Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Boo! Again.

I found an article in The Atlantic online about one last "low-grade game of nuclear blackmail" by the Libyan government in 2009. The idea was that the last of Libya's nuclear materials was supposed to be flown out of the country to Russia, but at the last minute, the Libyans refused to allow it to leave the country.

[Libya] left the seven five-ton casks [of highly enriched uranium] out in the open and under light guard, vulnerable to theft by the al-Qaeda factions that still operate in the region or by any rogue government that learned of their presence.
Later in the article, the author notes:
It would have been easy for anyone with a gun and a truck to drive up, overpower the guard, use the crane to load the casks onto the truck, and drive off into the vast Libyan desert.
Makes sense so far. Next up is a description of Libya's demands. After this we're told:
The Russian engineers busied themselves with finding a way to secure the uranium, something that required them to "develop entirely new technology" on the fly, as a U.S. official wrote. Faced with an unprecedented problem--nuclear material abandoned in temporary casks that could not be moved --they set out to improvise a solution. The uranium had to be removed from the casks but was far too radioactive to be handled by humans. The engineers settled on a remote-controlled device that they hoped could safely extract the uranium and move it to the Tajoura facility's built-in ponds, where it would be better contained. The so-called grapple would have been the first of its kind. They even planned to train Tajoura's Libyan engineers in the grapple's use. Department of Energy officials in Libya called it "an unprecedented operation."
Now I'm confused. The Russians have to "develop entirely new technology" to mount "an unprecedented operation" just to put material "far too radioactive to be handled by humans" back into the same facility it had just come out of, but all al-Qaeda has to do to steal it is drive up in a truck? Really? I'm not sure that I believe that for a moment. I get the idea that jihadis aren't terribly concerned with their own safety, but the point behind suicide bombing is to die when the bomb goes off - not while you're attempting to get the materials for it. The idea that al-Qaeda has the NBC-handling capacity to deal with highly radioactive materials seems to be something of a stretch.

This article seems like a scare piece, designed to remind us of why we still need to be hyper-vigilant about what people in other countries that don't look like us, and don't automatically take our word that we're "the good guys" at face value, are doing. The United States is the world's foremost military power. And Russia's no slouch, either. I find it difficult to believe that between the two nations, we couldn't have managed to scare up a hundred guys to keep an eye on that material, and make sure nothing happened to it. What really would the Libyans have done about it? Complained to the United Nations?

The article tells us that "Owing to the sensitive nature of nuclear counterproliferation, a number of technical details have been omitted from this account[...]." Some of those details seem to be important, as the story as written doesn't always square with itself. It's implied that the Libyans were counting on the United States thinking that terrorists might steal the material, in order to give them leverage - but how would they have done that if the "casks could not be moved?" Nothing is said about the Libyans demanding that the casks sit exactly where they were - and if they didn't want the material to move, it wouldn't have made any sense for the Russians to go through the effort of planning their "unprecedented operation," to take the material out of the casks. So the casks must have been effectively immobile for a reason other than Libyan insistence. Again, this leads back to the idea that this incident might not be all it's cracked up to be.
The month-long crisis, never revealed by the Obama administration or reported in the press, is recorded in U.S. State Department documents obtained by The Atlantic. Those documents tell the story of frantic diplomatic maneuvering as U.S. and Russian officials pushed Libyan leaders to honor their disarmament pledge. A person with access to the cables provided them to The Atlantic in order to publicize the dangers of loose nuclear materials under the control of unpredictable regimes in unstable countries.
Looks like there are still neocons in the administration, after all. And people in the press willing to do their dirty work for them.

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