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