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Los Angeles Times
November 11, 2001
Nuclear Threat Is Real, Experts Warn
The former Soviet stockpile is seen as a likely source of weaponry for terrorists.
Specialists cite lax security, missing materials and attempted thefts.


WASHINGTON -- The guards who oversee the vast, remaining nuclear stockpile of the former Soviet Union have gone months at a time without pay. Highly enriched uranium--usable for a nuclear bomb--has disappeared. Among the buyers-in-waiting is the world's most wanted man, Osama bin Laden.

President Bush last week underscored the threat, noting that Bin Laden has vowed to seek weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear bombs.

Before the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings, many government officials assumed that terrorists would refrain from using radioactive materials because of the grave risk to themselves. This assumption now appears outdated, raising dire questions about the possibility of terrorist attacks that could kill tens of thousands or more civilians. "Absent a major new initiative, we have every reason to expect there will be an act of nuclear terrorism in the next decade, maybe sooner," said Graham T. Allison, an assistant secretary of Defense under President Clinton.

Interviews and documents show that U.S. and Russian leaders over the last decade have taken incomplete steps to safeguard a potentially large nuclear shopping mart in which scientists or officials motivated by cash meet terrorists seeking the ultimate weapon.

Although Bush said his administration "will do everything we can" to thwart Bin Laden's nuclear ambitions, past promises have fallen short: As a candidate, Bush vowed to increase spending for securing the former Soviet nuclear arsenal and to press for "an accurate inventory of all this material." As president, he has done the opposite--proposing spending cuts in his first budget. And Bush has not sought to use any of the $40 billion provided for anti-terrorism spending after Sept. 11 to better secure the coveted stockpile.

With new urgency, experts are examining the widespread opportunities for terrorists to acquire nuclear materials and know-how from the former Soviet Union.

A report prepared for the U.S. secretary of Energy early this year warned of "dozens" of worrisome incidents. Other government consultants have verified the disappearance of highly enriched uranium from an unguarded plant on the Black Sea, interviews and records show. A prominent U.S. physicist told The Times of being presented with an offer to buy neutron "guns," devices that can be used to detonate a nuclear bomb.

And according to U.S. experts, neither the Russians nor the Americans have a complete inventory of all the highly enriched uranium and plutonium, another ingredient for a nuclear bomb.

"I am concerned that weapons-usable nuclear material may have gone astray," said Rose Gottemoeller, who served as assistant secretary of Energy for nonproliferation and national security during the Clinton administration.

Bin Laden Claims He Has Weapons

For now, American officials say they do not know whether Bin Laden's international terror network, Al Qaeda, possesses either intact nuclear weapons or the materials to make them.

But Bin Laden, in interviews in December 1998 with U.S. television and magazine reporters, said it was a "religious duty" to possess nuclear materials and chemical weapons. When Bin Laden and others were indicted in November 1998 for the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, federal prosecutors alleged that "from at least as early as 1993, Osama bin Laden and others known and unknown made efforts to obtain the components of nuclear weapons."

On Friday, a leading Pakistani newspaper quoted Bin Laden as saying in an interview Wednesday that he has both nuclear and chemical weapons. "I wish to declare that if America used nuclear or chemical weapons against us, then we may retort with chemical and nuclear weapons. We have the weapons as deterrent," Bin Laden said, according to the account in the English-language newspaper, Dawn. Bin Laden declined to say where he might have acquired the weapons.

Al Qaeda would not be the only terrorist group to pursue nuclear materials. Aum Shinrikyo, a wealthy doomsday cult based in Japan, recruited nuclear physicists from Moscow. Investigators determined that the group also tried to mine its own uranium in Australia and to buy Russian nuclear warheads.

Some analysts speculate that Bin Laden or others also could seek nuclear materials from "rogue" states such as Iran and Iraq, suspected of fomenting attacks against the U.S. The shared border and Islamic ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan have helped spur conjecture that Bin Laden has gained assistance from two or more Pakistani nuclear scientists, who were recently detained for questioning and released. The government of Pakistan insists that its nuclear weapons have remained secure.

For U.S. officials, the nature of the nuclear threat has evolved since December 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved into Russia and 14 other independent states, with thousands of assembled nuclear weapons still aimed at North America.

Properly securing and destroying many of those weapons remains an imperative. But what looms even larger for many security specialists are the separate and portable materials necessary to make a nuclear bomb--highly enriched uranium or plutonium. Also of great concern are other radioactive materials that could be used, with a conventional explosive, to construct a relatively simple "dirty" bomb. Such an explosive could inflict casualties on the scale of the Oklahoma City bombing, and the radioactive material could contaminate a large urban area.

Ingredients for Disaster

With just a few kilograms of radioactive material--which can be obtained from nonmilitary sources--a terrorist could make the crude device. Weapons specialists say it could be delivered with such low-tech means as a passenger van or boat.

For a nuclear device, as little as 12 kilograms, or about 26.4 pounds, of highly enriched uranium, or four kilograms--less than a soda can full--of plutonium would be needed, along with other components that are available commercially. Building and detonating a nuclear device would take far greater scientific training than needed for the "dirty" bomb, and experts differ on how readily terrorists could execute such a mission. But the precision that the terrorists demonstrated Sept. 11 has challenged such assumptions.

"We are now in a new arms race," Charles B. Curtis, deputy secretary of Energy under Clinton, said in an Oct. 29 speech to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. "Terrorists and certain rogue states are racing to get weapons of mass destruction, and we are racing to stop them."

Viewed from the vantage point of the Cold War, progress has been made in cooperatively identifying and reducing the former Soviet arsenal. Thousands of nuclear weapons have been dismantled. Hundreds of metrics tons of nuclear material have been placed under improved security. The U.S. has spent billions of dollars to assist the former Soviet republics in securing or eliminating nuclear weapons and material. And new efforts are expected to be discussed when Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin begin talks Tuesday in Washington.

Still, the U.S. has fallen short of the actions needed to avert the calamity invited by loose nuclear materials, more than a dozen leading experts said. They voiced dismay that the government is not ramping up its efforts in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

"These materials pose a clear and present danger to the U.S. national security," said John P. Holdren, a Harvard University specialist who in 1995 headed a secret study for Clinton of the security of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium within the former Soviet Union. "We haven't done enough."

Nuclear Material Found Missing

Just a decade ago, the city of Sukhumi was known for its comforts. Located in the Abkhazia region of the former Soviet republic of Georgia on the eastern reach of the Black Sea, it was a "how-much-wine-can-you-drink place," in the fond memory of one visitor. Then came a rebellion by ethnic separatists.

The disruption affected more than the resort atmosphere. Sukhumi, it turns out, also was home to a nuclear research facility. Amid the fighting and ensuing chaos, about two kilograms of highly enriched uranium disappeared, according to a team of researchers led by William C. Potter at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, an independent graduate school in California.

A Russian-speaking researcher who assisted Potter, Emily Daughtry, said she confirmed the prior existence of the highly enriched uranium with both the former director of the Sukhumi nuclear research center and with Georgian Foreign Ministry officials whom she visited.

She said the director told her that, in September 1993, as the city was being taken over by the Abkhazian separatists, "the scientists asked Georgian security forces for help in moving what [the director] characterized as radioactive materials out of the institute and out of the city."

Daughtry, now a law student at UCLA, said the security forces were fighting the rebels and could not assist the scientists. "And so the scientists surrounded the material storage areas with concrete blocks, and then they left," she said. "They fled the city; they couldn't take it with them."

When a team of Russian inspectors finally gained access to the Sukhumi facility, about 880 miles southeast of Moscow, in December 1997, they found it deserted, according to Potter. He said the inspectors found none of the highly enriched uranium, although other radioactive material was present.

"This is an instance in which weapons-grade material is known to have disappeared," said Potter, who also is a consultant to the Energy Department's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He said he shared his findings with U.S. officials.

The Times was unable to reach the former director of the Sukhumi nuclear center. In Moscow, a spokesman for the Russian nuclear energy ministry, Yuri Bespalko, said he was unaware of weapons material missing from Sukhumi or any other location.

"There is definitely a full inventory of all nuclear materials in Russia, and it is simply impossible that something could go missing," Bespalko said. "Today, nothing threatens Russia's nuclear installations. As for former Soviet republics . . . there may have been separate cases in the past, but today, according to our information, all nuclear materials are under a reliable protection."

Current and former U.S. officials say the record suggests otherwise.

The Monterey Institute has documented 11 cases of diversion and recovery of uranium and plutonium from 1992 to 1997. More recently, the International Atomic Energy Agency described six arrests or seizures of weapons-grade nuclear material linked to the former Soviet Union from 1999 through last January.

The January report of a task force led by Republican Howard H. Baker Jr., a former U.S. senator and White House chief of staff, and Democrat Lloyd N. Cutler, a former White House counsel, referred to "dozens" of incidents of attempted theft.

Culture of Deal-Making

In 1998, the report said, employees of a Russian nuclear facility in Chelyabinsk were caught "attempting to steal fissile material of a quantity just short of that needed for one nuclear device." Also in 1998, a Russian employee at a lab in Arzamas was charged with "attempting to sell documents on nuclear weapons designs to agents of Iraq and Afghanistan for $3 million," according to the task force report. In January 2000, Russian agents arrested four sailors at a base on the Kamchatka Peninsula with a stash that included radioactive materials they were suspected of having stolen from their submarine.

The regional head of Russia's Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main successor agency to the KGB, attributed the Arzamas case and others to the "very difficult financial position" of workers at the nuclear defense facilities, the report said.

Indeed, specialists who commute to Russia say that a culture of deal-making persists. "People are trying to sell all various things," said Thomas L. Neff, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist who pioneered a program that buys the Russians' highly enriched uranium and recycles it for nonmilitary purposes.

Neff described an incident several years ago in which a Russian engineer he met outside a nuclear weapons facility in the town of Lesnoy offered to sell him 700 neutron guns, devices that can be used both for detonating a nuclear bomb and for oil drilling. Neff said he reported the overture to U.S. authorities.

"That's just the tip of the iceberg," Neff said. "I had a number of experiences like that. . . . Engineers have come out and talked to me, brought me out samples of their stuff, which is pretty scary. . . . I mean, I could have been anybody."

Just last month, Igor Volynkin, head of the defense agency responsible for protecting Russia's nuclear arsenal, told reporters that on two occasions in the last year, terrorists had staked out nuclear facilities. Security was beefed up in response, Volynkin said.

Potter, who participated in two National Academy of Sciences studies of the security of the former Soviet nuclear facilities, said "the Russians maintain that they have accounted for everything. In fact, anybody who's ever been to one of these Russian facilities knows that that is a joke."

Based on the volume of known theft attempts, Potter said, it is "likely that Western observers of the nuclear trafficking scene have missed significant instances of diversion and/or export."

Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union have a total of about 1,100 metric tons of weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium and 160 metric tons of plutonium at 123 sites, according to specialists and U.S. government reports. This includes 603 metric tons of weapons-grade material stored separately from nuclear weapons at 53 facilities.

But neither Russia nor the U.S. has a complete inventory of the amount and location of all the highly enriched uranium and plutonium, U.S. experts say.

"There's a great deal of anxiety in our community about that, probably in theirs too," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), co-sponsor of the most prominent U.S. program to reduce the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union. "We haven't accounted for everything. So that if something was taken, someone might not know it."

Officials also have been unable to confirm the status of the former Soviet Union's portable nuclear explosives, called backpack bombs or suitcase bombs.

"There were such bombs, absolutely," said Nikolai Sokov, who was a Russian negotiator for the START II arms control pact signed in 1993. "They should have been dismantled. We do not know for sure if they have been dismantled."

Volynkin, the nuclear security chief, told reporters in October that Russia had 84 nuclear devices weighing 30 kilograms or less and that all had been destroyed or put under tight control.

Gottemoeller, the former assistant Energy secretary, said the attempted theft of 1.5 kilograms of highly enriched uranium from a facility in Podolsk in 1992 "was a major wake-up call" for Russian officials.

U.S. officials assigned to assist the Russians in the early 1990s "had a problem establishing working relationships," Gottemoeller said, until the Russians "got the fear of God put into them because some of their work force started walking out with pellets of uranium in their pockets."

Glasnost, the opening of Soviet society, posed its own challenge. The old security regime was developed with closed borders and nuclear workers who were relatively well paid. This eroded quickly with the superpower's breakup into independent states with open borders and rampant corruption.

Quick Fixes For Lax Security

The Americans found stunningly lax security at the nuclear facilities they visited: Perimeter fences with holes or gaps. Hinges rusted off doors. Nuclear material stored in lockers with flimsy padlocks.

Working with the Russians, they made quick fixes--bricking up windows, installing blast-proof doors, placing radiation detectors at the exits.

More comprehensive improvements have been made at a smaller number of facilities--electronic sensors on fences, internal alarms, closed-circuit television monitors and electronic systems to screen visitors.

But many of Russia's nuclear weapons storage sites remain off-limits to U.S. officials. The General Accounting Office reported in May that U.S. officials had yet to gain access to 104 of 252 nuclear-site buildings "requiring improved security systems."

The Russians' reticence stems in part from nationalist sentiment.

"Some people find it humiliating," said Igor Khripunov, who for 21 years was an official with the former Soviet Union's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and now is associate director of the Center for International Trade and Security at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga. "You shouldn't underestimate this sense of national pride. We were this great superpower, and now we have to get money and assistance from the country we considered our adversary."

Retired Brig. Gen. Thomas E. Kuenning Jr., who directs the Pentagon's program for reducing threats from the former Soviet Union's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, said in an interview that "Russia's security paranoia" is an impediment.

Security Concerns at Civilian Facilities

For the Americans, access is required to ensure that U.S. tax dollars are being spent appropriately, Kuenning said. The Russians, in turn, want reciprocal access to sensitive U.S. nuclear facilities. "But we're paying the bill," he said. In his view, reciprocity "is not an issue."

Despite "steady, consistent progress," Kuenning said, "there are [security] vulnerabilities that we realize and the Russians realize. And we're working very hard to try to fix" them.

John C. Reppert, a former defense attache to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, said his greatest worry is vulnerabilities at the civilian Ministry of Atomic Energy test facilities and academic institutions. He said he suspected that security was "at best a padlock and a barbed-wire fence," with fewer guards who are less well trained than those at military locations.

(Russia signed an agreement with the U.S. Energy Department in September to provide access to some sensitive Ministry of Atomic Energy facilities that had been closed to the Americans.)

Even at the ostensibly premier military facilities, the reliability of the security guards is a constant concern. Some endured months-long gaps in pay in the mid-1990s.

Kuenning said pay has improved--it's higher than salaries for ordinary soldiers--and the guard force has a high percentage of officers. But, he added, the tough economic conditions in the remote places where many guards live "add to the challenge" of securing the stockpile.

A bipartisan congressional commission headed by former CIA Director John M. Deutch and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) detailed some of those challenges in a July 1999 report:

"Russia has no reliable inventory of its fissile material, and Russian vulnerability to an 'insider' threat is increased by power outages at Russian nuclear installations, by the need for unpaid guards and technicians to forage for food."

The General Accounting Office reported in February that "hundreds of metric tons of [Russian] nuclear material remain unprotected." The report added: "We also observed instances where systems were not operated properly. For example, at one nuclear facility that we visited, an entrance gate to a building containing nuclear material was left open and unattended by guards."

When members of the Baker-Cutler task force visited seven of the nuclear facilities in July 2000, they, too, found severe shortcomings. The task force concluded that the republics of the former Soviet Union remained "the most likely place" for terrorists to acquire nuclear materials.

"Many of the Russian nuclear sites remain vulnerable to insiders determined to steal enough existing material to make several nuclear weapons and to transport these materials to Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan," the task force's report said. ". . . With the expertise required to make at least a crude nuclear bomb now widely available, it is critical that these materials be secured, neutralized, or eliminated."

The U.S. government's capacity to detect diversions of nuclear material also has been undermined by policy shifts within the CIA, several recently retired agents said in interviews. They described specific directives to disband spy missions within the former Soviet Union, Pakistan, Germany and other nations where Islamic terrorists are now suspected to have operated.

The directives came as the CIA shifted to a post-Cold War posture of spying less on presumed friends and of relying more on high-tech eavesdropping than on informants.

"It's had a devastating effect," said one of the ex-agents, who worked inside the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and Europe. "We're out of the game. It terrifies me."

Presidential Promises

A succession of U.S. presidents and members of Congress has agreed upon the need to help the former Soviet Union better safeguard its nuclear materials--and strides have been made.

The Defense Department's Cooperative Threat Reduction program, known as Nunn-Lugar after its two original Senate sponsors, has helped deactivate 5,708 nuclear warheads, destroy 435 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 483 air-to-surface missiles, and eliminate hundreds of bombers, submarines and missile launchers. Cost: $4 billion.

The Energy Department has spent nearly $6 billion to improve overall security of the nuclear materials, reduce the amount of weapons-usable uranium and plutonium, and combat illicit trafficking in nuclear material.

And a State Department program has provided grant money to about 34,000 weapons scientists and other workers to help steer them into civilian research. The U.S. has contributed about $134 million to this international effort.

Without viable commercial opportunities, officials fear that some of the 50,000 scientists and engineers who worked to develop the Soviet nuclear arsenal would be tempted by offers from "rogue" states or terrorists.

"There still is an environment out there where, despite some improvement in the economy, there are extremely limited choices for many of these people," said a senior State Department official. "Which means that if we can provide them an alternative to a bad guy walking through the door with a suitcase full of money, then this continues to be important."

Yet the need to contain the resulting nuclear dangers remains unfulfilled, as highlighted in January by the Baker-Cutler task force report.

The task force called for the U.S. to spend up to $30 billion over the next eight to 10 years to prevent the use of a nuclear weapon by terrorists against American troops or citizens.

Based on his statements as a candidate, Bush recognized the need to act.

Appearing on Nov. 19, 1999, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Bush said: "Under the Nunn-Lugar program, security at many Russian nuclear facilities has been improved and warheads have been destroyed. Even so, the Energy Department warns us that our estimates of Russian nuclear stockpiles could be off by as much as 30%. In other words, a great deal of Russian nuclear material cannot be accounted for. The next president must press for an accurate inventory of all this material. And we must do more.

"I will ask the Congress to increase substantially our insistence to dismantle as many of Russia's weapons as possible as quickly as possible."

On Nov. 21, 1999, Bush explicitly called for higher funding for the Nunn-Lugar program. "We not only ought to spend that money, we ought to increase that amount of money in the budget to make the world safer," Bush said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Yet last Feb. 28, when Bush submitted his first budget as president, he proposed spending 9% less on the Nunn-Lugar program, reducing the total from $443.4 million to $403 million. And despite candidate Bush's vow to "press for an accurate inventory" of all the nuclear material, the new president's budget proposed significant reductions in related programs that are administered by the Energy Department.

Bush proposed reducing by about 11%--from $872.4 million to $773.7 million--the department's overall nonproliferation efforts in the former Soviet Union. (Congress last month approved more money than Bush requested but less than the current funding level.)

And Bush included no money in his budget for a U.S.-Russia inventory of all plutonium produced in Russia. The current budget, the last under Clinton, included $500,000 to launch the plutonium program.

The administration also is using none of an initial $20-billion emergency package to better secure the Russian nuclear materials. The package is aimed at countering terrorism and assisting in the recovery from the Sept. 11 attacks. And Bush has not asked Congress for any funds for this purpose from an additional $20-billion spending request that is pending on Capitol Hill.

Several nuclear security experts criticized Bush's approach.

"This is a scandal," said Holdren, the Harvard specialist who chairs an arms control panel of the National Academy of Sciences. "It is far cheaper and more efficient to protect both the knowledge and the material at their source than to try to figure out how to intercept them once they've been manufactured into a nuclear bomb somewhere."

Bush, Putin to Talk About Nuclear Threat

An administration official said Bush is committed to reducing the threat of nuclear proliferation and expects to discuss the issue with Russia's Putin at this week's summit.

"We are actively examining new and expanded efforts in these areas," the official said.

The official did not directly address questions submitted by The Times about the contrast between Bush's campaign statements and his spending decisions.

Pentagon officials defended Bush's approach to the Nunn-Lugar program. They say he sought the full amount they requested.

Clinton raised spending for safeguarding the former Soviet nuclear stockpile throughout his presidency, but he, too, pledged more than he delivered. In his State of the Union address Jan. 19, 1999, Clinton said:

"We must expand our work with Russia, Ukraine and the other former Soviet nations to safeguard nuclear materials and technology so they never fall into the wrong hands. Our balanced budget will increase funding for these critical efforts by almost two-thirds over the next five years."

Clinton included spending increases in his two subsequent budget requests--but substantially less than two-thirds, with much of the money going toward programs that were not aimed at securing the nuclear materials.

Some former aides say Clinton should have moved more boldly.

Matthew Bunn, a leading authority on the Soviet nuclear arsenal who served as an advisor to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in the mid-1990s, wrote last year: "President Clinton has said a few words about the high priority of these issues, and then has failed to follow through with the sustained commitments of money, personnel and political attention to get the job done."

And Clinton's predecessor, George H.W. Bush, was hesitant to support the Nunn-Lugar initiative in 1991 and 1992.

Lugar said that when he and then-Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) approached the administration to use U.S. funds to secure and dismantle nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union, Bush was preoccupied with other priorities as the nation emerged from the Persian Gulf War and the president confronted both a recession and his reelection bid.

"It was not immediately adopted by the Bush administration as a plan of action," Lugar recalled. "They may not have seen rapidly the efficacy, or even the need, to do this."

Cutler, the co-chairman of the task force report issued in January, said the country's leaders and the public remained complacent for a decade.

"Before the 11th of September, you couldn't get anybody's attention on nuclear risks, especially the nonproliferation risks," Cutler said. "They thought that if the Cold War was over, it was over. They didn't realize how serious the risks are that the Russian material can either be stolen or sold, how primitive the security is."

Staff writer Robyn Dixon in Moscow and researcher Janet Lundblad in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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