#17 - JRL 7170
May 4, 2003
Calming Russia's nuclear insecurity
By Kurt Gottfried and Adele Simmons, chairman and vice chairwoman of the Union of Concerned Scientists
President Bush is right to say that, should nuclear weapons fall into the hands of terrorists, the situation would pose a "most horrifying" danger to the United States and its people, and that it must be his administration's "highest priority" to prevent this.
But he has to be looking in the right direction. For terrorists, Russia offers by the far the most attractive source of nuclear weapons, materials and expertise. Russia's nuclear stockpile is gigantic and poorly secured. Nevertheless, Bush has paid astonishingly little attention to defusing this ticking time bomb. A new opportunity to do just that is the summit this month between Presidents Bush and Vladimir Putin--one Bush should vigorously exploit.
The Russian stockpile holds hundreds of tons of highly enriched uranium. Less than 100 a hundred pounds of such uranium is needed to make a crude bomb of the type that destroyed Hiroshima.A capable terrorist group like Al Qaeda might well be able to build such a weapon if it could get enough uranium.
More sophisticated weapons of the type that destroyed Nagasaki need just a handful of plutonium, and the Russian stockpile has enough for thousands of such bombs.
Especially attractive to terrorists are Russia's thousands of "small," relatively portable battlefield nuclear weapons. According to knowledgeable sources, many are not equipped with electronic locks to prevent their use without the appropriate codes. The detonation of one such weapon in a city would wreak vastly greater death and destruction than the 9/11 attack.
During the Cold War, the Soviet stockpile was protected from intruders and smugglers by all the means available to a police state with tightly sealed borders. Today, Russia swarms with foreigners, and its borders are as porous as America's. The huge army on which the antiquated nuclear security system relies is very poorly paid, and Al Qaeda and its Chechen Chechnian collaborators have made documented attempts to get Russian nuclear materials.
In 1991, anticipating that the collapse of the Soviet Union would create entirely new nuclear dangers, the United States and Russia launched the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program under the leadership of Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and then-Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.).
Since then, this program has installed security upgrades on about 40 percent of the Russian materials, but less than half of these upgrades now meet the standards of the U.S. stockpile. About 15 percent of the uranium has been rendered unusable for weapons and converted into fuel for civilian reactors, but at the current pace, finishing that job will take more than two decades.
Perhaps the program's most important benefit is that it has provided alternative work for many of the thousands of the Russian nuclear scientists and engineers whose expertise is a most serious proliferation risk.
The United States also has helped remove vulnerable stores of weapons-grade uranium from research reactors in Serbia, Georgia and Kazakhstan and take them to secure sites in Russia, Britain and the United States. The State Department has identified 24 other high-risk sites of this type in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Under current plans, it will take many years to secure all of them.
Why is it going so slowly? Why, after a dozen years, does this flagrant nuclear threat persist?
Throughout its existence the threat reduction program has been hampered by opposition from shortsighted members of Congress and by inadequate commitment by the Clinton and Bush administrations. Not only has Congress failed to fund the program properly, it has restricted both presidents' ability to use even these funds effectively.
The initiative also labors in a bureaucratic maze because it is administered by more than 30 different programs across the Departments of Defense, State and Energy. On the Russian side the bureaucratic frustrations are even worse. And the Russians have not given adequate access to highly secret facilities, in part because the U.S. has been unwilling to reciprocate with access to ours.
U.S. funding for the threat reduction program is currently about $1 billion annually, which is just the level projected for the current budget cycle by the Clinton administration long before 9/11. This sum must be judged from the perspective of homeland defense and the global war on terror, because as Nunn explained, "the most effective way to prevent nuclear terrorism is to secure nuclear weapons and materials at the source. Acquiring weapons and materials is the hardest step for terrorists, and the easiest step for us to stop. By contrast, every subsequent step is easiest for terrorists and hardest for us."
The budget for homeland defense is $41 billion. As for Iraq, which probably has neither nuclear weapons nor materials, the first installment on the conflict and its aftermath will cost the U.S. $79 billion. If one nuclear explosion were to occur in the United States, the blow to the economy would dwarf these sums.
What can be done?
Bush should now make a commitment to the threat reduction program comparable to his commitment to homeland defense and to military means for battling proliferation. When he meets Putin, he should request a corresponding Russian commitment and back this with an offer of full cooperation.
Only such a partnership between the heads of state can reduce the danger posed by nuclear terrorism at the pace and to the point that our security demands.
Bush should ask for a steep increase in funding. A tripling of the budget was recommended eight months before 9/11 by a bipartisan Department of Energy task force headed by Howard Baker, the former Republican leader of the Senate, and Lloyd Cutler, counsel to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. The task force called the Russian stockpile "the most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States today."
An exhaustive Harvard University study released recently by Nunn and Lugar (available at www.nti.org/cnwm) spells out other recommendations.
Proper funding alone will not suffice. Bush should make clear that he will not tolerate the bureaucratic problems that have plagued the program. He should appoint an official whose sole responsibility would be to take charge of the entire program, with the authority and backing to cut through the barriers.
Bush must rally support
The president should devote sustained attention and political capital to rally congressional support. Lugar, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, gives the president a powerful congressional ally, but other members of the House and the Senate need to be convinced of the importance of the effort.
At the St. Petersburg summit, Bush should propose to Putin that their governments construct a joint plan, with targets and timetables, to secure the entire Russian nuclear weapons complex, and to render Russia's nuclear materials unusable for weapons. Bush has the opportunity at hand to swiftly reduce the threat posed by the Russian stockpile--to shut off in a matter of years, not decades, the most dangerous resource for nuclear terrorism facing this country.