IF chilling news reports from Italy are true, then the first leakages of Soviet nuclear technology abroad have begun. An Italian prosecutor has claimed that 66 pounds of Soviet uranium bound for Iraq and Libya was seized last month and that nuclear artillery shells from a remote military base near Mongolia have been clandestinely sold; the going price, $20 million a warhead.
United States officials have not confirmed these reports, but if they are true, a grave new threat to US and world security has emerged. It will get worse if we delay action to round up and neutralize the nuclear weapons that remain in the dissected Soviet empire.
No one can claim that we didn't see this problem coming. In one of his first public appearances since taking control of the CIA, Robert Gates pointed out that the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and related delivery systems is one of the most dangerous future military challenges that the US will face and that the disintegrated Soviet Union could be a major new source of this problem.
Congress has been urging the Bush administration to address this intensifying and ominous proliferation threat, but to no avail. As a result, nuclear warheads and components may be slowly disappearing from the Soviet landscape, perhaps only to emerge in the hands of a Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi. This situation requires an immediate, strong, and vision-filled policy response from the US. The threat simply is too serious not to act with dispatch.
The first and most immediate need is to tag and inventory each of the 27,000 nuclear weapons that remain in the former Soviet Union. Of these, the short-range nuclear weapons that former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev unilaterally agreed to destroy and the long-range strategic warheads that are to be eliminated under the START treaty should be transferred as quickly as possible to central installations under the guard of United Nations forces to ensure that they are not sold to other nations. These w eapons should then be disabled and dismantled as quickly as possible, and the recovered nuclear material placed under international control so it cannot be reused in new weapons.
The US is in the perfect position to launch this nuclear incapacitation process. Just before adjournment, Congress gave the president the authority to use $400 million to transport, disable, and destroy Soviet nuclear, chemical, and other weapons. As yet, however, President Bush has given no indication of when or how he will use these funds. He'd better decide soon, because the dangerous situation we face is not likely to improve in the short or long term.
An estimated 900,000 military, intelligence, and civilian personnel work in the nuclear-weapons field in the former Soviet Union. Roughly 7,000 of these people know the deepest secrets of nuclear-weapon design and production. Many others have access to nuclear materials or responsibility for the deployment and maintenance of these nuclear forces.
As we attempt to peer through the chaotic fog of the Soviet upheaval, it may be very difficult to keep track of all these nuclear experts or all the nuclear weapons unless we take steps to account for these people and arms now.
The threat is clear and present. In the words of Mr. Gates: "Even if republic governments retain tight control over their arsenals, economic conditions will tempt them to sell weapons to the highest hard-currency bidder. The hunger for hard currency could take precedence over proliferation concerns."
The $400 million that Congress has provided is by no means all the money that will be required to assist in the weapon destruction process. But there are many nations that have a stake in continued peace, prosperity, and freedom from nuclear blackmail, so the US should not have to carry the brunt of the financial burden. Therefore the president should move quickly to marshal international support and financial participation to facilitate the secure transportation, dismantlement, and destruction of Soviet
The trickle of leaking nuclear technology, materials, and know-how may have already begun, if the Italian prosecutor's claims are accurate. But even if they are not, we cannot ignore this warning. Bush must act expeditiously and deliberately to stop the transfer of Soviet nuclear technology abroad. To do otherwise will sow the seeks of a significant new nuclear threat to the US and the world.