Former Cold War rivals in race to spare world from nuclear peril
Part One | Part Two
After the Sept. 11 attacks, nuclear terrorism suddenly seemed plausible -- the new worst-case scenario. Americans wondered whether Osama bin Laden could get his hands on the bomb and whether the U.S. was doing enough to stop him. Suitcase bombs, yellowcake and WMD entered the nation's lexicon.
Quietly, though, the U.S. government was trying to defuse a ticking threat of its own making.
At Argonne National Laboratory, scientists worked feverishly to eliminate terrorists' easiest route to a nuclear device: the highly enriched uranium used in dozens of research reactors that the U.S. and Soviet Union had scattered around the world during the Cold War.
A small team of scientists, working out of aging labs near Lemont, hoped to invent a new fuel that could be used in reactors but be useless for bombs.
If they succeeded, the U.S. might finally be able to secure tons of weapons-grade material.
If they failed, it would set back by many years the heart of U.S. efforts to deny terrorists access to such material -- keeping the nation, and the world, vulnerable to nuclear nightmare.
After 25 years, tens of millions of dollars and dozens of classified missions, America's quest to retrieve the world's most potent nuclear fuel had come down to this: a secret meeting in the heart of Moscow.
At one end of a conference room sat Russia's top nuclear scientists and bureaucrats. At the other were the Americans, led by Argonne National Laboratory's Armando Travelli, who had traveled to the Russian capital in the winter of 2003 to hear the results of a scientific test with grave implications for U.S. national security.
The unlikely research partnership of former Cold War rivals hoped to create a nuclear fuel that would persuade nations with highly enriched uranium to trade it in for something better and safer.
If the test was a success, Travelli might finally retrieve tons of the bomb-grade material that America and Russia had provided over decades. If the test failed, it would set back U.S. non-proliferation efforts for years.
The Russians told Travelli's team that there were some minor problems but nothing to worry about. They would do additional work and get back to the Americans.
"May I see the pictures of the test?" Travelli asked.
"I'm sorry," the head of the Russian team replied. "There are no pictures available."
The Russian, Travelli recalled, then abruptly stood up and walked out, followed by his colleagues.
Travelli approached the last Russian packing his belongings, a low-level scientist who had been quiet at the meeting.
"I'd like to see the pictures," Travelli said. "When might there be pictures?"
The man leaned down and pulled three 8-by-10, black-and-white photographs from his briefcase, then put them on the table.
Travelli picked them up. One by one, he studied them, knowing that America's future -- and his own -- was at stake.
A top nuclear physicist, Travelli had spent the last quarter-century trying to bring home weapons-grade uranium America had supplied to dozens of nations in an ill-conceived program launched by President Dwight Eisenhower called Atoms for Peace.
Toiling in the twilight zone where hard science and clandestine missions intersect, Travelli had weathered congressional indifference to his project, research budgets set at zero and, by some accounts, his own missteps.
A persuasive scientist-diplomat, he had even managed to patch together a promising solution with the scant resources at his disposal. The question was whether it would work.
Or was he banking too much on unproven science and his own ability to charm the Russians, other foreigners -- even his own bosses?
Nuclear research reactors are like sports cars: They run faster with a high-octane fuel -- in this case, highly enriched uranium.
A powerfully fueled reactor can conduct an experiment in a week; a poorly fueled one could take a month. For private reactor operators producing and selling radioisotopes for medical uses, such as cancer radiation, that gap can mean the difference between profit and loss.
The challenge facing Travelli and his team of Argonne scientists was to invent a fuel strong enough to satisfy reactor operators, but weak enough to be useless to terrorists trying to build a nuclear weapon.
By the early 1990s, Travelli's team had solved this riddle for many reactors around the globe. He carefully noted each success story by replacing a green triangular magnet with a red one on a large metallic world map in his office.
But dozens of other reactors still would not operate on anything but bomb-grade fuel. And because none of these reactors were precisely the same, the Argonne scientists faced the overwhelming task of inventing a special fuel for each one.
Plus, dozens of reactors worldwide used bomb-grade fuel supplied by Russia, and no one was addressing those.
So in 1993 Travelli traveled to Moscow and eventually helped cut a groundbreaking deal: U.S. and Russian scientists would team together to craft a single, all-purpose fuel that would work in all the reactors, regardless of make, model or country of origin.
To do that, they had to make a fuel with a low percentage of uranium-235, the potent isotope behind the atomic chain reaction that causes nuclear explosions.
U-235 is unsteady, so the trick was to find some way to stabilize it while packing it densely enough to give the fuel the necessary power. Travelli's team knew that adding certain elements could calm the uranium; his team tested more than 20 before deciding to stake their work on molybdenum, a hard, gray metal used to strengthen steel.
Officially, this exotic, experimental mixture was called "uranium-molybdenum dispersion fuel." For the cause of disarming the threat of nuclear terrorism, Travelli's team hoped it would be the magic fuel.
Unlike race cars, reactors run on solid fuels; that meant Argonne scientists were using metals, powders and plates. They knew the tiniest mistake in making a nuclear fuel invited failure. "It's not a blacksmith's job, that's for sure," said Jim Snelgrove, a fuel specialist at Argonne.
Work began in earnest. Argonne scientists melted together chunks of uranium and molybdenum, machined the mixture into powder, added aluminum, then pressed and rolled the metal into thin, shiny plates the size of credit cards. These miniature fuel plates were placed in a research reactor in Idaho for a full year of testing. The radioactive plates then returned to Argonne in special casks inside a hazmat truck.
Workers wearing protective bodysuits and using mechanical arms cut the plates with fine instruments and photographed the pieces under an electron microscope. The early results were encouraging: no evidence of cracks, swelling or bubbling.
But the same couldn't be said of the U.S.-Russian partnership.
It quickly began splintering. The Russian scientists, still suspicious from the recent Soviet past, were hesitant to share information, turning in lab reports that offered scant detail. Later, they accused Travelli's team of trying to steal their technology.
Further complicating matters, the U.S. in 1999 placed economic sanctions on Travelli's partner in Russia, a nuclear contractor called NIKIET, for allegedly providing "sensitive missile or nuclear assistance" to Iran.
Section head Nikolay Arkhangelsky of Rosatom, Russia's Federal Atomic Energy Agency, is one of the world's leading experts on nuclear technology, Moscow, Russia. (Justin Jin/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
Travelli struggled to find a new lab, at one point appealing to his influential friend in the Russian nuclear bureaucracy, Nikolay Arkhangelsky. But Arkhangelsky demurred, upset like his colleagues at the U.S. sanctions.
After nearly two years and three more trips to Moscow, Travelli finally found a new laboratory. Work on the magic fuel picked up dramatically.
One night, after reviewing the Russians' progress at a Moscow lab, Travelli was walking down the hallway of his hotel when Gerard Hofman, a fuel development specialist at Argonne, called him into his room.
"I think you'd better see this," he said.
Travelli's eyes locked on the TV as the World Trade Center towers crashed to the ground.
In the tense weeks that followed Sept. 11, many wondered whether terrorists could obtain an atomic weapon, whether a bomb could fit into a suitcase, whether the U.S. was doing enough to prevent a nuclear catastrophe.
But the American government didn't intensify efforts to retrieve uranium.
U.S. officials didn't call emergency meetings. Congress didn't hold hearings on the issue. President Bush and Capitol Hill didn't even provide more money for the effort.
The program's budget stayed flat at $5.6 million.
The lack of action exasperated those who knew that the highly enriched uranium scattered around the globe was the quickest way for al-Qaida or other terrorists to build a crude nuclear device.
Jack Edlow, whose company, Edlow International, ships nuclear fuel back to the U.S., was in his Washington office on Sept. 11. He looked out his back window and saw smoke rising from the Pentagon.
"I thought they would get themselves a couple of hundred million dollars, and we would get the whole thing cleaned up in a couple of years," Edlow recalled. "I thought everybody would say, `Let's go get this stuff before it comes back to haunt us.'"
Eleven months after the terrorist attacks, the U.S. did manage to remove two nuclear bomb's worth of uranium from Serbia and ship it back to Russia. But to pay for the mission, the State Department asked the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a non-profit group founded by Ted Turner and former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, to donate $5 million; that was more money than the government contributed to the mission.
Even after Sept. 11, America was relying on funding from a non-profit for critical national security work.
"It was embarrassing," recalled Allan Krass, a State Department official involved in the operation. But officials, he said, had no choice: "We needed the money."
After the terrorist attacks, Travelli felt more pressure than ever to succeed. That feeling intensified when he learned a competing team of French scientists was trying to invent a nearly identical magic fuel.
Throughout 2002, the French and the U.S.-Russian teams both reported great progress with their fuels, predicting the material would be ready for reactors in three years. They were so confident they began planning training seminars so other nations could learn about the fuel and place orders.
At an international conference in Aix-en-Provence, France, in 2003, Travelli's team and the French scientists told colleagues and the trade press that their separate fuel programs were right on track.
But privately, the French were telling a far different story, Travelli recalled.
They pulled Travelli's team aside at the convention center and laid out pictures of their latest tests. The often-unstable uranium particles looked fine. But there were bizarre, meandering cracks -- like the hairline fractures of a bone -- in the aluminum portion of the fuel in which the uranium particles were embedded. Travelli had never seen anything like it.
The French fuel was failing.
Alarmed, Travelli and his team flew back to Chicago and immediately began sifting through dozens of photos of their own tests. Was it possible their fuel had the same problems, but they had somehow missed it?
Sure enough, they began to recognize tiny little bubbles -- almost imperceptible -- inside the fuel plates. They were aligned in such a way that if the Americans were to jump ahead with advanced testing as the French had, the tiny bubbles would likely multiply and connect, forming the same cracks seen in France.
Travelli's Russian partners hadn't run any tests yet. But his former partners had.
NIKIET, the Russian nuclear contractor still under U.S. sanctions, was quietly developing its own reactor fuel. Travelli had heard NIKIET was experiencing similar failures as seen in France.
Aware of the dire implications, Travelli's team flew to Moscow in December 2003 to see if it could learn of NIKIET's results.
The crucial meeting was held at the Bochvar Institute, the lab working with Travelli. His Russian allies from the lab and the government were on hand. NIKIET, barred from contact with the Americans, was represented at the meeting by subcontractors.
After the Russians assured Travelli that there were only minor problems with the NIKIET fuel, they walked out of the meeting. But the last one to leave pulled out detailed pictures of the tests from his briefcase and gave them to Travelli.
He studied each of the three photographs carefully. He could see the small meandering lines in the aluminum portion of the fuel, just as he had seen in France.
The evidence now was overwhelming: The magic fuel was a bust.
Feeling as though his life's work had collapsed, Travelli returned to his hotel. A few minutes later, the phone rang. It was a State Department official. He wanted an update.
After his dream fuel failed, everything changed for Travelli.
In the summer of 2004, Energy Department officials began taking firmer control of America's effort to retrieve bomb fuel. They wanted it run out of Washington, not Chicago. They wanted the fuel work managed out of a federal lab in Idaho, not Argonne. They wanted new scientists involved, not the same group that had been leading it the last 26 years.
And three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, they finally asked to double the budget.
Travelli heard about these changes piecemeal. Then one day, an Argonne administrator, Phillip Finck, called him into his office. Finck told the longtime scientist that energy officials wanted him out. He could stay on as a scientific adviser, but an Argonne colleague would replace him.
Moreover, energy officials wanted Travelli to make this announcement that weekend at a conference in Vienna -- one that Travelli himself had organized.
Travelli was stunned. He had fought to keep the effort alive for nearly three decades, often in the face of little support. Now that Sept. 11 had finally moved his work to the top of the national security agenda, he was supposed to step down?
But Finck, Travelli recalled, told him he didn't really have a choice; funding from the Energy Department was at stake.
Five days later in Vienna, at a jammed conference with dozens of familiar faces, Travelli announced the leadership changes. Later, an energy official read a proclamation in his honor. When she finished, the crowd gave Travelli a standing ovation. People chanted for him to speak. But he declined, afraid of what he might say.
Many experts were surprised that such an eminent scientist would be removed during America's war on terror.
"I had never come across anyone in public service who had accomplished so much for national security with so few resources provided by the government," said Alan Kuperman, a non-proliferation expert and professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
But Edlow, the owner of the nuclear shipping firm, thought Travelli had it coming. "He was looking for the perfect fuel," Edlow recalled, "and always looking and always looking and always looking."
Krass, the retired State Department official, offered a pragmatic assessment. In his view, Travelli was treated unfairly. "But," he said, "somebody has got to walk the plank."
Energy officials deny that the magic-fuel bust prompted Travelli's removal. They said they simply wanted the program run out of Washington, where it could get the attention it deserved.
After Travelli was removed, he stayed at Argonne for eight months as an adviser, earning the same $172,000 salary.
At one point, an energy official overseeing the effort to retrieve bomb fuel sent Travelli an e-mail demanding that he address a pressing financial mess. An arm of the State Department had withdrawn $500,000 related to work on the magic fuel in Russia -- the first time it had ever asked for money back.
It had not gotten regular reports, and the program had stretched far beyond the original plan. Feeling as though he was being unduly blamed for the failure of the magic fuel -- a failure that occurred independently in three countries -- Travelli submitted his resignation, effective July 2005.
The man who had been charged with retrieving America's scattered uranium, partly because of his diplomatic skills, submitted a blunt, angry letter.
"Fear of being fired has replaced the pursuit of excellence as a motivator for our work," he wrote in resigning, "and the main concern today is to satisfy every wish of frequently incompetent and unpredictable bureaucrats in Washington."
In the last year, energy officials say they have made great progress. Six more reactors have given up using weapons-grade fuel -- a far faster success rate, the officials said, than Travelli had accomplished.
And in December, the U.S. helped relocate nearly 600 pounds of uranium from a former East German lab to a specially secured Russian facility. The U.S. also has spent tens of millions to bolster security at some overseas reactors, providing fences, cameras, heavy-duty doors and vaults.
But there are other signs that efforts actually have gone backward. For instance, in the most difficult cases of securing bomb fuel -- particularly in Russia, where officials are reluctant to cooperate -- the U.S. has simply quit trying.
Travelli has not given up. He was hired by Ted Turner's non-profit group to work as a consultant on addressing the fuel issue in Russia. Last spring, Travelli traveled to Moscow, once again teaming up with Arkhangelsky, the once-mysterious Russian who served by turns as his rival and partner over Travelli's quarter-century quest.
But Turner's group has struggled to raise enough money to keep the effort alive.
So the 72-year-old Travelli spends most of his time visiting with his three grown sons and puttering around his suburban Hinsdale, Ill., home, a three-bedroom split-level with a large back-yard garden.
Over 26 years, Travelli and his team helped 22 nations stop using bomb-grade fuel in 33 reactors, eliminating the use of 3.3 tons and ridding the world of 120 potential nuclear weapons. But more than 100 reactors still use the dangerous fuel, with an estimated 40 tons out of U.S. control.
Travelli also spent eight years trying to develop a magic fuel. In the end, it failed. His successors continue that mission, but they are at least several years away from a solution.
The metallic world map Travelli had used to carefully chart his work still hangs on the wall of a small, rarely used office on Argonne's campus.
No one tends to the map anymore.
Back to Part One: An atomic threat made in America
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