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Kevin J. Anderson, Doug Beason


“Nuclear weapons and nuclear weapon systems require special consideration because of their policy implications and military importance, their destructive power, as well as the potential consequences of an accident or unauthorized act. Therefore, safety, security, control, and effectiveness of nuclear weapons are of paramount importance to the security of the United States.”

— from “Joint Policy Statement on Nuclear Weapons Surety”
Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense
James D. Watkins, Secretary of Energy
June, 1991

“Seven hundred of the eight hundred pages of the START agreement deal with verification, and are a waste of money.”

— Vadim G. Osinin, staff expert, Supreme Soviet Committee on
Defense and Security.

“The person who survives the first year in [the nuclear test program] is probably going to be here for the rest of his career.”

— Robert W. Kuckuck, Deputy Associate Director for Nuclear Testing,
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.


Monday, October 20
8:10 P.M.
Device Assembly Facility
Nevada Nuclear Test Site

Alone in a highly secure facility deep inside the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, inspector Kosimo Nevsky stood over the deadly radioactive material that had fueled the Cold War.

The vast warehouse-like Device Assembly Facility was dark, quiet. This late at night most of the workers had gone to their cozy American homes, while the rest of the Russian disarmament team had been shuttled to their Las Vegas hotel to gamble in the casinos. Some team members viewed the expedition to the United States as a holiday, rather than treaty-mandated work. But they had to wrap everything up, nice and tidy, by Friday for the summit meeting between the American and Russian presidents.

For now, that meant Academician Nevsky had to put in the extra hours to double-check what appeared to be a serious discrepancy. Yes, he would have a surprise for the American president. Besides, he didn’t mind the opportunity to be alone.

His own security escort, PK Dirks, had wandered off with typical lack of attention to his job. Appalling, given the sensitivity of the information in the warhead dismantling section of the facility. The Americans relied too much on their badges and fences and sleepy guards.

With no one around, Nevsky slipped a small flask from his front pants pocket and gulped two long swigs of the smooth bourbon. Kentucky bourbon. Another interesting experience. During his evenings in Las Vegas, he had grown quite fond of it, and he intended to consume as much as possible before he returned home to the traditional, but still effective, bottles of vodka he kept in the freezer compartment of his refrigerator in Moscow.

Feeling the sour-mash bourbon burn down his throat, Nevsky stashed the flask again and used a pudgy hand to caress the metal-walled glovebox containing the radioactive plutonium cores, or pits — components of a disassembled U.S. nuclear weapon, now lying in front of him behind a protective glass plate.

Another warhead dismantled, destroyed, awaiting verification. Part of the upcoming international show, so the two presidents could clasp hands and celebrate a safer world in front of swarms of paparazzi, flashing cameras, rolling videotape. Politicians would claim all the credit, while Nevsky and his seven companions would do all the work. He hoped someone bothered to give them a medal at least, a trinket he could wear.

In the harsh lights, Nevsky’s reflection glinted off of the glovebox, distorted from the safety glass. He saw unruly white hair like a corona surrounding a bald spot above a fleshy face.

In front of him the nondescript weapon cores were warm, gray metal spheres the size of ping-pong balls. But when inserted into a critical weapon assembly, surrounded by high-explosive implosion lenses and precisely machined beryllium metal casings, each little sphere became a seed of Armageddon, no longer needed in a post-Cold War world.

The three gloveboxes sat within white-painted fortress walls formed by stacked concrete blocks, creating a secure corner of the Device Assembly Facility, which the Americans — loving their acronyms — called the DAF. Security cameras hung from the metal rafters, but they did not track his movements. Deactivated? Budget cuts, perhaps? This “Pit Assembly Area” had originally been built to build nuclear weapons, but with the downsizing of the global stockpile, it now provided a natural place to disassemble warheads. With proper international oversight.

The KGB had once expended enormous effort to gain any detail about these weapons. Yet here he was, Ambassador Kosimo Nevsky, former Director of the prestigious Lebedeev Institute and now leader of the disarmament team, given total access — alone! — to the heart of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

But then, when the Americans spent all day displaying their every secret inside the Nuclear Test Site, what was left for a spy to discover? It would have been superfluous. Or was the very openness a clever distraction?

These plutonium pits had been salvaged from weapons decommissioned from the active nuclear stockpile. That stockpile still threatened Russia and the rest of the “near abroad” — which was why Nevsky had to be absolutely certain that each of the serial numbers and entries corresponded to their appropriate components on the voluminous list.

The other inspectors had snickered at him for doing the work of a mere clerk. But he had been chosen as team leader and had been given ambassadorial rank for this assignment — and he had decided to work late to complete this random check, rather than running off to drink and gamble with the rest of the Russians. Nevsky had been criticized for his frequent drinking, and his deputy, General Ursov, bristled at the mere thought of being subordinate to a civilian leader, but Nevsky did take his work seriously.

Scratching the rounded skin of his neck, just starting to develop into jowls, he stepped back from the glovebox and frowned, looking around again for his escort, PK Dirks. Until now, most of the Americans — especially their beautiful and wonderfully competent protocol escort, Paige Mitchell — had insisted that the Russian delegation follow strict rules to the smallest detail. But fifteen minutes earlier, Mr. Dirks had been most anxious to leave Nevsky, claiming pressing business of his own — probably off taking a pee.

Nevsky turned impatiently; he did not wish to continue the tedious work without the American oversight, in case any questions or accusations were raised later. He liked being alone, but he had to follow protocol. He called, “Mr. Dirks! Hurry up, please? Where are you?”

No reply. No sound came inside the DAF except for the distant growling of forklift trucks and machinery in the cargo-crowded high bay on the other side of the Pit Assembly Area.

Scowling, Nevsky turned back to the glovebox, wanting to take another gulp of the delicious bourbon, but he decided not to. The flask would have to last him for another hour or so. For now he had to complete his work, official escorts be damned. He had not flown all the way from Russia for an unreliable technician to delay him.

On a table piled with documents, he pulled out a red notebook, fumbling through pages of handwritten notes until he came to Decommissioned Serial Numbers. Placing the notebook on the top of the glovebox so he could read it, Nevsky plunged his hands into the thick rubber gloves in front of the unit. Reaching inside, separated from the radioactive material by only the thickness of a glove, he flexed his fingers. The black gloves felt remarkably more flexible than the unwieldy ones he had used for training back at Lebedeev.