Pitt professors hoping to develop early warning system for nuclear smuggling activities




That vial of cesium-135 seized during a nuclear smuggling bust in Moldova in 2015? Phil Williams can shower you with decades of context showing how traffickers in one of Europe’s most lawless and poorest states might have gotten involved in trying to sell radioactive materials to ISIS.

Tom Congedo can tell you just how dangerous that amount of cesium-135 really is. (Not very. Cesium-137 is the bad actor.)

The two Pitt professors, who met two years ago in a kind of perfect match of scary nuclear smuggling expertise, have joined forces to develop an early warning system -— “like a Google alert” — for when the world’s “bad guys” are about to get their hands on nuclear materials.

For the past year, Mr. Williams, who directs the Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, has been updating a database tracking the times that radiological materials were lost, stolen or turned up where they shouldn't. He’s got 25 years worth of data, culled from open sources like government reports and press clippings.

Mr. Congedo, a veteran of Westinghouse Electric Co., has more than three decades of nuclear expertise under his belt to help sort the “radiological junk” from real danger.

It’s not clear how much nuclear material — the kind that could pose a real threat — is out there in the world, where all of it is, or who is interested in getting their hands on it. From North Korea, which is teasing the world with rumors of its nuclear prowess, to terrorist groups that may be satisfied with a smattering of radioactive material to shove into a dirty bomb, it’s difficult to track where the biggest threat lies. 

In his exit memo earlier this month, outgoing U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz wrote, “The threat of nuclear war has decreased, but the risk of nuclear attack may have increased." He was paraphrasing years of warnings from President Barack Obama.

From his experience, Mr. Williams tends to agree. 

Since a mutual friend introduced the two men, their collaboration has forged a rare alliance between the Stephen R. Tritch Nuclear Engineering Program and the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. They’re also working with Pitt’s School of Information Sciences to incorporate machine learning algorithms into their analysis and, perhaps, down the road, to fold in other data like shipping manifests and satellite images.

In his Westinghouse days, Mr. Congedo said that kind of approach was called “data fusion.”


The Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. (Photo: Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

Anything nuclear is political

At Pitt’s nuclear engineering program, where Mr. Congedo is the associate director, the partnership marks a step toward breaking some long-standing silos. “Anything nuclear — whether it's nuclear power or nuclear nonproliferation — always ends up being political; so policy ends up being a big part of it,” said Dan Cole, director of the program.

But that's not how nuclear engineers tend to function, he said.

It’s not because they don’t care what happens to the technology they develop, but because they feel that policy is outside of their scope. By that measure, Mr. Congedo is an exception.

He worries “the genie is out of the bottle” when it comes to nuclear weapons and he is particularly concerned the dark side of this type of energy will extinguish its bright promise. He worries that the same awesome physical properties that can supply a carbon-free fuel to lift millions out of poverty will be subverted for nefarious purposes.

“Every sword has two sides to the blade," Mr. Congedo said. “It's particularly important to me to use the right side of the blade."


In this Oct. 5, 2015 photo, an imported luxury SUV is parked outside the Cocos Prive club in Chisinau, Moldova. (Photo: Associated Press)

A shifting danger

The long-standing mantra of the United States — that countries with nuclear weapons should decrease their arsenals and those without them should remain that way — is on shaky ground under Donald Trump. The president-elect has suggested it may not be a bad thing if Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Japan acquire nukes.

“Let it be an arms race,” Mr. Trump said on an MSNBC talk show last month. “We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”

The U.S. and Russia lead the world in nuclear weapon stockpiles by a large margin. The remnants of their previous arms race during the Cold War are scattered throughout Mr. Williams’ database — in the suitcases, garages, and pickle jars of smugglers seeing demand in a black market increasingly driven by terrorist groups.

The fall of the Soviet Union left sensitive material from nuclear facilities in former republics, often poorly monitored and vulnerable to theft.

After a thief climbed through a hole in a fence of a Murmansk shipyard in 1993 and cut through a padlock of a storage container that held fuel rods for nuclear submarines, a Russian official remarked that potatoes in Russia are better guarded than nuclear materials.

Most of the stolen loot ended up in Western Europe, discovered during sting operations where an undercover law enforcement officer would intercept a guy carrying a duffel bag. In the later part of the decade, the smuggling routes started to change, Mr. Williams said, forging a path through the areas surrounding the Black Sea.

“The problem is we’ve never really found out where the market is,” Mr. Williams said. “We’ve got a lot of stings where you’ve got law enforcement going undercover — really good for intervention. But to find where market is you have to pose as seller, not buyer.”


This Feb. 19, 2015, image made from video provided by the Moldova General Police Inspectorate shows Euro banknotes laid out on the passenger seat of Valentin Grossu's car following his arrest during a cesium smuggling sting operation in Chisinau, Moldova. (Moldova Police via AP)

By 2001, he began to notice another trend — about a quarter of the incidents of nuclear smuggling involved organized crime.

“A product’s a product’s a product,” Mr. Williams said. Many smugglers who end up getting their hands on even the most dangerous stuff start out peddling other goods.

In 1994, a German man found with highly-concentrated plutonium in his garage had previously smuggled goods ranging from shoes to equipment for making french fries. A Turkish uranium dealer apprehended the same year typically trafficked in antiques.

The intelligence community has begun to take notice, Mr. Williams said, and is focusing on hot spots in Eastern Europe where black markets are thriving — driven, in part, by the perceived demand from terrorist groups in the Middle East and Africa.

According to an Associated Press investigation published in 2015, police in Moldova, with the help of the FBI, conducted several busts of smugglers peddling enriched uranium and cesium who had told undercover agents that they want to see the radioactive loot end up in the hands of Islamic terrorist groups.

Between Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia, it's like a “reverse Bermuda Triangle," Mr. Williams said, where instead of mysteriously vanishing, radiological materials mysteriously appear.


Experts with the Netherlands Forensic Institute show how to secure evidence on a mock crime scene involving a "dirty bomb," during a meeting on security technology in The Hague Netherlands, Thursday, March 20, 2014. (Photo: Peter Dejong/Associated Press)

The internet of nuclear things

Mr. Williams and Mr. Congedo don’t believe they’re the only people working on parsing intelligence about nuclear smuggling. The task is important enough to warrant duplication, they say.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which oversees countries’ compliance with nuclear nonproliferation regimes, has a similar database, although it’s not available to the public. The U.S.-based nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative has one, too. It’s public and has three years of data.

Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a government weapons lab in New Mexico, have shown there is a world of information on the internet that could enhance nuclear nonproliferation efforts. A creative algorithm can go a long way to turn seemingly mundane public data into actionable intelligence.

Last year, after Los Alamos scientists showed they could predict flu outbreaks by tracking how many people looked up their symptoms on Wikipedia, Rian Bahran, an R&D engineer at the lab, wondered if the same technique could be applied to nuclear nonproliferation research. A few weeks of poking around Wikipedia showed promising results, Mr. Bahran said, but the idea is currently on the shelf.

Mr. Williams and Mr. Congedo hope to have a crude prototype of the Pitt database, available to the public, by the end of the year.

There’s some comfort in the fact that successfully smuggling nuclear materials to disastrous ends requires a confluence of disciplines:

— You need an understanding of nuclear materials and how to handle and package them for the intended effect.

— You need a way to access or steal them without being detected.

— You need deep pockets, clandestine trafficking routes, regulatory negligence, and alignment between buyer and seller on things ranging from risk to ideology.

It might explain why there’s never been a known case of a dirty bomb detonating or a nuclear weapon constructed from smuggled materials. “Some of the bad guys are clearly ignorant of the technology,” Mr. Congedo said.

Consider the continuing fertile market for a legendary — and fictional — substance called red mercury, whose powers are rumored to range from enhancing sexual potency to packing a nuclear blast into a sandwich-sized bag.

On the other hand, Mr. Congedo said, “People have been smuggling stuff for a long time.

“And we’re really good at it.”

Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.

This story was updated on Jan. 17 to include more information about the cesium isotope seized in Moldova in 2015.

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