The U.S. spent decades trying to retrieve bomb-grade nuclear fuel it gave to other nations. But the program stumbled for lack of support.
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 since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, is so dire that the keepers of the Doomsday Clock cited the issue as chief among their concerns this month when they moved the iconic measure of global security closer to midnight.
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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.
40 tons still out of reach
Yet decades of fitful commitment by the U.S. government to retrieve bomb-grade uranium have left the world no safer, a Chicago Tribune investigation has found. Today, roughly 40 tons of the material remain out of U.S. control — enough to make more than 1,400 nuclear weapons.
After India set off its first nuclear weapon in 1974, America scrambled to reverse President Dwight Eisenhower’s Cold War effort to cement alliances by exporting highly enriched uranium and nuclear reactors.
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.
When Armando Travelli embarked on his quest in 1978, he thought it could be accomplished with relative ease, taking maybe five years. He was wrong.
For an undertaking that would span a quarter-century and six continents, Travelli found himself playing the role of both scientist and diplomat at each sometimes-bizarre turn.
In Taiwan, which U.S. officials suspected of secretly developing nuclear weapons, he and his team found themselves inside a reactor devoid of anything but a massive, tomblike structure rising 30 feet. Soft Chinese music flowed from hidden speakers.
“There is no research going on in there,” Travelli told his colleagues. “That’s just a machine for churning out plutonium for a nuclear weapon.”
In Romania, Travelli saw firsthand the chilling consequences of using highly enriched uranium to cement alliances with backwater dictators.
When his mission bogged down, the government of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu secretly used the reactor and the enriched uranium to separate plutonium — the first step in building an atomic bomb.
And many nations simply refused to give up the dangerous material. For some it was a source of pride. For others it was perceived American hypocrisy: Many research reactors inside the U.S. wouldn’t give up the material either.
A new impetus
Travelli’s biggest setbacks originated in the nation’s capital. After the Carter administration launched his effort, subsequent Democratic and Republican administrations provided feeble funding. At times, the program’s budget was cut to zero.
Finally, after years of such frustrations, Travelli concluded that retrieving this material one nation at a time was a desperate failure. But by then the Soviet Union had collapsed and there were growing fears that in the vacuum left behind, smugglers could obtain nuclear material and sell it to terrorists or rogue nations.
Travelli had an idea: What if the U.S. joined with its former Cold War rival and started from scratch — returning to the lab and trying to invent a single magic fuel that could replace bomb-grade material in every reactor in the world?
The effort intensified when it was learned that a competing team of French scientists was trying to invent a nearly identical magic fuel.
At an international conference in Aix-en-Provence, France, in 2003, Travelli’s team and the French scientists told colleagues and the trade press that their separate fuel programs were right on track.
But privately, the French were telling a far different story.
They pulled Travelli’s team aside at the convention center and laid out pictures of their latest tests. The often-volatile uranium particles looked fine. But there were bizarre, meandering cracks, like a bone’s hairline fractures, in the aluminum portion of the fuel in which the uranium particles were embedded.
Alarmed, Travelli’s team flew back to Chicago and immediately began sifting through dozens of photos of their own tests.
Sure enough, they began to recognize tiny little bubbles — almost imperceptible — inside the fuel plates.
Their Russian partners hadn’t run any tests yet. But Travelli started hearing rumors that his nemesis and former partner, the Russian nuclear contractor NIKIET, was quietly developing its own reactor fuel and was experiencing similar failures.
Aware of the dire implications, Travelli’s team flew to Moscow in December 2003 to see if it could learn of NIKIET’s results.
After 25 years, tens of millions of dollars and dozens of classified missions, America’s quest to retrieve the world’s most potent nuclear fuel had come down to this: a secret meeting in the heart of Moscow.
The Russians told Travelli’s team that there were some minor problems, but nothing to worry about. They would do additional work and get back to the Americans.
“May I see the pictures of the test?” Travelli asked.
“I’m sorry,” the head of the Russian team responded. “There are no pictures available.” He then abruptly stood up and walked out, followed by his colleagues.
Travelli approached the last Russian packing his belongings, a low-level scientist who had been quiet during the meeting.
“I’d like to see the pictures,” Travelli recalled saying. “When might there be pictures?”
The man leaned down and pulled three 8-by-10, black-and-white photographs from his briefcase and put them on the table.
Travelli could see the small meandering lines in the aluminum portion of the fuel, just as he had seen in France.
The evidence now was overwhelming: The magic fuel was a bust.
After his dream fuel failed, everything changed for Travelli.
A new order
In the summer of 2004, Energy Department officials began taking firmer control of America’s effort to retrieve bomb fuel. They wanted it run out of Washington, not Chicago. They wanted the fuel work managed out of a federal lab in Idaho, not Argonne. They wanted new scientists involved, not the same group that had been leading it the last 26 years.
And finally, three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, they finally asked to double the budget.
Energy officials deny that the magic-fuel bust prompted Travelli’s removal.
In the past year, energy officials say they have made great progress. Six more reactors have given up using weapons-grade fuel — a far faster success rate, the officials said, than Travelli had accomplished.
And in December, the U.S. helped relocate nearly 600 pounds of uranium from a former East German lab to a specially secured Russian facility.
But there are signs that efforts have actually gone backward. In the most difficult cases of securing bomb fuel — particularly in Russia, where officials are reluctant to cooperate — the U.S. has simply quit trying.
Travelli has not given up. He was hired by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit group founded by Ted Turner and former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, to work as a consultant on addressing the fuel issue in Russia.
But Turner’s group has struggled to raise enough money to keep the effort alive.
Over 26 years, Travelli and his team helped 22 nations stop using bomb-grade fuel in 33 reactors, eliminating the use of 3.3 tons and ridding the world of 120 potential nuclear weapons. But more than 100 reactors still use the dangerous fuel.
Travelli also spent eight years trying to develop a magic fuel. In the end, it failed. His successors continue that mission, but they are at least several years away from a solution.
A metallic world map that Travelli had used to carefully chart his work still hangs on the wall of a small, rarely used office on Argonne’s campus.
No one tends to the map anymore.