On July 4, in a train station in Europe, a suitcase containing 15 pounds of depleted uranium, shielded by a steel pipe with a lead lining, began a secret 25-day, seven-country journey. Its destination was the United States.
It was the kind of uranium that — if highly enriched — would, by some estimates, provide about half the material required for a crude nuclear device and more than enough for a so-called dirty bomb — a nightmare scenario for U.S. authorities.
"I would say that the single largest, most urgent threat to Americans today is the threat of nuclear terrorism," said Graham Allison, an expert on nuclear terrorism. Allison is the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a former assistant secretary of defense.
This suitcase's journey was not part of a terrorist plot, but rather part of an ABCNEWS investigation into whether American authorities could, in fact, stop a shipment of radioactive material. The depleted uranium packed in the suitcase was not highly enriched and therefore not dangerous, but similar in many other key respects.
In other words, to the to the human eye or to an X-ray scanner, the depleted uranium would look the same as an actual radioactive shipment.
ABCNEWS' project was designed with the help of three of the world's leading authorities on nuclear terrorism: Dr. Thomas Cochran, senior scientist and nuclear weapons expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that lent the depleted uranium to ABCNEWS for the investigation; Dr. Fritz Steinhausler of Stanford University in California and the University of Salzburg in Austria; and Allison of Harvard's Belfer Center.
"It is a perfect mockup," said Cochran. "It replicates everything but the capability to explode.
"This is what [customs is] looking for, or should be looking for," he added, "and this is what they absolutely have to stop."
"What I hope your program will help people do, is say, 'My God, this could really happen.' And this could really happen," said Allison. "There [are] things we could do to prevent it."
Route Well-Traveled by Smugglers
Starting in Austria on July 4, the suitcase began its journey by rail, traveling first across the border to Hungary, where the ABCNEWS team's passports were checked — but there was no inspection of the suitcase. From there, it was on to Romania, through the Transylvanian Alps, across the fields of Bulgaria and into Turkey — all without even one inspection of the suitcase.
This is precisely the route and the method authorities say has been used in the past to transport radioactive material smuggled out of the former Soviet Union. But throughout the 47-hour European rail trip, the suitcase, packed with depleted uranium, sat untouched on a rack in the cabin. ABCNEWS saw no evidence of radiation detectors in use anywhere.
"Well, that's a pretty good test," said Allison. "I would have wished or hoped that you would have at least gotten some look."
But there was nothing. The suitcase traveled all the way to Istanbul, Turkey, which is considered a hub of the world's nuclear black market. Steinhausler, an expert in weapons trafficking who has compiled a database of nuclear-smuggling incidents, described it as "a crossroad between a leaking Central Asian region and possibly a receptive Middle East."