Why it's vital to help Russia guard nuclear stockpiles

In his lateset propaganda tape, Osama bin Laden revels in the contrast between America's sophisticated weaponry and the relative unsophistication of the plane hijackers who attacked the United States on Sept. 11.

But his interest in acquiring sophisticated weaponry, specifically a nuclear device, is well documented. The Bush White House believes that has not happened yet. But last week, it took new action to try to see that neither Mr. bin Laden nor other terrorists ever get the opportunity.

The likeliest place from which terrorists could steal or buy a nuclear weapon or material to make one is Russia or one of the states of the former Soviet Union. Iran or Iraq are other prospects. And volatile countries like India and Pakistan have nuclear stockpiles that could be targeted. But the US focus is on Russia because, outside the US, that is where most of the world's nuclear arsenal is lodged. (The former Soviet Union produced more than 40,000 nuclear weapons and has enough enriched uranium and plutonium to make 40,000 more.)

Does buying or stealing nuclear material or weaponry from Russia seem fanciful?

Then consider this: In late 1998, an employee at Russia's premier nuclear weapons laboratory in Sarov was arrested and charged with trying to sell secret nuclear-weapons designs to agents of Iraq and Afghanistan for $3 million.

About the same time, conspirators at Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy facility in Chelyabinsk were caught trying to steal material just a little short of what would be needed for a nuclear device.

In the same year, officials in the closed Russian "nuclear city" of Krasnoyarsk-45, which stored enough highly enriched uranium for hundreds of nuclear weapons, warned that nuclear scientists there had remained unpaid for several months. A "social explosion" (doublespeak for selling off nuclear secrets to the highest bidder) was unavoidable unless urgent action was taken.

In 2000, security agents arrested four Russian sailors at a nuclear submarine base on the Kamchatka Peninsula with a stash of radioactive material stolen from an armored safe in their submarine.

Isolated incidents? No, just a few of dozens documented by an official US government task force assigned to look into the problem of thousands of nuclear weapons and tons of nuclear materials littering the former Soviet Union, in the care of ill-paid, and often unpaid, scientists and military men, perhaps sometimes tempted to sell them.

When the task force, cochaired by former US Sen. Howard Baker and former White House counsel Lloyd Cutler, reported in 2001, its conclusion was dire: "The most urgent unmet national security threat to the US today is the danger that weapons of mass destruction or weapons-usable material in Russia could be stolen and sold to terrorists or hostile nations and used against American troops abroad or citizens at home."

The US has been working for some years with Russia to downsize and safeguard its nuclear arsenal and find alternative employment for the Russian nuclear scientists hitherto engaged in military work. That cost the US $3 billion through 1999, but the task force argued that much more is needed over the next decade to prevent Russia's nuclear weapons and expertise from flowing to hostile forces.

For "much more," read $30 billion. That focused the attention of the budget accountants in the White House, which contemplated cutbacks or even ending the program. But last week, undoubtedly impelled by Sept. 11, President Bush announced the program will go on.

The Russians know that nuclear devices in terrorist hands are also a threat to them, so they can expect the US to press them to foot some of the bill as their economy improves.

Why should American taxpayers shoulder this burden? Because the US is at war with terrorism and this is part of the cost of fighting the war. If a terrorist group could acquire a lump of highly enriched uranium the size of a grapefruit, or a chunk of plutonium the size of an orange, a nuclear engineer graduate could, according to the experts, theoretically fashion a crude nuclear device that could be smuggled into the US in something little larger than a suitcase.

As recently as September, Russian authorities reported two incidents in which terrorist groups tried to break into Russian nuclear-storage sites. Fortunately, they failed. Hopefully, Bush's decision last week will help continue the thwarting of such efforts.

A footnote: In my column last week, I reported Freedom House's 10 "worst of the worst" countries in terms of their poor performance on the democracy front, but neglected to include Burma, also known as Myanmar.

John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor and currently editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

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