The New Threat That Must Unite the World : Plutonium terrorism: International action is needed

Plutonium, named for the ancient god of the mythic underworld, is becoming a commodity in the real international criminal underworld. A larger threat than this to international security is difficult to imagine.

A highly radioactive element that did not so much as exist before nuclear technology first produced it in the 1940s, plutonium is one of the most toxic substances known to science. One ten-thousandth of a gram, inhaled, can cause cancer. A few ounces in an urban water reservoir could cause hundreds of thousands of deaths. And plutonium-239, an isotope of the element, is a key ingredient in nuclear bombs.

Weapons-grade plutonium has hitherto been under the military control of the world’s few nuclear powers. Nuclear non-proliferation has been a continuing theme in international relations not just because a nuclear attack anywhere would be a catastrophe but because of the terrorist potential of plutonium in civilian hands.

The recent arrest in Germany of Spanish and Colombian civilians on charges of selling black-market plutonium apparently stolen somewhere in Russia suggests that the terror many have warned of may be becoming a reality. Russia has denied that the stolen plutonium comes from its military inventory, and the plutonium intercepted by German security is in fact of reactor-fuel grade rather than high-quality weapons-grade stuff. Unfortunately, a U.S. Department of Energy test recently confirmed that, properly handled, even reactor-grade plutonium can be used to make a bomb; and for other terrorist purposes, reactor-grade plutonium is as lethal as weapons-grade.


The arrests in Germany instantly became a major German-Russian incident. Washington has protested to Moscow. To date, incensed Russian denials have yielded to only tentative cooperation. All this is worrisome: Even in the chilliest Cold War days, international civilian terrorism was one area in which East-West cooperation could usually be counted on.

Post-Cold War leaders must cooperate at least as well as Cold War leaders did. There may have been a breakdown in security at nuclear power plants in Russia and the other post-Soviet republics. Inventory control even at military installations may not be all it could be. But these problems exist in some form wherever plutonium exists, and they must be addressed as common problems, not offenses by one nation against another. Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary recently confirmed that 6,000 pounds of plutonium was unaccounted for in U.S. inventories. And terrorist theft of plutonium from U.S. nuclear power plants cannot be ruled out.

The German public has every reason to be particularly alarmed, but Americans have no reason for complacency. One of the plutonium smuggling suspects arrested in Germany is from Colombia. Islamic terrorist groups are increasingly active in Latin America. The United States has a notoriously porous, resolutely unmilitarized southern border. Preventing the unthinkable from happening calls for rethinking--in a hurry--the relations between crime fighting and national defense and between national and international security. Russia, this time--and for its own sake above all--has got to be an ally rather than anyone’s ancestral enemy. No nation stands to lose more than Russia if the gods of the underworld make plutonium their drug of choice.