America’s loose nukes: who’s reckless now?

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Over here in the good old US of A, we like to think that we have it all together, that words like reckless, backwards, incompetent, irresponsible, unreliable, and rogue belong to other nations, particularly those of the developing and/or Middle Eastern variety. This is particularly true when it comes to the big, bad nuclear arms issue and the question of who has the right to possess, and theoretically, wield them. In this country’s warped cosmology, it’s entirely cool for us to have nuclear weapons (5113 of ’em, in fact), and it’s also cool for some of our equally civilized allies to have them (I’m talking about you, Israel, France, and the United Kingdom). But it’s decidedly uncool for all those dusty cowboy countries to the east even to contemplate getting their hands on some nukes, because unlike us*, those reckless hot-heads are liable to use them or, at the very least, lose them. In fact, we’re so sure they can’t handle the responsibility, we’ll go to war (or claim we’re going to war) to make sure they don’t have them!

And yet.

A stunning report published last week by the Government Accountability Office (and flagged by Mother Jones) has revealed that the United States is “not fully able to account for US nuclear material overseas,” including separated plutonium and more than 16,000 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium. That’s right, the US effectively lost track of thousands of kilos of deadly “weapon-usable” material that it lavished over several decades on such currently- and formerly-friendly countries as Colombia, Chile (during the chummy Pinochet years), South Africa, the EU nations, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, China, Egypt, Iran (during the cozy Shah era, I presume), India, Pakistan, South Korea, and Israel, of course. The countries are supposed to use this material for “peaceful” purposes.

Given the profoundly dangerous (and coveted) nature of enriched uranium and separated plutonium, one would think that the US would keep sedulous track of how it is used, what happens to it, whether it’s secured, and so on. But one would thing wrong. Despite blandishing kilo upon kilo of radioactive matter on dozens of countries, allegedly for peaceful purposes, the United States does not require its partners to report on the status of the “inventory,” nor does it have a policy of tracking this inventory. In 1992, Congress did order the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to submit a report detailing  the location, status, and use of its highly enriched uranium exports, but this request resulted in little more than a bureaucratic shrug: when the NRC reported its findings to Congress, it stated, effectively, that it couldn’t produce the required information in the required 90-day time-frame. No other follow-up was ever attempted. In fact, it was only through the recent efforts of the Government Accountability Office, which actually bothered to tabulate the skeletal findings of the 1993 report, that it was discovered that the US could account for only 1160 kilograms of the estimated 17,500 kilograms of highly enriched uranium still floating abroad.

So who’s reckless now?

Actually, this isn’t the first time the US has lost track of its nuclear material. Over the decades, the self-appointed guardians of our nuclear fate, the politicians and bureaucrats who presume to stand in loco dei, have lost, temporarily misplaced, or otherwise fumbled countless (literally) nuclear warheads, weapon parts, and weapons-grade materials. In 1958, for instance, the US lost a hydrogen bomb, packed reportedly with the destructive power of 100 Little Boys, off the coast of Savannah, Georgia, never to retrieve it. Eight years later, a B-52 loaded with four hydrogen bombs crashed near the Spanish coast, sending three of the bombs hurtling toward the fields of Palomares, where they didn’t exactly detonate but they did spew radioactive material, and one bomb tumbling into the ocean. That bomb went missing for 80 days. Another nuclear bomb disappeared forever beneath the harsh ice of Greenland in 1968, another remains buried in a North Carolina swamp, and so on and so on, for a total, according to one count, of 11 unclaimed nuclear weapons.

Along the way — in fact, quite recently — the US lost more than 1000 “sensitive nuclear missile components,” accidentally shipped four nuclear missile detonators to Taiwan (and didn’t notice for 18 months), and mistakenly sent six nuclear warheads, together capable of 60 Hiroshimas, on a 36-hour cross-country flight. Oh, and Bill Clinton, careless shaggy-dog that he is, allegedly lost the “biscuit” containing the top-secret codes to authorize a nuclear strike (a story that seems preposterous, but who knows?).

None of this inspires much confidence. In fact, it’s terrifying, like discovering — well, like discovering that the world’s chief nuclear power has taken an unconscionably slip-shod approach to protecting large quantities of world-destroying, radioactive material. And yet, shockingly, the US doesn’t seem to have paid many, if any, consequences for such negligence: no sanctions, no special weapons inspection programs, no tsk-tsking by foreign governments. In theory, Mother Jones reported, the ”the country’s atomic accounting is so shoddy that the International Atomic Energy Agency—the same agency sent to search for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction—could potentially find the United States in violation of its international anti-proliferation treaty obligations.” But I have more faith that the Snooki will win an Oscar than that the IAEA will come knuckle-wrapping the US.

So where does this leave us? President Obama has made a powerful push for countries around the globe to secure all loose nuclear material by 2014, a worthy aim directed in particular at urging countries in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa to keep their nukes far from the hands of would-be terrorists. But while he’s saving the world from everybody else’s rogue foreign nukes, he might also consider taking charge of his own storehouse.

* Never mind Hiroshima and Nagasaki

About Lizzy Ratner

Lizzy Ratner is a journalist in New York City. She is a co-editor with Adam Horowitz and Philip Weiss of The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict.

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