Russian `loose nukes' called dire threat to U.S. security

High-profile panel says nuclear material is poorly monitored

January 10, 2001|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Despite nearly a decade of U.S. efforts to help Russia control its huge nuclear stockpile, a high-profile study commission has concluded that the potential theft of nuclear technology from Russia is "the most dangerous unmet security threat" faced by the United States and that Washington and its allies should devote an additional $30 billion to the problem during the next decade.

The report, due today from a bipartisan task force headed by former Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. and former White House counsel Lloyd N. Cutler, concluded that tons of Russia's weapons-grade nuclear material are poorly guarded and ill-accounted for, according to people who have seen the paper.

It concludes that current Energy Department programs to improve the situation are inadequate and that spending should be roughly quintupled.

The panel, whose members visited Russian nuclear compounds and received classified U.S. intelligence briefings, urged creation of a "loose nukes" czar to coordinate the sometimes conflicting nonproliferation efforts among the departments of Energy, State and Defense.

Of particular importance, the paper said, is the need for Russian and U.S. officials to do a better job of consolidating scores of Russian nuclear sites into fewer, better-guarded locations.

The task force, appointed in March by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, largely endorsed existing Energy Department programs in Russia but concluded that at current spending levels they might take decades to significantly reduce the proliferation threat.

"The group felt very strongly that the threat of loose nuclear material falling into illicit hands was a very dangerous one," said a task force member who spoke anonymously because the report hasn't been issued.

"It's not as though we haven't learned anything" from antiproliferation programs in Russia, the member said. "But now, as we find out more, we're thinking, `Holy smokes, what else is out there?'"

The Baker-Cutler report is expected to add to renewed concerns not only about Russia's rich trove of weapons-grade material but also about the 1 million Russian nuclear scientists and engineers who many fear might work for Iraq, Iran or other unfriendly nations.

Television executive Ted Turner announced Monday that he will donate $250 million to establish a private foundation to address nuclear proliferation.

Russia has more than 100 nuclear sites. Within those locations, task force members reported seeing nuclear material stored in several buildings, often with inadequate security.

Security breaches and attempted nuclear thefts in recent years have underscored the threat. U.S. intelligence officials fear that terrorists or hostile nations will smuggle out enough Russian material to manufacture a nuclear weapon.

Last year, Russia arrested about a dozen people suspected of stealing materials from the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky naval base on the Pacific. While apparently none of the stolen goods involved nuclear material, the incident illustrated the vulnerability of such facilities, analysts said.

In 1998, an employee of the Sarov Russian weapons lab was charged with trying to sell documents to Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the end of the Cold War and the decline of Russia's economy, highly trained Russian scientists are often poorly paid or unemployed.

The situation is severe enough that Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and Chief of the General Staff Anatoly Kvashnin have quietly asked U.S. officials for more assistance in controlling Russia's nuclear stores, said Bruce Blair, president of the Center for Defense Information in Washington.

"There is definitely evidence of lax security, and there is definitely evidence of vulnerabilities, of deficiencies," said Blair, who resigned from the task force last summer for personal reasons and has not seen the report. "Part of the problem is the security and accounting are so lax that it's hard to know whether any of [the nuclear material] has been ripped off."

The United States has backed efforts to inventory and secure Russia's nuclear stores almost since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. A huge step forward, analysts agree, was the decision by non-Russian, former Soviet states to return their nuclear weapons and materials to Russia.

Current U.S. programs

Energy Department programs to reduce the loose nukes risk include the material protection, control and accounting program, which aims to identify and guard dangerous material; the plutonium disposition program, which converts highly radioactive material into nonweapons material; a program in which the United States buys enriched uranium; and the nuclear cities initiative, which furnishes financing for Russian nuclear scientists to become legitimate entrepreneurs.

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