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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.

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One major area of concern is the Russian Navy's nuclear-submarine fleet, most of which was hastily decommissioned following the Soviet demise. At the Kurchatov Institute, specialists are trying to devise ways to quickly dismantle and store the reactors and fuel rods from more than 100 nuclear subs, many of which are rusting away in open harbors on Russian naval bases.

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About five years ago, Gagarinsky says, a group of sailors in the northern naval base of Severodvinsk actually hijacked an entire reactor unit – complete with fuel rods – from a disabled submarine, hoping to sell it on the black market. "Of course they failed," says Gagarinsky. "But there's no doubt this area needs a lot of attention."

No one is offering a guess at how much nuclear material may already be missing. The former USSR had more than 20,000 strategic and tactical nuclear weapons and as much as 650 metric tons of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium, experts say. Russia still deploys about 6,000 strategic and 8,000 smaller tactical warheads. Thousands of others have been safely dismantled over the past decade, and their materials stored, with major help from Nunn-Lugar funds. "The United States has paid for just about everything that has been done to dismantle Russian nuclear weapons," says Alexander Goltz, a military expert who writes for the weekly Ezhenedelni Dzhurnal newsmagazine.

Meanwhile, some observers worry that Russia's Ministry of Atomic Power, which oversees both civilian and military nuclear programs and is a key recipient of outside funding, may be diverting the money to other purposes. Russia's State Accounting Chamber, a government watchdog that answers to parliament, charged in a report last year that $270 million given to MinAtom by Norway and Sweden between 1998 and 2000 to help process radioactive wastes simply disappeared. "That is the tip of the iceberg," says Maxim Shingarkin, a former major in the Russian Defense Ministry's department of nuclear forces who now advises environmental groups. "We know that US aid is sometimes being used by MinAtom to fund new nuclear research rather than retire old weapons ...," he says. "In the future there must be much tougher control over the disbursement of such funds."

Mr. Yushenkov agrees. "Arms agreements are all very well," he says. "But the most urgent need is to enforce transparency and public accountability over Russia's nuclear establishment."

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Ironically, the arms-control deal to be signed by Presidents Vladimir Putin and George Bush on Friday will greatly increase pressure on Russia's dilapidated and insecure storage facilities.

Experts say Russia would probably scale back its strategic nuclear forces to about 1,500 warheads within a few years, with or without an agreement. "The delivery systems are old and must be retired," says Mr. Goltz. "Russia can't afford to replace them, so the warheads must be stored."

Russia will need massive assistance if it is ever to process the disassembled warheads into forms that cannot be refashioned into weapons one day. "These materials must be immobilized by being mixed with concrete or glass, and then safely stored, or they must be burned in breeder reactors," says Gagarinsky. "At the present time, we lack the means to do either."

Vladimir Chuprov, a nuclear expert with Greenpeace-Russia, warns: "Stocks of plutonium in storage will skyrocket in the next few years. No one should imagine that Putin and Bush have brought this under control. The dangers are not receding, they are multiplying every day."

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