Plutonium at the summit

By muscling the START II arms pact through the Russian legislature, President Vladimir Putin showed his support for US-Russian cooperation on nuclear security and set the stage for a June summit.

President Clinton should use this opportunity to seek agreement on bold new steps to prevent theft of nuclear-bomb material.

The hard part of making a nuclear bomb is getting the plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU). The entire global structure for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is built around controlling these materials. But in the former Soviet Union, these materials are being stolen. As recently as 1998, conspirators at one of Russia's largest nuclear-weapons facilities tried to steal 40 pounds of weapons-usable material - enough for a nuclear bomb. A nuclear-security system designed for a single state with a closed society, closed borders, and well-paid nuclear workers has been splintered among multiple states with open societies, open borders, unpaid nuclear workers, and rampant corruption.

US-Russian efforts to address this threat to international security are making significant headway. At a funding level of $500 million - less than a quarter of 1 percent of the US defense budget - they represent some of the most cost-effective investments in US security and deserve strong support. But the pace of progress doesn't match the scope and urgency of the threat. After six years of effort, security for less than a sixth of the material in the former Soviet Union has been fully upgraded, and less than a tenth of the Russian HEU stockpile has been blended to forms that cannot be used in weapons.

Now is the time to put dramatic new steps on the table. Putin seems ready. He has emphasized the critical threats that terrorism and nuclear proliferation pose to Russia, and called for new steps to eliminate "excess" nuclear weapons and improve the safety of Russia's nuclear complex. A comprehensive plan for addressing this security hazard is urgently needed, focused on six key steps:

1. Radically accelerate security and accounting improvements, upgrading security for all the plutonium and HEU in the former Soviet Union within a few years.

2. Pay Russia to blend down all of its excess HEU within a few years, permanently eliminating an enormous security hazard.

3. Finance the needed program to get rid of Russia's huge excess-plutonium stockpile.

4. Boost efforts to help Russia shrink its nuclear-weapons complex and re-employ excess weapons experts - in return for Russian agreement to measurable steps to reduce the complex's threat to the US.

5. Finance dismantlement of thousands of Russian warheads, with monitoring to confirm it is taking place (without revealing classified information) - and with substantial US dismantlement as well, under identical monitoring measures.

6. Create new revenue streams for nuclear security, through projects such as commercial spent-fuel storage, a "debt-for-security swap," and relaxing trade restraints on Russia's legitimate nuclear exports, with a substantial portion of the proceeds targeted for auditable financing of nuclear-security efforts.

Such a strategy would cost the US $1.5 billion a year for several years - a small price for a dramatically reduced US security threat. There's support in Congress for a well-thought-out, carefully coordinated plan to deal with this security threat. To succeed - and to gain support on Capitol Hill - the effort needs to be led by a full-time senior official with presidential access.

Clinton should seek a summit agreement to pursue such a bold new nuclear-security agenda, committing to work with Congress and his successor to make sure the US holds up its end of the bargain. The cost of action now is tiny compared with the costs of failing to seize this opportunity.

*Matthew Bunn, a former White House adviser on nuclear proliferation, is assistant director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. This article is adapted from his new report 'The Next Wave: Urgently Needed New Steps to Control Warheads and Nuclear Material' (Harvard and the Carnegie Endowment).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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