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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Avoiding Armageddon

Air Date: Week of

Hundreds of nuclear stockpiles around the world are subject to poor security, volatile politics and the threat from terrorist groups. Host Steve Curwood talks with Martin Schram, who explores the issue of nuclear security in his new book and PBS series called Avoiding Armageddon: Our Future, Our Choice.

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CURWOOD: Weapons of mass destruction. We hear that phrase perhaps too often these days to suit our sense of security. Journalist Martin Schram is the author of a new book on the topic. It's called “Avoiding Armageddon: Our Future, Our Choice.” And it's being published in conjunction with an upcoming companion PBS series.

In his book, Marty Schram explores a specter of biological, chemical, and nuclear attacks, and talks with some of the people most closely associated with the security and manufacture of these materials. Marty Schram joins me now to talk about his book. Welcome to Living on Earth.

SCHRAM: Glad to be here with you.

CURWOOD: Now, part of your series and your book is devoted to the security or, rather, the lack of security in those facilities that house weapons of mass destruction. And to get us into this subject, I'd like to talk about Leonid Smirnov who is, as you describe, a rather ordinary looking man. You also write that he is the International Atomic Energy Agency's worst nightmare. Who is this man?

SCHRAM: Well, he's basically a bean counter. He would weigh and measure the resources at the facility where he worked. The resources happen to be nuclear material, highly enriched uranium. And what he figured out was that there was a margin of error of three percent in the accounting that they had in order to weigh and measure what they had.

Needing money, being very underpaid, as are so many people in this entire industry, unfortunately, in Russia, he decided that what he was going to do was steal just a little bit at a time. And he siphoned it off, always within the margin of error. So the books always showed nothing was missing.

He wound up accumulating quite a stash. He kept it in a lead-lined container on the balcony of his fourth floor apartment overlooking a playground for kids. Now that's why the nuclear inspectors, the same guys who used to go to Baghdad, said he is our worst nightmare. Because we don't know that anything is missing, and he's taking it.

CURWOOD: In the end, while he got all this uranium, he wasn't able to sell it.

SCHRAM: Well, that's exactly right. It turned out that the local police found the loot. And he did a couple of years for his crime. But the bottom line is there were 174 cases of weapons-grade material that was taken, of highly enriched uranium, 16 especially.

And, of all of the cases, the records back at the institute showed nothing was missing when the authorities went to return the discovered material to the institute. And that's the danger we face. I mean, here we are now in an era of terrorism. And Osama bin Laden has said obtaining weapons of mass destruction is our duty. It's a great concern. And that's why we're in a race, a race against Osama and the terrorists, and a race against time to secure the weapons before they fall into the wrong hands.

CURWOOD: Aside from Russia, what kind of risks do we run from countries like Pakistan, South Africa, North Korea for proliferation of nuclear materials into what people would refer to as terrorists?

SCHRAM: Let's take South Africa first because it's the one example of a country that developed its own nuclear program, and then decided to renounce the program. And if we're ever going to try to get these weapons closer to zero, countries have to take a look at what South Africa did, and decide if it's for them.

Now they had their own reason. De Klerk’s outgoing government realized that they were going to be turning the government over to the black majority of the population. And, that may have been an incentive for them to decide that this is the time to get rid of the nuclear program. Nelson Mandela, to his credit, decided we're not going to restart the program. And so South Africa has earned a unique place in the history books.

CURWOOD: Pakistan?

SCHRAM: Pakistan is – it's an area that I fear greatly. And, as we're talking, while the war in Iraq seems to be won, Pakistan could be the price that we wind up paying. My concern, and my biggest concern, and I happen to know it's a concern of many of the top intelligence people in the United States here in Washington, is that Musharraf may be overthrown.

It's very possible that pressure will build. A more radical, fundamentalist, military regime could come in with a general who is closer aligned with the Taliban sympathies. And, when that happens, they'll have the Islamic bomb. Pakistan has the bomb now. They're a nuclear nation. That's frightening.

CURWOOD: And North Korea?

SCHRAM: North Korea is an area that I am very worried about. Top officials in Washington will tell you that they are too, even though the Bush Administration, they've kept their concerns understated. The problem, though, is far from understated.

Why would an impoverished country that cannot feed its own people set out to develop one, two, and then as many nuclear weapons as they can possibly develop? Certainly not to put them on a shelf and just leave them there. That's not cost-effective. Not even to use them, because that probably wouldn't be cost-effective either. To blackmail the West into giving them aid of a whole variety, of oil, energy, food and so on? Probably.

But here's another thought. Maybe to sell it to terrorists. It's a real concern, and the entire world has to face up to it.

CURWOOD: I guess we can't talk about a topic called “Avoiding Armageddon” without talking about the possible solutions. You proposed several solutions to the problem of terrorism and chemical, biological, or nuclear warfare in a section of your book called “Toward a Global Marshall Plan.” Could you explain what this means and why this could work?

SCHRAM: The United Nations has made a significant start. And it involves the developed nations of the world contributing to an overall plan to develop aid to the undeveloped, underdeveloped parts of the world. The theory behind it is really something that goes to the heart of a war on terror. It's not so much that poverty breeds terrorists. Osama bin Laden was a rich man. That's not it. But what causes millions of people to feel that they want to harbor terrorists, to shield them, to protect them, to not say, hey, he's right over here, you can come get him? The answer to that, I believe, and so many experts in the world now believe, is a despair and hopelessness that people feel.

The question of a global Marshall Plan really comes down to the world's responsibility to see to it that all the parts of the world, all the segments of the world, are sharing in the globalization, sharing in the prosperity that people can see every time they sign on on the internet, and see what so much of the world has. And if they don't have it, they feel the despair and hopelessness. They are vulnerable to demagogues such as Osama bin Laden and so many others. That's a concern.

CURWOOD: Now which nuclear facilities and stockpiles do we need to keep a particularly careful eye on, taking into account the level of technology and the surrounding political situation and accessibility?

SCHRAM: There are more than a hundred research reactors in facilities and universities in more than 40 countries. We're talking about third world, second world, and first world. And we're talking about nuclear reactors that have weapons-grade material in them, that are secured sometimes not at all, and sometimes by the equivalent of private security guards. I don't think you want that. It's just too dangerous.

CURWOOD: Martin Schram is managing editor of the PBS series “Avoiding Armageddon: Our Future, Our Choice.” He's also author of the companion book to the series by the same title and a former reporter for The Washington Post and Newsday. Marty Schram, thanks for taking this time with me today.

SCHRAM: And thank you very much.



“Avoiding Armageddon” by Martin Schram

PBS series “Avoiding Armageddon”


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