In 1983, when I was a young Air Force wife, the nuclear threat clock moved closer to midnight than it had ever been before. I called someone I knew who had a quarter century in counter-intelligence against the Soviets and asked if this was it? No, I was assured. All would be fine, and the Soviet Union would be collapsing in about a decade. I said “Thank God. I’ve lived under a mushroom cloud of threat my entire life. I’ll be glad when it’s over and we can relax.”
I was quickly disabused of the notion that peace was going to break out and we would get to relax. Prescient words about stateless actors and Islamic terrorism were tossed off casually, but the words that sent a chill down my spine involved the disintegration of the Soviet Union. “Depending on what faultlines the Soviet Union breaks up along, we are going to have between four and seven nuclear armed piss-pot satellite republics, and those crazy stateless actors hail from TransAsia and the Steppes, too.”
Moving nuclear materiel (a Sierra Movement in SAC parlance) is always a big damned deal, even under the best of circumstances. If there is one thing that spy movies and novels get right, it is the fact that when the stuff is in transport, that’s when it’s most susceptible to falling into terrorist hands.
The United States has helped Ukraine send two atomic bombs’ worth of weapons grade uranium to Russia during a secret operation over the holidays, the Obama administration confirmed Thursday on msnbc’s The Rachel Maddow Show.
The removal of more than 111 pounds of highly enriched uranium followed a pledge by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to get rid of all of his country’s highly enriched uranium by April 2012.
“The Ukraine, they recognize they’re part of the international community, they recognize how dangerous this material is,” Thomas D’Agistino, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, told Maddow.
The material will be blended down in Russia, rendering it useless for bomb making, the Associated Press said.
Yanukovych agreed to give up the uranium in a multinational deal announced at a nuclear security summit hosted by President Barack Obama in April. Shipments like the one recently completed from Serbia result in permanent threat reduction because they eliminate weapons-usable nuclear material at civilian sites. Securing the material will prevent it from falling into the wrong hands, officials say.
This is huge. I have no words to tell you just how huge, because I can’t transfer my life of intimacy with the nuclear arsenal to those who didn’t live it, so I will just say that this is the best news that I have heard in years and I really did get a good night’s sleep last night. And not just because the material is now safe, but because of how it was secured: using diplomacy and cooperation.
To secure Yanukovych’s agreement, the United States is constructing research reactors and a “neutron source facility” that will be able to produce 50 different medical isotopes using low-enriched uranium that the United States will provide. The few million dollars the United States is investing are dollars well-spent.
Since the NNSA started securing loose nuclear materiel, it has rounded up enough of the stuff to assemble 122 nuclear weapons from 19 of the 35 nations that held fissibles, and the organization is on schedule to secure the rest of it within the four-year timeline laid out by the parties to last spring’s summit. That is something to keep in mind, too — this has all been achieved since April, when President Obama called the summit.
For this achievement alone, he deserves that Peace Prize the Nobel Committee gave him last year.
And it also stands in sharp contrast with the shrieking, posturing and hystrionics of the Senate republicans who tried their damnedest to undermine the New START treaty and hurtle us into another arms race and “Cold War II.”