The specter of nuclear warfare waged by North Korea or Iran has hung over the world in recent months. But beyond that fear and foreboding looms a more far-reaching threat: the vast amount of nuclear bomb-grade material scattered across the globe.
And it wasn’t Kim Jong Il or the ayatollahs of Iran who put it there. America did. For a time, in a misguided Cold War program called Atoms for Peace, the U.S. actually supplied this material–highly enriched uranium, a key component of nuclear weapons. The Soviets followed suit.
The threat still posed by these stockpiles, particularly in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, is so dire that the keepers of the Doomsday Clock cited the issue as among their chief concerns this month when they moved the iconic measure of global security closer to midnight.
Just last week, Georgian authorities disclosed they had caught a Russian man trying to sell uranium he had hidden in two plastic bags in his pocket–an unsettling reminder of how easy it is to smuggle this dangerous material.
Yet decades of fitful commitment by the U.S. government to retrieve bomb-grade uranium have left the world no safer, a Tribune investigation has found. Today, roughly 40 tons of the material remains out of U.S. control–enough to make more than 1,400 nuclear weapons.
For a quarter-century, as the U.S. struggled to persuade friends and enemies alike to return the uranium in exchange for safer material, a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago led the effort.
His undertaking, one that spanned six continents, mirrors America’s troubled quest to reverse a mistaken policy that imperils the world to this day.
The urgent call reached Armando Travelli in Vienna. Get to Romania as soon as possible, the voice on the phone told Travelli, a U.S. scientist-turned-diplomat. Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu is considering returning the bomb-grade uranium America had given him.
Within days, Travelli stepped inside a sprawling nuclear research reactor in the southern Romanian city of Pitesti. There he saw firsthand the chilling consequences of using highly enriched uranium to cement alliances with backwater dictators.
He watched as one worker reached into a pipe and nonchalantly pulled out a spaghetti-like jumble of electrical wires. Later, he learned that other workers had wedged a hunk of wood between two uranium-filled rods to keep them from jostling in the reactor pool. The makeshift repair backfired when the wood swelled and couldn’t be removed.
But Travelli, who shuttled back and forth to the facility from Chicago for several years in the 1980s, didn’t know the worst of it. When his mission bogged down, the Romanians not only held on to the highly enriched uranium, they secretly used it and the reactor to help separate plutonium–the first step in building an atomic bomb.
Ceausescu has long since faced a firing squad, and his successors disclosed the secret effort. But a quarter-century after Travelli’s first visit to the reactor, some of the dangerous material remains there. Romania is but one example in a world that reverberates from the fallout of the United States’ Cold War folly known as Atoms for Peace, a program that distributed highly enriched uranium around the world.
That uranium was intended solely to be used as fuel in civilian research reactors. But it is potent enough to make nuclear bombs and can be found everywhere from Romania, now a crossroads for nuclear smuggling, to an Iranian research reactor at the center of that nation’s controversial nuclear program.
Three dozen other nations also obtained highly enriched uranium from the U.S. Then in 1974 India set off its first nuclear weapon, and America scrambled to get the bomb fuel back–an effort led by Travelli out of Argonne National Laboratory near southwest suburban Lemont.
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, gave the mission a new sense of urgency: For terrorists or rogue nations, highly enriched uranium is by far the easiest way to build a nuclear bomb. Only 55 pounds are required. Double that and terrorists would need only limited technical skill to slam two pieces together to start a chain reaction–the same technique used in the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Even since 9/11, though, the worldwide mission to retrieve this uranium repeatedly has fallen short. Now, through exclusive access to the government archive chronicling the effort, the complete story behind that failure can be pieced together for the first time.
When Travelli embarked on his quest in 1978, he thought it could be accomplished with relative ease, taking maybe five years. He was wrong. In the middle of Rome sits one of the city’s most famous fountains: the marble and bronze Fontana delle Naiadi, depicting four nymphs riding a swan, snake, horse and dragon.
During the waning days of World War II, when Armando Travelli was just a boy, he and his mother would stop at the fountain on their way home from church or while walking in the neighborhood. “I wish you could see it with the electricity on,” he recalled her telling him. “It is so beautiful with lights and the water running.”
“What’s electricity?” he had asked. With the war on, he had known only candles.
When the conflict ended after the U.S. dropped two atom bombs on Japan, Travelli became part of the nuclear generation that grew to fear atomic energy but also marvel at its power. U.S. officials predicted nuclear bombs would blast holes for harbors, and electricity would be so cheap it wouldn’t be metered. Travelli envisioned cars, boats–even his neighborhood fountain–powered by the atom.