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The Cold War's Deadly Legacy: How the U.S.'s Atoms for Peace Program Helped Spread Nuke Technology to Iran and Beyond

StoryJanuary 30, 2007
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Sam Roe

staff reporter at the Chicago Tribune. His series on the U.S. Cold War program Atoms for Peace is featured this week.

"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." Those are the opening lines of a new expose by the Chicago Tribune reporter Sam Roe. [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: "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." Those are the opening lines of a new expose by the Chicago Tribune.

The investigation has found several tons of U.S. nuclear bomb-grade material distributed under the Cold War Atoms for Peace program remain scattered across the planet. The U.S. government has failed to retrieve 40 tons of highly enriched uranium — enough to make over 1,400 nuclear weapons. While the Bush administration says it’s trying to remove weapons-grade fuel from several research reactors around the world, many nuclear experts believe the U.S. does not know how much enriched uranium exists abroad — or even where it exists.

Sam Roe is a staff reporter at the Chicago Tribune, author of this investigative series, joining us from Chicago. Welcome to Democracy Now!

SAM ROE: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you start off with this latest story that we’ve been getting in the news about the possibility that someone in the old Soviet Union now had weapons-grade nuclear material?

SAM ROE: Yeah. That was a case that just came out last week, where someone was caught having a small amount of highly enriched uranium in plastic bags in his coat pocket. And what’s significant about that is that highly enriched uranium is the holy grail of nuclear materials. It’s the one thing that you can easily make a bomb with. It doesn’t take much technical expertise if you have enough to create nuclear fission, so that’s why there’s so much worry about highly enriched uranium. Secondly, it’s easy to transport. So if someone can just put it in their pocket and walk across the border, that’s of great concern. That case was really interesting, because for the last few years there really hasn’t been a lot of nuclear-smuggling cases, but that was one of the most recent one and most disturbing one.

AMY GOODMAN: Describe, Sam Roe, that Atoms for Peace program.

SAM ROE: The Atoms for Peace program really was this bold experiment by President Eisenhower, unveiled in 1953, and the concept was that the United States would distribute nuclear technology around the world to other nations if they promised not to build nuclear weapons. So it was this grand bargain. At the time, you know, we had nuclear weapons, and we thought, and rightly so, that other nations would eventually build weapons on their own, so why not cut a deal now, why not get some kind of control over this? And the Soviet Union saw what we were doing, and so they decided to follow suit, and you had this really interesting sort of Cold War chess match going around, where the United States and the Soviet Union, they were both supplying research reactors, nuclear technology, and highly enriched uranium all throughout the world, and that’s the material that’s out there today. That’s the material that we’re so concerned about.

AMY GOODMAN: What role does the IAEA play, the International Atomic Energy Agency, in monitoring this?

SAM ROE: Well, they can monitor some countries, and they do go out to some sites, and they do check on quantities of material and make sure there’s not certain infractions, but — and this isn’t discussed much — but they’re really underfunded and they only have so many staff members to go out to some of these places. And as we’ve seen in Iran and other places, sometimes they’re just told, you know, go away, or come back another time. And so, when you look at the big picture, there’s not a whole lot of monitoring of this material around the world, not as much as there should be.

AMY GOODMAN: Sam Roe, can you tell us the story of Armando Travelli?

SAM ROE: Armando Travelli is an interesting character, because, remarkably, he, and he alone, sort of led this effort over the last quarter-century to go out and try to get this highly enriched uranium back in U.S. hands, and he himself is an interesting story. He grew up in sort of the war-torn rubble of World War II in Italy, and as a child he was part of that new atomic age, where he thought that someday everything would be run by nuclear energy — cars, boats, planes, everything — and he came to the United States because he wanted to be part of this new nuclear generation and quickly rose to become a star in the nuclear engineering field out here outside of Chicago at Argonne National Labs, designing some of the largest research reactors ever conceived of.

And then, once India detonated its bomb in 1974, using some of this Atoms for Peace material that was distributed by Canada and the U.S., suddenly the United States wanted to get this material back, and they couldn’t just go into all these countries and, with guns ablazing, demand it back or take it back by force, because we had sold it or leased it or given it away. It wasn’t ours anymore. And so, we had to find some way to sort of swap it out. We had to find some way to convince these countries to give the material back.

And so, they came to Armando Travelli, and they said, "Can you, as a scientist, help us with this problem? Can you take this diplomatic quandary that we’re in and invent new fuels? Can you invent something that all these other countries can use in these reactors around the world instead of highly enriched uranium?" And he said, "Yeah, that can be done." And they said, "Will you lead this charge? Will you invent these fuels and then go to these countries and sort of play diplomat and persuade them to use this new material?"

And he was somewhat taken aback, because his life’s work was to, you know, spread nuclear technology, not to rein it in. He really believed in nuclear technology, but he was convinced that it was silly to have this bomb-grade material spread around the world. So he decided to do it. He decided to make the rest of his life this quest to get all of this material back.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain his relationship with Romania.

SAM ROE: Romania is a really interesting case, because it was one of the first assignments that he was given by the State Department. This was back in the early 1980s, when the dictator Ceausescu was still involved in Romania, still running the country. But the dictator offered, "Yeah, we’ll give you back your highly enriched uranium, America. Come on down, and let’s talk about it." So Armando went to Romania and looked at the reactor to see if maybe they could swap out some material in that reactor for the highly enriched uranium.

But the United States, remarkably enough, the whole mission sort of bogged down over money. The Romanians wanted the U.S. to pony up some money to pay for it, and the United States wasn’t willing to do that, and it bogged down for a number of years. And while that was going on, the reactor and the people in the reactor in the Romanian government used that reactor that the U.S. supplied and the highly enriched uranium to separate plutonium, which is the first step to make an atomic bomb. There’s no other reason to separate plutonium than to start a nuclear weapons program.

So that just shows you, there’s really a lesson of the Atoms for Peace legacy: If you let this stuff sit out there too long, you know, those kinds of things might happen. Eventually the Romanian government, once Ceausescu was executed in ’89, they acknowledged what had happened and there were some additional safeguards put in place, but some of that uranium still actually remains in Romania.

AMY GOODMAN: And other countries that he is associated with — for example, Taiwan.

SAM ROE: In Taiwan, that was an interesting case, too. Canada had supplied India with the reactor that India used to build its first atomic weapon. And an identical nuclear facility was given to Taiwan from Canada. And so, the Americans were suspicious that Taiwan was also building nuclear weapons. In Canada, they were embarrassed by what just happened in India. They didn’t want to have this come out that, you know, now another Canadian reactor might be sparking a nuclear weapons program, so the United States offered to intervene and went there to take a look at this reactor, and Armando Travelli was in charge.

He went there and was just shocked at what he saw. From the outside, this reactor in Taiwan looked like your typical reactor. It had a domed roof, and it was windowless and made out of cement. But when he stepped inside, it was very eerie. It was dark, and it had this green tint to it, and it had this Chinese music piped in, not the typical thing you’d see in a reactor. And rising out of the middle of the reactor was this 30-foot tomblike structure, just this huge concrete block, almost like a Chinese temple. And he and his team just slowly walked toward it with their hosts, and they checked everything out. There’s no research going on. There’s no scientists around or any kind of experiments that they could see of, and when he walked outside, he said to his colleagues — Armando said to his colleagues, "That’s a machine for making plutonium. There’s no other reason for that." So over the next few years, they went back and forth to Taiwan, and the Taiwanese eventually got tired of the scrutiny and shut the place down.

AMY GOODMAN: Sam Roe, how easy is it to transport nuclear material.

SAM ROE: Well, with highly enriched uranium, it’s quite easy, because it’s not highly radioactive, so if you had this holy grail of bomb material, you could put it in your pocket and you could carry it around with you, and it’s not going to harm you. And you could cross borders with relative ease. Once it’s been burned in a reactor, then it’s highly radioactive, and it would take some technical skill to steal it and get away with it, but one of the issues is that some of the fuel that has been burned in these reactors overseas has sat there for so long, it’s not highly radioactive anymore. If something sits around for 30 years, if highly enriched uranium is burned in a reactor and it sits there for 30 years, it can be stolen and spirited away quite easily. So there needs to be more attention paid to that material, too.

AMY GOODMAN: The Russian man that allegedly was trying to sell uranium had hidden it in two plastic bags in his pocket, that the Georgian authorities found?

SAM ROE: Yeah, that just shows you how easily you can spirit this stuff away. And that’s why highly enriched uranium is something we should all pay attention to. One, it’s the one thing you can use to easily make a bomb and, two, you can hide it and transport it easily. If terrorists could get their hands on it, it would be hard to detect, and so that’s why there’s a push in this country and some other places to do an inventory, do a global inventory, of where is highly enriched uranium.

You know, it’s the one thing that could blow up the world. Why not get a better handle on every place it is in the world and not just secure it, not just put up locks and fences, because ultimately that may not prevent an inside job — because it’s so valuable, somebody even guarding it may just decide to steal it and sell it — why not destroy it all? Why not take it and dilute it down, blend it down into something that can’t be made a bomb? That’s what a lot of folks are calling for now.

AMY GOODMAN: You begin your article with that very provocative paragraph about the specter of nuclear warfare being waged by North Korea or Iran hanging over the world in recent months, but it’s not Kim Jong-il or the ayatollahs of Iran who put it there; America did. Go more into that, the U.S. and Iran and nuclear weapons.

SAM ROE: Well, I think most people, when they talk about loose nukes or they think about the issue, they think in terms of this is a problem that is overseas or this is something that the Soviets created or something like that. But we have to remember this is sort of a problem that we created in the first place. This was a problem of our own making, and over the last 30 years America hasn’t done a good job of getting this material under control.

And one story that really went under the radar screen is, one of the reactors in Iran that’s come under scrutiny was actually provided to Iran in the first place by the United States, under the Shah. I wrote about this last year, that back in the ’70s, the United States gave Iran a research reactor and highly enriched uranium, and that reactor in recent years has been one of the places where the Iranians have done some things where the IAEA says were infractions, so the United States complains about how Iran is violating international rules and creating a nuclear weapons program, and such and such. You know, some of these infractions have taken place in a reactor that we provided them in the first place.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for joining us, Sam Roe, staff reporter. His series on the U.S. Cold War program Atoms for Peace is featured this week in the Chicago Tribune, and we will link to it. Thanks for joining us from Chicago.

SAM ROE: Thanks for having me.

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