Russia's 'Loose Nukes' - a Myth That Distorts US Policy
Since the Soviet collapse, the United States public has been bombarded with the "loose nukes" myth. The myth is that Russian nuclear weapons and materials are leaking to terrorists or rogue states, such as Libya, Iran, Iraq, or North Korea.Skip to next paragraph
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Despite warnings from the Clinton administration, Sens. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia and Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana in the last Congress, the Russian government, editorial pages, the Central Intelligence Agency, and a March 1996 General Accounting Office report, the "loose nukes" myth is not credible for several reasons:
1. Fissile materials are not leaking from Russia. The myth is that bomb-grade materials - highly enriched uranium or plutonium - are leaking. In fact, there is no evidence of any significant leakage. Contrary to media reports since 1992, low-level radioactive isotopes smuggled into Europe, notably Germany and the Czech Republic, cannot be used for nuclear weapons. Occasional leakages involve such minuscule amounts - fractions of grams, not the kilograms necessary - that building nuclear weapons is technically impossible.
2. Nuclear weapons are not leaking from Russia. Rumors in 1992 that Kazakstan sold two tactical nuclear weapons to Iran have been discredited by US, Russian, Iranian, and Kazak officials. Russia's security and intelligence organizations remain quite large and competent. The real threat to US interests is Russia's sale of nuclear technology to rogue states. This Russian policy is vastly more hazardous than "loose nukes" and continues unabated.
For example, Russia continues its $1 billion nuclear power reactor sale to Iran, despite tremendous pressure from the Clinton administration. Iran is more likely to develop nuclear weapons with the reactor being rebuilt by Russian technicians than from "loose nukes."
3. There is no "brain drain" of Russian nuclear scientists. In the early 1990s, there were claims that Russian nuclear scientists would emigrate to sell their skills to the highest bidders. This threat, however, was greatly exaggerated. Aside from unsubstantiated, sporadic rumors of Russian scientists in North Korea and China, there is no evidence of unemployed Russian scientists building nuclear weapons for rogue states. We should recall that Iraq's nuclear weapons program, well developed before the Soviet collapse, occurred without support from Russian nuclear scientists.
While there is no exodus to stop, the United States subsidizes the International Science and Technology Center in Moscow to keep unemployed Russian nuclear scientists off the streets. Still, US funds spent on the "brain drain" are a tiny fraction of total US funds spent on Russian nuclear security and cannot match the potential economic incentives rogue states could offer individual scientists.
4. Russia can afford to maintain nuclear security. Current US policy fundamentally ignores the fact that Russia has a vital national interest in protecting its nuclear complex. Furthermore, the myth is that "Russia's bankruptcy" precludes it from spending rubles on nuclear security. But this conclusion ignores several factors. First, to maintain the integrity of Russia's nuclear complex, the US spends roughly $400 million per year on the Nunn-Lugar program, also known as the Cooperative Threat Reduction program.
Second, Russia is not broke. Despite economic hardship, Russia invests billions of rubles in defense modernization programs, including new missiles, tanks, submarines, aircraft, and a secret complex in the Ural Mountains that is suspected of being used as a nuclear command post or weapons production facility.
If Russia were in fact bankrupt, how could it manage to spend roughly 40 trillion rubles on defense acquisition programs in 1995? (Partly by neglecting to pay the salaries of its armed forces for months.) If Russia can devote adequate resources to buying new weapons, it also can afford programs to protect the security of its nuclear weapons and materials.