Loose nukes is a term used by government officials when referencing poorly protected nuclear weapons in former Soviet Union states that tempt the likes of A.Q. Khan and other terrorists.
According to Congressional records, A.Q. Khan was the leader of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. In 2004, Khan was placed under house arrest for his role in an international nuclear trafficking network and for sharing nuclear secrets with countries including North Korea, Libya and Iran.
“The intriguing thing about A.Q. Khan is that he is in the background. The impression that we have from the Khan network is that he has, you know, an array of associates who have known him for many years and do his bidding and work for him and that these are the people that are doing most of the running around. They're doing most of the organizing, and some of those individuals, I've met over the years,” explained Mark Hibbs, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace during a recent National Public Radio interview.
At the same time, President Obama has called nuclear terrorism the most immediate and extreme threat to global security. While Obama and President Medvedev of Russia signed the new START treaty back in December, experts such as Hibbs say it’s just a band aid for a world that’s not of out control with “loose nukes.”
Still, Obama noted that the new START treaty will help keep nuclear material out of the hands of rogue nations and terrorists.
Students here at the University of Oregon aren’t as optimistic.
“There’s no way you can stop these nukes from getting into the wrong hands,” said one concerned student, while another predicted that “it’s not if a terrorist nuke will be set but when?”
At the same time, there’s been a flurry of anti-nuke art on display in Eugene and around the University of Oregon campus.
In general, the subject of “loose nukes” is somewhat distasteful for students meeting at a campus Starbucks to discuss life and other things. “The nukes are something that happened before our digital age. It’s bad news and that generation who produced these weapons of doom need to fix it now. It’s clearly getting out of hand,” explained Peter, a senior who studies political science.
At the same time, Hibbs is making the TV, radio and Internet talk show circuit saying about the same thing – that loose nukes are still out there and present a clear and present danger to the world.
“Some of the encounters I've had with these people have been bone-chilling. They can size you up and tell very quickly whether you are a threat to them, or you pose a challenge that they feel they have to deal with, and I've come away with a conclusion that in dealing with nuclear smugglers, I'm dealing with people who are potentially very, very dangerous,” explained Hibbs whose a specialist in finding those who smuggle nuclear bombs into U.S. cities.
Khan legacy has Apocalypse written all over it, say experts
Hibbs points to President George W. Bush declaring the breakup of Khan's nuclear black market as a major victory for the United States back in 2004.
However, a new book about the takedown of Khan's network, titled “Fallout,” notes that Khan’s legacy of loose nukes is much too broad worldwide to ever think we’re safe.
In Fallout, Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins track the ways the United States secretly penetrated Khan's network to prevent Libya and Iran from obtaining nuclear secrets.
During a recent National Public Radio interview, investigative reporters Frantz and Collins say the CIA tracked Khan’s nuclear trafficking network for more than 30 years but “it was so obsessed with getting information that it let Khan and his associates spread dangerous nuclear technology around the globe.
Frantz, who’s managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, served as a foreign correspondent based in Istanbul during the period of when Khan was being watched by the CIA.
"They could literally have stopped him in his tracks [in the 1970s]. It would have done an enormous amount to delay Pakistan building its own nuclear weapon, to delay the arms race on the South Asian continent and to stop Iran from getting where it is on the nuclear front," Frantz says. "This is something that the CIA, in our view, has been guilty of for more than 30 years now."
Khan, a metallurgist, worked for several European governments, including the Netherlands, in the late 1970s, Frantz says. While in the Netherlands, Khan stole plans needed to develop the fuel for nuclear weapons.
Today, Khan and others are still "out there" trying to develop plans for loose nukes, he said.