than the legal limit, into a theme café.

Radioactive scrap metal would be useless in making RDDs, but atomic entrepreneurs haven’t limited themselves to raiding Chernobyl for old radiators and broken-down helicopters. The literature on trafficking incidents, which at times reads like a blooper reel for the apocalypse, is filled with Ukrainians getting arrested with radioactive containers stashed in the trunks of their cars and hidden in their houses. The IAEA defines this class of traffickers as “economic opportunists,” but Kenley Butler, executive officer of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, prefers the term “country bumpkins.”

“One of the things that concerns many of us,” he said, “is that the security forces in the region are only getting the low hanging fruit, the people who are not very bright.”

Few law enforcement agencies have gathered up more of this fruit than the SBU. I met SBU deputy chief Oleksandr Palchuk and spokesperson Marina Ostapenko, along with an SBU translator, at the agency’s headquarters on a tree-lined street in central Kiev. The spacious room had high ceilings, polished wood trim, and tall windows that let in the afternoon light. I felt as if I’d entered a courtroom. In preparation, I had culled dozens of abstracts from the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s database of trafficking incidents. With additional information provided by SBU that wasn’t in the public reports, I hoped to piece together a picture of the radioactive black market in Ukraine—of who was buying what and why. But I didn’t get very far.

“It’s a kind of myth to find the buyers,” Palchuk said.

“Somebody somewhere must want this stuff to make a dirty bomb,” I said.

“Fairy tale,” said Ostapenko. “The aim of criminals is to make money, not to make dirty bombs.”

She described the black market in Ukraine as an unaffiliated group of con men selling radioactive stuff only to each other, jacking up the price with each transaction. Heedless of the danger the materials posed to them, they stored unshielded radioactive sources under their beds, for instance, or in refrigerators because they believed the cool air would keep the material fresh. Even if a final buyer didn’t really exist, I argued, even if there wasn’t, say, a rebel commander hoarding radioactive material in some rubble-strewn corner of Chechnya, the criminal had to believe such buyers existed. Otherwise, the material would have no value.

“They don’t even know where they are playing,” Palchuck said. “They are influenced by the radiation in big negative way. They can store at home.”

I understood the point Palchuk was trying to make. A true market required supply and demand. Ukraine clearly had supply covered—although SBU didn’t admit to this fact—but no real demand, just sellers hyping their wares to other sellers in what amounted to a game of very hot potato, a radioactive pyramid scheme. Pyramid schemes, however, are built on perception, on the faith that there’s another sucker waiting around the corner with a wad of cash. At some point reality was going to catch up with perception, I said, and the sucker around the corner might be connected to that rebel commander in Chechnya.

“It’s only a hypothesis,” Palchuk interrupted, waving his hand dismissively.

I shuffled through my stack of notes, looking for something to illustrate my point. I found an abstract of an incident that occurred in July 2008, on the highway to Boryspil airport east of Kiev. SBU had arrested two men (one a former policeman) for trying to sell an unspecified amount of cesium and enriched uranium. The part that caught my attention was this: “The sale was intended as a trial run to set up an illicit trafficking channel.” That sounded more sophisticated than a couple of bumpkins trying to unload a smoke detector. I handed the abstract to the translator, and as she read it, Palchuk began to smile.

“They did not create the channel,” he said.

“But they were trying to set one up,” I said. “Doesn’t that imply a demand for this stuff, or the involvement of a bigger group?”

The smile disappeared from Palchuk’s face. “The channel was eliminated,” he said. I tried a different tack. Could SBU give me a profile of a typical trafficker? Palchuk and Ostapenko laughed.

“As the last example in [Zalishchyky], even can be people’s deputy,” Palchuk said, referring to the smoke detector case. He provided a few unreleased details—for instance, the legislator believed he really had plutonium, as did the SBU.

“Where did he get the container?” I asked.

Palchuk declined to answer.

“Did the undercover SBU agent who bought it pose as a terrorist?”

Again, Palchuk declined to answer. Such details were sensitive to the ongoing investigation, he said.

Zalishchyky was a standard trafficking incident, but it also happened to be the first to fall under Ukraine’s recently amended criminal code that imposes harsher penalties according to European legal standards. If Ukraine hoped to become a member of the European Union, it had to clean up its act. Zalishchyky was a test case, and Palchuk was like a cop at a crime scene, standing behind the yellow tape, telling onlookers to move along, everything’s under control, nothing to see here. Maybe he was right. Maybe there was nothing to see here. Maybe Ukraine was the dirty-bomber bush league, where amateurs hatched their hare-brained schemes under SBU’s watchful eye. Maybe the real talent is brooding over crates of plutonium in the terrorist haven du jour—Yemen, Ingushetia, Somalia— stroking their beards and waiting for the right moment to strike.

In April 2010, Ukraine agreed to return 160 kilograms—enough to build about six nuclear weapons—of HEU to Russia for disposal. It was the only concrete progress to come out of President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit, where forty-seven nations signed a gentlemen’s agreement to better secure vulnerable nuclear material against the terrorist threat. Ukraine had long ago repatriated the nuclear warheads it had inherited from the Soviet Union, but it hung on to the HEU as a bargaining chip. The strategy paid off. Obama asked for a 67 percent increase ($225 million) in GTRI’s 2010 budget, a big chunk of which will go toward helping Ukraine put the last of its HEU on a plane bound for Russia.

It won’t be nearly that simple to secure the world’s—to say nothing about Ukraine’s—supply of radiological material. For one, there’s a lot more of it, in virtually every country. Two, we don’t know where it’s all kept. And three, we need it to zap cancers, sterilize food, inspect welds, drill for oil, and so on. You can’t say the same thing about nuclear weapons. The world would get along quite nicely if all the plutonium and HEU disappeared over night. And yet, radiological and nuclear nonproliferation efforts are lumped together, as if the mechanisms for preventing terrorists or “rogue states” from acquiring nukes (e.g., arms control treaties) work just as well for dirty bombs. Until we disentangle the two, dirty bombs will always be the ugly, neglected, and ever-present stepsister standing in the shadow of the mushroom cloud.

Oleg, a Zholtiy Vodi resident, walks his dog Kira down the cracked sidewalk across the street from the Electron-Gaz plant.
Oleg, a Zholtiy Vodi resident, walks his dog Kira down the cracked sidewalk across the street from the Electron-Gaz plant.

The day before I left Ukraine, I rented a car and drove from Kiev to Zalishchyky. I didn’t expect to learn anything new about the case; I just wanted to see the place where, for a brief moment at least, the SBU had seized the largest amount of fissile nuclear material since the end of the cold war. Perched on a bluff above a bend of the Dnieper River, Zalishchyky is an ancient town in a poor region of Ukraine that appears to have reverted to its days as an outpost in the Ottoman Empire. I stopped at a ramshackle outdoor market in the shadow of a crumbling Orthodox church to ask directions to the gas station SBU had identified. Babushkas with gnarled hands sat behind tables of strawberries, cheese, and used shoes. They didn’t understand me, so I bought some strawberries and drove around eating them until I found the gas station on the edge of town. I parked the car and got out to stretch my legs. A horse-drawn cart pulled up to the fuel pumps. In the adjacent fields, old men and women worked rows of crops with carved wooden rakes and hoes. A stray dog sniffed around my legs and ran away barking when I tried to pet him.

I got lost on the drive back to Kiev and ended up on secondary roads that dipped and curved through a vast rolling landscape of golden wheat fields fringed with bright red poppies. Apart from the occasional abandoned collective farm, I saw little trace of the old Soviet Union. I could’ve been in North Dakota. It occurred to me that there were probably empty nuclear missile silos buried somewhere beneath the wheat fields. It brought to mind a conversation I had with Wayne Leach a few days earlier. We had been walking in a part of Kiev where steep, winding streets bustled with vendors selling Soviet-style kitsch made in China. In less than twenty years the cold war had been reduced to a refrigerator magnet.

“When I was in nuke subs,” Leach had said, fingering an enameled hammer and sickle lapel pin, “I thought we’d be bombing these people.” Having grown up in the seventies and eighties, I knew exactly what he meant. As I basked in nostalgia for an era when nuclear annihilation seemed plausible, even inevitable, a policeman stepped into the middle of the road, waving an illuminated baton. I hit the brakes and swerved around him, unsure if I should pull over. The policeman was already talking when I rolled down the window.

“Americansky,” I said.

He took my passport and ordered me out of the car. Instinctively, I pulled all the American cash from my wallet and most of the Ukrainian bills, and slid the wad under my seat. The policeman gave my passport to his partner, an oily-skinned kid wearing a uniform two sizes too big. I sat next to him in the front seat of their shabby police car, cigarette butts on the floor at my feet. From what I could understand of the kid’s very limited English, I’d been speeding. The kid pointed to the violation number on a form and underlined the fine amount next to it. I shrugged. The kid sighed and scribbled a number on the back of his notebook. Then he underlined it and added dollar signs. I shrugged again. Outside, his partner paced around the car in circles, swinging his baton.

“Breeba,” the kid shouted. “Breeba!”

“Bribe?” I said.

“Brr-eye-buh,” he said. “Tak.”

The kid’s partner turned his back to us, his shoulders shaking from laughter. I couldn’t play dumb forever, and I respected the kid’s honesty. I gave him all the Ukrainian bills in my wallet and apologized for not having American dollars. His eyes widened. I almost felt bad for him as he counted the money, which amounted to about seventy-five bucks—cheaper than a New York City parking ticket. But the back of the kid’s notebook had a lot of numbers scrawled on it. I wasn’t the first guy he’d shaken down, nor would I be the last.


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