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Mothballed warheads pose continuing threat

Russian missiles decommissioned under the new nuclear treaty are likely to land in poorly guarded storage depots.

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / May 23, 2002


To terrorists trying to lay their hands on the stuff of atomic weapons, Russia's nuclear nerve center is a daunting fortress.

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High, video-monitored concrete walls, bomb-proof steel gates, and hundreds of military guards protect the 247-acre site of Moscow's Kurchatov Institute, birthplace of the USSR's first atomic bomb and still a beehive of research on fusion and on methods for storing radioactive materials left over from the cold war.

But experts say the institute is the Russian nuclear program's best face. Flung across Russia's vast hinterland are 52 military storage depots for the enriched uranium and plutonium from which nuclear warheads are made. At those sites, security is often lax and weapons-grade materials are not closely accounted for.

"Active-duty nuclear weapons are well protected, but there are serious security problems with stored warheads and other highly dangerous materials," says Sergei Yushenkov, deputy head of the State Duma's Security Committee. "The key problem in Russia, which will not be resolved by the current Russia-US dialogue, is that we have no civilian oversight in the nuclear sphere. The glimpses we have are very worrisome, but even in the Duma [Russia's lower house of parliament] we cannot get a full picture."

In addition, at the hundreds of civilian facilities around Russia, where thousands of tons of spent reactor fuel and other nuclear wastes are stored, security is often nonexistent. While these materials might not be easily fashioned into atomic weapons, they could provide the ingredients for a so-called "dirty bomb" – radioactive substances wrapped around a conventional explosive.

"Control over low-level nuclear wastes in this country is very weak," says Dmitry Kovchegin, a nuclear-safety specialist at the independent PIR Center for policy studies in Moscow. "Terrorists could easily acquire the means to make a dirty bomb in this country."

Last winter a group of Duma deputies, environmental activists and a TV crew dramatized the danger by climbing through a broken fence and walking into a medium-security nuclear- waste storage center in Siberia, where they spent six hours beside a building housing 3,000 tons of radioactive spent reactor fuel.

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"I was amazed at how easy it was," says Sergei Mitrokhin, one of the deputies. "No one challenged us. Guards walked past us, and never asked who we were or what we were doing."

Since the collapse of the USSR, the United States has spent an average of $400 million a year to fund a range of measures known as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Among other things, the money has gone to upgrade storage, oversight, and security at storage sites, and to supplement the meager salaries of thousands of Russian physicists and nuclear engineers who might otherwise be tempted to peddle their skills to third-world countries or terrorist groups.

Even at the Kurchatov Institute, where the average paycheck hovers around 2,000 rubles (about $65) monthly, the subsidies have made a difference. "We have some of the world's top nuclear specialists here, earning less than what Americans spend on their lunches in a month," says Andrei Gagarinsky, Kurchatov chief of research and development. "Without extra sources of income, like those from Nunn-Lugar, we just wouldn't be able to continue."

Washington is pushing for an additional $20 billion, that would be funded by the US and fellow G7 nations, to help Russia neutralize the danger posed by its nuclear materials.

So far, only about 40 percent of Russia's bomb-grade materials and less than a seventh of enriched uranium stocks have been secured, according to a report issued by Harvard University this week.