With the dawn of the atomic age came a highly classified operation to intercept nuclear explosives at U.S. airports.
The number of possible enemies who could smuggle an atomic bomb into the United States has grown from the single Soviet superpower in the 1950s to a sizable handful of states and organizations. Efforts to keep that from happening have remained focused on a single target: weapons-grade uranium. Between 2000 and 2019, the National Nuclear Security Administration reported the disposal or interception of almost 16,000 pounds of that material and plutonium—enough, according to NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, “for more than 300 nuclear weapons.”
The idea that raw material for one or more of those nuclear devices might be smuggled into the United States is a worry that stretches back to the onset of the cold war and was the topic at a closed hearing of the Senate Special Committee on Atomic Energy on December 5, 1945.