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Financial Times (UK)
10 November 2001
Atomic leaks
The west fears Soviet bomb material could be stolen by terrorists

By Andrew Jack and Clive Cookson

When experts funded by the US government began examining the security of military nuclear installations in Russia during the 1990s, they were shocked by what they found. Fences had collapsed, doors were not locked and guards were poorly paid or absent.

Even officers from the Russian navy, usually reluctant to admit weaknesses, conceded privately that there was a risk of materials being stolen. "It is hard to describe the extraordinary sense of urgency," says Jack Caravelli, assistant deputy administrator of the US National Nuclear Security Administration, of the need to make these materials safe.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, followed by the wave of anthrax mail in the US, have led President George W. Bush and other world leaders to warn of the consequences of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network. And the crumbling remains of the former Soviet Union's military complex are widely seen as the most likely source of expertise and materials for terrorists seeking weapons of mass destruction.

Many US politicians have reiterated warnings, such as that issued earlier this year by a bipartisan commission chaired by Howard Baker, a former senator, and Lloyd Cutler, former White House counsel: "The most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States today is the danger that weapons of mass destruction or weapons-usable material in Russia could be stolen and sold to terrorists or hostile nation states."

Within Russia, the mood is relatively calm. Adding to a series of denials by senior officials over the past few weeks, President Vladimir Putin stressed on Wednesday that his country's stockpiles of biological weapons "were always in the Soviet Union - and are now in Russia - well guarded". He added that reports of the sale of nuclear secrets were undocumented "legends".

Mr Putin's view is broadly shared by independent outside experts. Although the Inter-national Atomic Energy Agency warned last week that the world faced a serious risk of nuclear terrorism, IAEA staff say they have gathered no new evidence since September 11 of al-Qaeda or any other terrorists trying to obtain nuclear material.

Mohamed El Baradei, IAEA director-general, says the warning is based simply on an assessment of the terrorists' psychology and ruthlessness: "The willingness of terrorists to sacrifice their lives to achieve their evil aims makes the nuclear terrorism threat far more likely than it was before September 11."

Frightening reports in the media - for example, that al-Qaeda possesses 20 "suitcase bombs" capable of one-kilotonne nuclear explosions or that the Taliban regime has been offered small tactical weapons from the Soviet nuclear arsenal - "should be met with much scepticism", says Morten Bremer Maerli, a specialist on nuclear terrorism at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.

But Charles Curtis, president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an independent charitable organisation, told an IAEA seminar on terrorism last week: "The theft of potential bomb material is not just a hypothetical worry but an ongoing reality. This includes the attempted theft by a conspiracy of insiders of 18.5kg of highly enriched uranium from a weapons facility in the Urals. It includes nearly a kilogramme of HEU in the form of fast reactor fuel pellets seized last year in the republic of Georgia."

Reports of former Soviet scien tists working for "rogue regimes" and thefts of nuclear or biological materials are very hard to verify independently. Limited details - of thwarted thefts or attacks - are often provided by military or security service officials without further information. Their remarks have sometimes been interpreted as efforts to boost their own image and morale or to seek additional funding.

Matthew Bunn of Harvard University, a member of the Russian-American Nuclear Security Advisory Council, has monitored many "anecdotal" incidents over the past few years. "We don't have confirmed evidence [of theft]," he says. "But absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence."

There certainly are huge risks. The Soviet Union's weapons complex, the largest the world has known, has left a dangerous legacy. Chemical stockpiles of 40,000 tonnes, of which about three- quarters are nerve agents, are held in seven main locations. While Russia claims to have destroyed its bioweapons stockpiles, there is no mechanism for independent verification and at least four military research centres are still operating today.

Estimates of weapons-grade nuclear materials stored in dozens of sites across Russia range upwards of 600 tonnes, with a similar quantity still armed on about 40,000 weapons. Countless lower-grade radioactive sources could be used for terrorist purposes, such as making "dirty bombs" that spread nuclear contamination by means of conventional explosions.

So far, attempts to destroy, decommission or safely reuse such materials have been limited. Substantial foreign aid, mainly from the US, has led to the construction of two new facilities designed to destroy chemical weapons. But they are not yet ready to begin work and Russia is already demanding a five-year extension of the 2007 decommissioning deadline set under the Chemical Weapons Convention that it ratified in 1997.

Greater progress has been made with nuclear decommissioning, including a pioneering programme to convert and sell enriched uranium to a commercial US company to burn in power stations. Up to 2,000 weapons a year are also reportedly being dismantled, although the process remains opaque.

Another significant risk comes not from theft but from leakage of intellectual property. Up to 70,000 people worked on the Soviet Union's biological re-search programme alone - much of it for military purposes. About 750,000 people live in 10 nuclear cities across the country designed specifically for weapons development. Mr Caravelli estimates conservatively there may be 10,000 to 25,000 scientists with expertise that could prove useful.

Efforts to finance alternative commercial work for scientists, including biotechnology projects at Vektor, are under way but remain modest. Even so, there are encouraging signs. In 1999, the civilian-run Russian Munitions Agency took over responsibility for chemical weapons decommissioning, triggering a more energetic approach to the problem, and last year Mr Putin pledged political support.

But some experts are demanding a greater sense of urgency. Mr Curtis, who was deputy energy secretary in the Clinton administration, wants Mr Bush and Mr Putin at their summit next week to "commit their countries to a course of action that would ensure that any nuclear, chemical and biological weapons are safe, secure and accounted for - with reciprocal monitoring to assure each other, and the world, that this is the case."

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