by Joel Brinkley

Western nations are hurriedly collaborating to tighten sanctions on Iran after the United Nations released documents that left little doubt the country is trying to produce nuclear weapons.

American diplomats are pushing North Korea to shut down its uranium-enrichment plants so that nuclear-disarmament talks can resume. And as Pakistan grows less stable with every passing week, the U.S. is urgently devising plans to secure that state's nuclear weapons, should the government lose control.

Meantime, several federal agencies in charge of America's bomb-grade nuclear materials reacted with sneering disregard to a government auditor's report this fall that no one is monitoring large quantities of highly enriched uranium, enough to make hundreds of nuclear weapons. The U.S. loaned the material to dozens of countries for research projects decades ago.

The State Department, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Department of Energy "are satisfied with the status quo on this issue," Eugene Aloise, director of nuclear security and non-proliferation for the Government Accountability Office, told me. The GAO published his report. "In our view, they have a pre-911 mentality regarding securing of this nuclear material."

In 1993, the last time the U.S. tried to find all of the highly enriched uranium (known as HEU) it had loaned out, it "was able to verify the location of 1,160 kilograms out of an estimated 17,500 kilograms of U.S. HEU remaining overseas," Aloise's report said. Despite that startling shortfall, no one has bothered to look since. Roughly two kilograms of the highly enriched uranium is needed to make a bomb.

Over the last 40 years, the U.S has signed nuclear-cooperation agreements with 27 nations in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and loaned them nuclear materials for peaceful research purposes.

One of those countries was Iran -- a close ally until the revolution in 1979. There's no record to show that the nuclear material was ever returned after the ayatollahs took control, a senior official said -- raising the unprovable but distressing possibility that American nuclear fuel served as the seed for Iran's nuclear-weapons program.

At the time, Iran's revolution seemed an aberration. But the world has undergone dramatic change since the 1970s and '80s, when most of the material was loaned. Now, in fact, uprisings and protests are spreading around the world.

Today, Islamic fundamentalists dream of acquiring a bomb. And with Osama bin Laden dead and al-Qaeda's relevance waning, how better to regain notoriety than to set off a nuclear weapon in some Western city? Aloise's report suggests it would be far from impossible for al-Qaeda to acquire the enriched fuel it needs from American stores loaned out long ago.

Federal investigators have already discovered several security lapses by nations holding American HEU. But when the GAO was preparing its report, the State Department was more concerned about embarrassing the countries guilty of these unspecified lapses than drawing attention to this frightful problem. The final report made no mention of these security failures.

In theory, the U.S. strives to inspect each site holding nuclear materials once every five years. In fact, however, the GAO found that 21 of the 27 nations holding bomb-grade materials are not visited even that often, and security inspectors have never visited 12 of the sites. The report did not name the countries.

Even when Energy Department officials do visit some of the countries, sometimes they are told that the inspection is an infringement of national sovereignty and sent away.

Aloise visited one country that did accept a security inspection. Previously, it appears, the only impediment to acquiring the HEU there had been a couple of locked doors. On the advice of the U.S. officials, the (unnamed) government built a security fence around the building, installed video surveillance and stationed an armed guard outside the nuclear lab's front door.

How many other nations holding American bomb-grade uranium keep it behind nothing more than a locked door? We don't know.

In a TV interview last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she considered allowing weapons of mass destruction to fall into the hands of international terrorists "the worst of nightmares and the biggest threat faced by the United States today."

But responding to Aloise's report, Clinton's department remarked that implementing the GAO's recommendations to better secure bomb-grade material would "diminish U.S. influence overseas to advance our national non-proliferation objectives and cost jobs at home." The Department of Energy said, in effect, that closer monitoring would cost too much and not be worth the trouble.

These misguided bureaucrats had better wake up -- before it's too late.



"A Nuclear Wake-up Call"