WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress have warned about the dangers of suitcase nuclear weapons. Hollywood has made television shows and movies about them. Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency has alerted Americans to a threat — information the White House includes on its website.
But government experts and intelligence officials say such a threat gets vastly more attention than it deserves. These officials said a true suitcase nuke would be highly complex to produce, require significant upkeep and cost a small fortune.
Counterproliferation authorities do not completely rule out the possibility that these portable devices once existed. But they do not think the threat remains.
"The suitcase nuke is an exciting topic that really lends itself to movies," said Vahid Majidi, the assistant director of the FBI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate. "No one has been able to truly identify the existence of these devices."
Majidi and other government officials say the real threat is from a terrorist who does not care about the size of his nuclear detonation and is willing to improvise, using a less deadly and sophisticated device assembled from stolen or black-market nuclear material.
Yet Hollywood has seized on the threat. For example, the Fox thriller 24 devoted its entire last season to Jack Bauer's hunt for suitcase nukes in Los Angeles.
Government officials have played up the threat, too.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., once said at a hearing that he thought the least likely threat was from an intercontinental ballistic missile. "Perhaps the most likely threat is from a suitcase nuclear weapon in a rusty car on a dock in New York City," he said.
In a FEMA guide on terrorist disasters that is posted in part on the White House's website, the agency warns that terrorists' use of a nuclear weapon would "probably be limited to a single smaller 'suitcase' weapon."
"The strength of such a weapon would be in the range of the bombs used during World War II. The nature of the effects would be the same as a weapon delivered by an intercontinental missile, but the area and severity of the effects would be significantly more limited," the paper says.
The genie escapes
During the 1960s, intelligence agencies received reports from defectors that Soviet military intelligence officers were carrying portable nuclear devices in suitcases.
The threat was too scary to stay secret, government officials said, and word leaked out. The genie was never put back in the bottle.
But current and former government officials who have not spoken out publicly on the subject acknowledge that no U.S. officials have seen a Soviet-made suitcase nuke.
The idea of portable nuclear devices was not a new one.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. made the first ones, known as the Special Atomic Demolition Munition. It was a "backpack nuke" that could be used to blow up dams, tunnels or bridges. While one person could lug it on his back, it had to be placed by a two-man team.
These devices never were used and now exist — minus their explosive components — only in a museum.
Following the U.S. lead, the Soviets are believed to have made similar nuclear devices.
Suitcase nukes have been a separate problem. They attracted considerable public attention in 1997, thanks to a 60 Minutes interview and other public statements from retired Gen. Alexander Lebed, once Russia's national security chief.
Lebed said the separatist government in Chechnya had portable nuclear devices, which led him to create a commission to get to the bottom of the Chechen arsenal, according to a Center for Non-proliferation Studies report. He said that when he ran the security service, the commission could find only 48 of 132 devices.
The numbers varied as he changed his story several times — sometimes he stated that 100 or more were missing. The Russians denied he was ever accurate.
Even more details emerged in the summer of 1998, when former Russian military intelligence officer Stanislav Lunev — a defector in the U.S. witness protection program — wrote in his book that Russian agents were hiding suitcase nukes around the U.S. for use in a possible future conflict.
"I had very clear instructions: These dead-drop positions would need to be for all types of weapons, including nuclear weapons," Lunev testified during a congressional hearing in California in 2000, according to a Los Angeles Times account.
Naysayers noted that he was never able to pinpoint any specific location.
In a 2004 interview with the Kremlin's Federal News Service, Colonel-General Viktor Yesin, former head of the Russian strategic rocket troops, said he believes that Lebed's commission may have been misled by mock-ups of special mines used during training.
Yesin believed that a true suitcase nuke would be too expensive for most countries to produce and would not last more than several months because the nuclear core would decompose so quickly. "Nobody at the present stage seeks to develop such devices," he asserted.
Some members of Congress remained convinced that the suitcase nuke problem persists. Perhaps chief among these lawmakers was Curt Weldon, a GOP representative from Pennsylvania who lost his seat in 2006.
Weldon was known for carrying around a mock-up of a suitcase nuke made with a briefcase, foil and a pipe. But it was nowhere near the weight of an actual atomic device.
Majidi joined the FBI after leading Los Alamos National Laboratory's prestigious chemistry division. He uses science to make the case that suitcase nukes are not a top concern.
First, he defines what a Hollywood-esque suitcase nuke would look like: a case about 24 inches by 10 inches by 12 inches, weighing less than 50 pounds, that one person could carry. It would contain a device that could cause a devastating blast.
Nuclear devices are either plutonium, which comes from reprocessing the nuclear material from reactors, or uranium, which comes from gradually enriching that naturally found element.
Majidi says it would take about 22 pounds of plutonium or 130 pounds of uranium to create a nuclear detonation. Both would require explosives to set off the blast, but significantly more for the uranium.
Although uranium is considered easier for terrorists to obtain, it would be too heavy for one person to lug around in a suitcase.
Plutonium, he notes, would require the cooperation of a state with a plutonium reprocessing program. It seems highly unlikely that a country would knowingly cooperate with terrorists because the device would bear the chemical fingerprints of that government. "I don't think any nation is willing to participate in this type of activity," Majidi said.
That means the fissile material probably would have to be stolen. "It is very difficult for that much material to walk away," he added.
There is one more wrinkle: Nuclear devices require a lot of maintenance because the material that makes them so deadly also can wreak havoc on their electrical systems.
"The more compact the devices are — guess what? — the more frequently they need to be maintained. Everything is compactly designed around that radiation source, which damages everything over a period of time," Majidi said.
Proving a negative
A former CIA director, George Tenet, is convinced that al-Qaeda wants to change history with the mushroom cloud of a nuclear attack. In 1998, Osama bin Laden issued a statement called "The Nuclear Bomb of Islam."
"It is the duty of Muslims to prepare as much force as possible to terrorize the enemies of God," he said.
Among numerous of avenues of investigation after the Sept. 11 attacks, Tenet said in his memoir that President Bush asked Russian President Vladamir Putin whether he could account for all of Russia's nuclear material. Choosing his words carefully, Tenet said, Putin replied that he could only account for everything under his watch, leaving a void before 2000.
Intelligence officials continued digging deeper, hearing more reports about al-Qaeda's efforts to get a weapon; that effort, it is believed, has been to no avail, so far.
But intelligence officials are loath to dismiss a threat until they are absolutely sure they have gotten to the bottom of it.
In the case of suitcase nukes, one official said, U.S. experts do not have 100% certainty that they have a handle on the Russian arsenal.
Laura Holgate, a vice president at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, says the United States has not appropriately prioritized its responses to the nuclear threat and, as a result, is poorly using its scarce resources.
Much to many people's surprise, she noted, highly enriched uranium — outside of a weapon — is so benign that a person can hold it in his hands and not face any ill effects until years later, if at all. It can also slip through U.S. safeguards, she says.
The Homeland Security Department is planning to spend more than $1 billion on radiation detectors at ports of entry. But government auditors found that the devices cannot distinguish between benign radiation sources, such as kitty litter, and potentially dangerous ones, including highly enriched uranium.
Holgate considers the substance the greatest threat because it exists not only at nuclear weapons sites worldwide, but also in more than 100 civilian research facilities in dozens of countries, often with inadequate security.
Her Washington-based non-proliferation organization wants to see the United States get a better handle on the material that can be used for bombs — much of it is in Russia — and secure it.
The big problem, she said, is not a fancy suitcase nuke, but rather a terrorist cell with nuclear material that has enough knowledge to make an improvised device.
How big would that be? "Like SUV-sized. Way bigger than a suitcase," she said.