Nuclear Material in the Wrong Hands Pushes Russia to Cooperate With West
From the nuclear summit in Moscow came one vital question: how to prevent possible acts of nuclear terrorism
IT is difficult to imagine a more urgent meeting of world leaders than the recent nuclear summit in Moscow. For the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, leaders met to discuss new cornerstones of international and national security.
At the forefront of their discussion, many hoped, would be ways and means to provide global safety from the enormous nuclear arsenals produced in the past. Russia has become the first, but certainly not the last, nuclear power to face new and unthinkable threats from its own nuclear weapons. The world community awaited concrete and decisive steps.
But in spite of an encouraging official declaration, the summit provided more questions than answers. One vital question looms: how to prevent possible acts of nuclear terrorism - a threat that Russia faces immediately.
In the days of the Soviet Union, the risk of nuclear terrorism was virtually nonexistent. Western experts praised the reliable security and safety systems of Soviet nuclear weapons and weapons installations. In the 1980s, the Soviet government did not rush to answer US requests for cooperation in this arena. But with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the situation drastically changed.
The disappearance of strong party and KGB controls, poorly implemented market economy reforms, increasing political turmoil, declining military discipline, and organized crime and corruption all helped set the stage for a growing number of attempted fissile-materials thefts. Many reports reached the Russian press about thieves with radioactive materials being arrested by police in hotels, train stations, and subways in downtown Moscow.
In general, these materials were not weapons grade and were stolen from nonmilitary facilities. Experts confirmed only three or four such smuggling cases involving weapons- grade materials. The last significant smuggling case occurred Aug. 10, 1994, at Munich Airport, when German police arrested criminals with plutonium. The West became anxious that these little "drops" could become springs and rivers, from which renegade nations and sub-national groups could satisfy their thirst for superweapons.
Unlike the West, the Russian government has never paid serious attention to the illegal traffic in radioactive materials - or, for that matter, to related issues of public health and nuclear nonproliferation. After the Munich case, however, alarm in the West and strong diplomatic pressure forced Moscow to take a more cooperative stance on preventing the traffic of nuclear materials.
But Russia has never admitted that it could lose control of its nuclear materials and allow conditions favorable to terrorist acts. Moreover, officials try to convince the Russian people that the West wants to impose international controls on nuclear weapons, and that this is what's behind talk of an absence of reliable safety systems in Russia. In reality, people on the street in Moscow don't believe this Soviet-style propaganda.
The bloody and lengthy war in Chechnya is more on their minds. That war appears to undermine the government's self-confident statements about security. The Chechen warriors are constantly dropping hints that they have nuclear devices captured during the quick evacuation of Soviet garrisons from Chechnya in 1991. The Russian military maintains that all nuclear weapons were removed from Chechnya, but it is difficult to establish the truth.
If Chechen leaders do have nuclear devices or materials, the present civil disorder in Russia could give them a chance to use them against defenseless Moscow residents. While the war in Chechnya continues, the question may not be whether there will be a nuclear terrorist attack, but when, where, and what kind of nuclear materials (or devices) will be used.
Moscow has begun to take stronger security and antiterrorist measures. Russian officials have reported the installation of 50 radiation detectors around Moscow on major connecting roads in response to Chechen threats. The government is planning to install the same equipment at all subway stations. The mass media repeatedly report on the increased number of guards at the nuclear power plants and water and energy facilities. For the first time in Russia, last March, antiterrorist training was provided for high-ranking commanders within the Ministry of Interior's military forces.
Western help is mainly directed toward enhancing the safety and security of the tons of nuclear materials generated from dismantling nuclear warheads according to the START I and START II pacts. Western leaders are rightly concerned that smuggled nuclear materials not cross Russian borders. But such concern is not enough. Any precedent of nuclear terrorism - in Russia or any other country - would have a detrimental effect on international efforts to further prevent such acts. A bad example can give other people ideas.
A vulnerable Russia
Most experts agree that the world is fortunate to have escaped, so far, a serious leakage of fissile nuclear materials; they also agree that Russia is highly vulnerable to theft and black-market transactions among terrorist groups. It is, therefore, necessary to establish all possible means for preventing the use of such stolen materials. Last year's chemical attack in Japan was a warning of what can happen if fanatics have the means of using weapons of mass destruction.
For more than 20 years, the United States has had special programs and equipment for combating nuclear terrorism. Russia is only at the beginning of this road. Moscow desperately needs Western technical help in this field. More important, the Russian government needs to clearly understand that the world is balanced on the brink of nuclear terrorism. It is time to launch a full-scale international program against this threat, which is anything but remote.
The measures against illegal transactions of fissile materials adopted at the Moscow summit are a step in the right direction. But it's a very modest, and probably elusive, program. Providing worldwide safety from nuclear terrorism demands more. To begin with, it is necessary to establish an International antiterrorist task force. Russians, like others, but perhaps more urgently than most, have a right to firm guarantees from the world's governments that nuclear terrorism has no future.