We’re all nervous about the fact that Iran and North Korea may have nuclear warheads?so much so, that some countries are considering preliminary strikes against Iran. We know from the Valerie Plame affair that governments often have reasons to lie about the types of weapons they?or other governments?have actually built or stockpiled. What we need is a good way to track the illicit trade in nuclear material, so we can decide exactly what weapons each country actually has.

A Sandia National Laboratories researcher has developed a computer program that uses a mathematical formula to track the illicit trade in radiological material well enough to predict who is building the next nuclear weapon and where they are doing it. Sandia is a National Nuclear Security Administration laboratory. Researcher David York says, “By using a cluster analysis algorithm coded into a program, I evaluated those traffic patterns and routes in which thefts, seizures, and destinations of materials were reported. Data from these examinations were enough to allow me to retrospectively depict the network before it was uncovered.”

York generated an analysis of networked routes indicative of a nuclear trafficking scheme between countries. In several verified incidents, inspectors seized uranium enriched to 80%, as well as items that could be used in the development of crude nuclear devices (“dirty bombs” that might be used by terrorists).

When he collected data from 800 incidents from 1992 to the present and plotted them on a computer, he came up with a network of countries and routes between countries indicative of an illicit nuclear and radiological trafficking scheme. York says, “The number of incidents and the quantity and quality of material seized is disturbing, particularly because this may represent a small percentage of the actual amount of material being trafficked.”

Trafficking may be engaged in by amateur smugglers trying to feed their families in a post-Soviet era. It may also be practiced by those involved in organized crime who find a lucrative market in moving illicit materials, and by terrorists interested in the potential devastation and psychological effects of the use of nuclear materials. The situation may be worse than it appears because much information about nuclear material traffic is classified, to prevent embarrassment to countries through which a nuclear weapon or the materials to fabricate a weapon may have passed.

Art credit: gimp-savvy.com

When oracles have predicted the future, what have they seen?

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