Russia's 'Loose Nukes' - a Myth That Distorts US Policy

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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.

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.

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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.

Finally, doubts about the security of nuclear weapons facilities are puzzling. My own visits to sensitive Russian defense enterprises and military installations have revealed very tight security, yet we are told of nuclear weapons and materials leaking out of the nuclear complex. One wonders if the spending of US millions for the security of Russia's nuclear materials may not promote as much mischief as it is designed to prevent. Is there an incentive, in fact, for Russians to overlook or sustain some kind of "modest" leakage in nuclear materials so that alarms will remain on and coffers will remain open?

The Clinton administration nurtures the myth that Russia cannot manage its nuclear security. It warns that Russia is a nuclear accident waiting to happen, and that nuclear weapons, materials, and scientists will leak out unless we act.

Government, military, and intelligence officials in Russia vehemently deny that Russia is the source of radioactive isotopes found in Europe. Alexander Lebed, the former national security chief, pointedly argued that nuclear security is a Russian, not a US, problem. A senior representative of the Russian Duma told me that Russia is maintaining its nuclear security. He argued that public attention to the economic plight of the nuclear complex "will create the very problems that we want to avoid."

Russia willingly accepts roughly $400 million each year in Nunn-Lugar denuclearization funds for a total of $1.6 billion since 1992. But US funds are fueling nationalist fires in Russia, as Russians conclude that they imply condescension about Russia's own ability to secure its nuclear weapons and materials.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, skepticism increases about using taxpayer dollars to subsidize Russian nuclear security when we are cutting domestic programs in order to balance the federal budget. Despite administration opposition, Congress cut Nunn-Lugar funds from $400 million to $377 million - a 6 percent reduction. Only the prestige of Senators Nunn and Lugar prevented Congress from zeroing out all funds. Clinton administration worries about Russian nuclear leakage are not supportable. As the administration reorganizes in its second term, it should consider more productive ways of addressing the real problem of proliferation. A sound policy for helping states attain security without nuclear weapons has three components.

First, the real problem is "loose salesmen" rather than "loose nukes." Hence, we must restrict sales or transfers of nuclear technologies that create independent capabilities for producing nuclear weapons. Weak international inspection regimes for the transfer of nuclear technologies and materials must be strengthened. Direct Russian sales of critical nuclear materials or technologies to rogue states - like Iran, Iraq, or North Korea - threaten US security.

Second, it follows that the US should develop independent capabilities to monitor and prevent the sale or transfer of nuclear technologies and materials. The $400 million spent per year on Russia could help the United States bolster our own inspection capabilities. We must strengthen our ability to detect and prevent the surreptitious movement of terrorist weapons and materials into US ports and airports.

Third, the US program of subsidizing Russia's nuclear security is no substitute for Russian action. Russia has a national interest in preventing nuclear leakage and can handle its own nuclear security. Senior Russian officials are adamant about their ability to manage nuclear materials on Russian soil.

In conclusion, with no significant evidence of nuclear leakage, the United States must reevaluate the "loose nukes" myth. Sadly, this myth diverts our attention and resources and weakens the credibility of US policy regarding perhaps the most vital security issue of the 1990s.

* William C. Martel is associate professor of international relations and Russian studies, and director of the Center for Strategy and Technology, at the Air War College, Maxwell AFB, in Montgomery, Ala.

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