You are viewing an obsolete version of the DU website which is no longer supported by the Administrators. Visit The New DU.
Democratic Underground Latest Greatest Lobby Journals Search Options Help Login

An atomic threat made in America [View All]

Printer-friendly format Printer-friendly format
Printer-friendly format Email this thread to a friend
Printer-friendly format Bookmark this thread
This topic is archived.
Home » Discuss » Archives » General Discussion (1/22-2007 thru 12/14/2010) Donate to DU
n2doc Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Jan-28-07 10:11 AM
Original message
An atomic threat made in America
Advertisements [?]
An atomic threat made in America
How the U.S. spread bomb-grade fuel worldwide and failed to get it back

By Sam Roe
Tribune staff reporter
Published January 28, 2007

Tribune special report: How the U.S. spread bomb-grade fuel worldwide and failed to get it back.

The urgent call reached Armando Travelli in Vienna.

Get to Romania as soon as you can, the voice on the phone told Travelli, an Argonne 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, Romania secretly used the reactor and the enriched uranium 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.


Washington's bungled moves

America didn't give away its most potent fuel--not at first.

The Eisenhower administration decided to supply foreign nations with only low-enriched uranium, which would be far less useful to bombmakers. But in the early 1960s, when reactor operators complained about the fuel's effectiveness, the U.S. government started providing highly enriched uranium instead.

"That was dumb--to send the easiest material in the world from which to make nuclear bombs to civilian facilities all over the world," said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear fuel expert and science adviser to the Clinton White House.

America initially provided this dangerous uranium fuel with the provision that foreigners return the used material, which remained weapons-grade. But in 1964, the Johnson administration started selling the fuel with no such requirement.

Photo: Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi examines a rock at a nuclear test site in southeastern India in 1974.

After India detonated its first nuclear weapon, built with the help of a reactor from Canada and heavy water from America, everything changed.

Suddenly, the U.S. wanted its most valuable nuclear material back.

One of its first attempts played out 10 months later, in 1975, at the end of the Vietnam War. Two federal nuclear engineers volunteered for a daring raid in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. The mission: rescue bombmaking plutonium from a research reactor supplied by the U.S.

With sniper fire crackling all around, the engineers sneaked inside the reactor, packaged the material and were airlifted to safety. Hours later, the Viet Cong overran the area.

Printer Friendly | Permalink |  | Top

Home » Discuss » Archives » General Discussion (1/22-2007 thru 12/14/2010) Donate to DU

Powered by DCForum+ Version 1.1 Copyright 1997-2002
Software has been extensively modified by the DU administrators

Important Notices: By participating on this discussion board, visitors agree to abide by the rules outlined on our Rules page. Messages posted on the Democratic Underground Discussion Forums are the opinions of the individuals who post them, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Democratic Underground, LLC.

Home  |  Discussion Forums  |  Journals |  Store  |  Donate

About DU  |  Contact Us  |  Privacy Policy

Got a message for Democratic Underground? Click here to send us a message.

© 2001 - 2011 Democratic Underground, LLC