The top-secret operation began before dawn at an old Soviet reactor outside the eastern European capital of Riga, Latvia. Inside an unmarked truck was some of the most dangerous material in the world: highly enriched uranium -- the basic ingredient for a nuclear bomb and a prime target for terrorists.
Under a full moon and guarded by police cars and a Latvian SWAT team, the truck headed toward Riga International Airport. Dr. Igor Bolshinsky of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration is charged with ensuring that the nuclear material is put where terrorists can't steal it.
"When there is a danger of these materials to get in the hands of terrorists, it makes sense just to eliminate this material -- to eliminate highly enriched uranium," Bolshinsky said.
A Ukrainian-born scientist who now is a U.S. citizen, Bolshinsky has become a one-man wrecking crew for potential weapons of mass destruction. His goal: to remove material that can be used for a nuclear or dirty bombs from vulnerable research reactors in the former Soviet Union.
Once the highly enriched uranium is removed, Bolshinsky sends it to a secure facility in Russia, where it is processed -- or down-blended -- into a less-dangerous fuel.
"I think we are smart enough to realize bad things may happen -- and we are smart enough to prevent it," he said.
Since 2002, Bolshinsky has almost single-handedly removed 269 pounds of fresh, highly enriched uranium from seven countries -- enough to make about five nuclear bombs. And he's just getting started. By 2010, his goal is to remove 2 tons of highly enriched uranium from 14 countries, including his homeland. That's enough for about 80 nuclear bombs.
Ambassador Linton Brooks, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the Energy Department's effort to secure nuclear material around the world, said the task is huge. "This is an effort which is a thousand small victories rather than one galactic one," Brooks said.
A report released this year by Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government says that there is enough material in the former Soviet Union to build 80,000 nuclear weapons -- and only half of it is secured.
"There's certainly a huge amount of material," Brooks said. "The Cold War produced in both sides exceptionally large quantities of material."
At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union sent nuclear material to 17 Soviet republics and allies, including a reactor in Latvia.
But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was neither the money nor the political will to support these reactors. Today, the Latvia reactor's control room is covered with dust -- it was shut down seven years ago. But the nuclear fuel remained, protected by only a rickety gate, a few guards and some dogs.
Other sites in Russia were protected by simple locks or just wax and some string -- the same technology used to seal official letters hundreds of years ago. The Energy Department says the United States has upgraded security in about half of the sites in the former Soviet Union. But the only failsafe protection is to remove the material and take it to a secure location.
That's where Bolshinsky comes in.