Analysis & Opinions - The Houston Chronicle

Russia's Loose Nukes a Serious Threat to US

| April 1, 1996

The Houston Chronicle
April 1, 1996, Monday

SECTION: a; Outlook; Pg. 19
HEADLINE: Russia's loose nukes a serious threat to U.S.

BODY: The greatest single threat to the security of America today, and indeed the world, is the threat from loose nuclear weapons and weapons-usable material from Russia.

"Loose nukes' - the loss, theft or sale of weapons-usable nuclear materials or nuclear weapons themselves from the former Soviet arsenal - is not a hypothetical threat; it is a brute fact. Since the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the number of reported, suspected and documented cases of diversion of weapons-usable nuclear material has been increasing steadily. Ominously, we have been able to document six cases in which weapons-grade material has been stolen and nearly 1,000 instances involving the theft of lower-grade material.

If a rogue actor - a state like Iran, Iraq, Libya or Cuba, or a terrorist group like Hamas or Japan's Aum Shinrikyo - obtained as little as 30 pounds of highly-enriched uranium, or less than half that weight in plutonium, they could produce a nuclear device in a matter of a month or two with design information that is publicly available, equipment that can be readily purchased in the commercial market and modest levels of technical competence found in graduates of any respectable engineering program.

If the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center in New York or the Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City had used the same truck they drove, filled not with the explosives they used, but rather with a weapon that started with a softball-sized lump of uranium, what would have been the consequences? They could have created an explosion equal to 10,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT, which would demolish an area of about three square miles. Oklahoma City would have disappeared.

As the most open society in the world, the United States is also most vulnerable to nuclear terrorist attack. Literally millions of uninspected packages arrive in this country every day.

This problem arises now because Russia is in a state of revolution, a sinew-shaking transformation in every aspect of life - its economy, its government, its society. This revolution is shredding the fabric of a command-and-control society, in a state that houses a superpower nuclear arsenal and a superpower nuclear enterprise. As a consequence, nothing in Russia today is secure from theft or seizure.

The Russian nuclear weapons archipelago includes hundreds of sites over one-seventh of the Earth's land mass, sites at which 1,000 tons of highly enriched uranium, 100 tons of plutonium and some 30,000 nuclear warheads are at risk.

If loose nukes from Russia are the single greatest threat to security today, the question, in the classic Russian refrain, is shto delat? What is to be done?

First, the United States, as the leading power, must publicly recognize this threat as the No. 1 threat and, second, must mobilize a top-priority, all-out strategy that commands attention, money, energy and imagination commensurate with the scale of the threat.

For America, making containment of loose nukes an absolute priority means thinking of this operational objective of American policy first when considering every other objective (save the continuing stake in avoiding global nuclear war).

Containing loose nukes deserves higher priority in America's relationship with Russia than many other very important interests, including condemning Russia's beastly action toward the Chechens, constraining Russian sales of nuclear reactors to Iran, supporting stabilization and privatization of Russia's economy through a $ 10 billion International Monetary Fund loan or promoting Russian democratization.

Bilateral initiatives are an essential key to a winning strategy, with 90 percent of the actions required being taken by Russians, not Americans.

America's principal lever in the relationship is to buy and take away 500 tons of Russia's highly enriched uranium under the terms of a contract already signed at the end of the Bush administration.

Russia's principle task is to concentrate and control the loose nukes. The nuclear weapons and weapons-usable material that remain in Russia must be concentrated in the smallest number of locations and those few sites need to be controlled in the same way that a serious enterprise attempts to protect any item of great value from theft under the extraordinary conditions in Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union today.

Russian bankers prevent theft of equally small packages of great value - gold - by using a vault surrounded by a foot of steel, monitored by an electronic alarm system and video monitors, private guards and police. With all that, gold is still stolen.

In contrast, the security systems at nuclear storage facilities across Russia are abysmal. Eighty percent have no simple electronic monitoring system. One recent case of nuclear theft was detected only because the thief left the door open as he departed.

Like the World Trade Center bombing, the Oklahoma City bombing and the Tokyo subway attacks in recent years, the Hamas suicide-bombings remind us all that the security we once took for granted is a condition of the past. We are living on borrowed time.

This year, or next year, or the year after, when we find ourselves victims of a nuclear terrorist incident, how will we account for our behavior if we don't act urgently now? In the face of this frightening new reality, we must act - before the morning after.

NOTES: Allison, director of the Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, is co-author of a study released in March, 'Avoiding Nuclear Anarchy: Containing the Threat of Loose Russian Nuclear Weapons and Fissile Material."

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham T..“Russia's Loose Nukes a Serious Threat to US.” The Houston Chronicle, April 1, 1996.