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A race with the terrorists

It takes 55 pounds of highly enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb. Two Americans travel the globe to keep the fuel under wraps.

September 27, 2007|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

DA LAT, VIETNAM — Over the last three years, two U.S. nuclear weapons experts have quietly crisscrossed the globe, racing to secure bomb-grade uranium before terrorists can lay their hands on a single kilogram.

Andrew Bieniawski, 40, a boyish-looking immigrant from South Africa, has led the effort by the National Nuclear Security Administration, slogging from reactor to reactor trying to persuade foreign scientists and government officials to give up their highly enriched uranium fuel.

Igor Bolshinsky, 49, an affable Ukrainian immigrant who works for Idaho National Laboratory, is Bieniawski's right-hand man. He is away from his family in Milwaukee even more often than his boss, frequenting places like Uzbekistan, Libya and Kyrgyzstan.

"What is it, September? It's been 18 trips this year," Bolshinsky said.

What may seem like a simple idea to make the world safer by locking down nuclear bomb materials is actually a tangle of political details, technical arguments about transportation safety and complex international shipping licenses.

Knowing how to schmooze turns out to be an invaluable skill in the war on terrorism.

The two engineers scored their latest success less than two weeks ago: They moved nearly 10 pounds of highly enriched uranium from a reactor in Vietnam to Russia, where it will be blended down into commercial reactor fuel.

At the Da Lat reactor, Bolshinsky climbed on top of the yellow concrete core, watching rubber-gloved technicians carefully loading new fuel rods of lower-grade uranium into the cooling water. That night, he was up late in his hotel room composing a formal protocol for the fuel exchange the next day.

Meanwhile, Bieniawski, in a crisp, white shirt with an open collar, walked with his arm on the shoulder of Vietnam's senior nuclear scientist, assuring him that he was following the same path as U.S. and other Western research directors, helping to make the world safer.

The Vietnam trip, like many others, also required overcoming a few old antagonisms. In shipping the uranium out of Vietnam, it was the first time Americans had set foot on the old Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Ho Chi Minh City "since you bombed us," a Vietnamese military official lectured.

Bieniawski's team has conducted 13 missions to civilian reactors in former Soviet Union republics and client states, securing enough fissile matter to build 20 nuclear bombs.

Other missions have upgraded security at hundreds of hospitals and other sites with radioactive isotopes, including 14 U.S. universities. Purdue University in Indiana gave up its weapons-grade uranium earlier this month, and the last 11 university reactors are to be converted by 2014.

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Nuclear weapons experts like Matthew Bunn of Harvard University say the program, known as the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, is one of the most effective U.S. efforts to preclude nuclear terrorism, not to mention one of the cheapest.

Bieniawski's team has a budget of $115 million this year, just about what the war in Iraq costs every seven hours.

Will it prevent a catastrophic terrorist attack? Perhaps not, Bieniawski admitted.

"It is not a theoretical threat," he said in an interview inside the Da Lat reactor, while he watched Russian and Vietnamese technicians carefully packaging the highly enriched uranium fuel rods for shipment. "It is more than talk. We should never be too overconfident or arrogant to think that we have eliminated the threat."

That's not a gut assessment, but a conclusion based on secret intelligence reports on nuclear terrorism. And although the risks may be declining, he warned: "My personal view is that there is a likelihood in our lifetime there will be a radiological dispersal device or an improvised nuclear weapon."

A nuclear bomb requires at least 55 pounds of highly enriched uranium or 18 pounds of plutonium, according to unclassified estimates. An unsophisticated design would need far more material, yet still be powerful enough to flatten the downtown of a big city.

The odds, however, don't discourage him.

"It makes you work all the harder," he said with an ever-present enthusiasm. "Every kilogram we can get is one less kilogram that is out there."

A lot of highly enriched uranium and plutonium remains scattered across the globe. Belarus and Ukraine have stockpiles that they are not yet giving up. South Africa is holding on to its stockpile from a weapons program during the Apartheid era.

Bieniawski hopes that someday his South African heritage can help reclaim that material. His grandfather fled Poland during the German blitzkrieg of World War II, landing in London. British officials gave the Pole a choice of colonies for resettlement: India or Rhodesia. He chose Rhodesia, which later became Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Bieniawski's father became a university professor in South Africa but rejected Apartheid and refused to allow his sons to serve in the South African military.

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