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Russians Worry About Terror Threat to Nuclear Facilities

  • Simon Marks

You would not have been able to see images of Russian nuclear facilities just 15 years ago.

Not because they didn't exist, but because they were reserved for a handful of select eyes only.

The nuclear reactor at the Kurchatov Institute in the northwest of Moscow was once the pride of the Soviet Union. When it opened in 1943, this facility was called simply "Laboratory Number 2" and had one goal: the creation of a Soviet nuclear bomb. Today it's one of 11 nuclear reactors believed operational in the Russian capital.

Robert Berls worries about the Kurchatov Institute. He directs the Moscow Office of the Nuclear Threat InitIative -- a non-governmental organization jointly founded by Atlanta businessman Ted Turner and former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia.

"It's an institute where the U.S. Department of Energy first began doing upgrades of nuclear facilities, and they have several facilities at the Kurchatov Institute. It's a relatively open facility, and a group of terrorists could, I think, easily break into that facility if they tried hard enough. And God forbid if they were ever to get to those research reactors -- what damage they could do and the horror that could be unleashed on Moscow," says Mr. Berls.

In a bid to allay those fears, the Russians have been displaying some of the security measures they now deploy at the Kurchatov facility, including special troop carriers that have been converted to monitor levels of radioactive contamination in the event of any incident, and Emergency Ministry troops who are kept on-site around-the-clock. A corporate video has also been produced, designed to set minds at rest.

We know with certainty that terrorists have at least considered launching an attack against the Kurchatov Institute.

In October 2002, Russian troops stormed the Dubrovka Theater in the center of Moscow, ending a siege by fighters from the breakaway Russian region of Chechnya.

For three days 900 theatergoers and performers were held hostage inside the building.

The Russians pumped a still-unidentified narcotic gas into the theater in a bid to end the siege -- the move killed the Chechen hostage-takers, but also 129 of their captives. And while that very public military operation was playing out live on Russian television, over at the Kurchatov Institute the Russians were quietly busy.

Russian defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says, "A friend of mine, a person who I know rather well, worked at Kurchatov, and was called in immediately to the facility as the tragedy in the theater was evolving, to close down the biggest reactor. So when the Russian authorities see real dangers of nuclear facilities being captured several miles from the Kremlin, they act. They act because the threat is serious."

Alexander Pikayev has written extensively on the problems securing and safeguarding Russia's nuclear stockpile. He says, "I would say it's simply a matter of luck. Simply a matter of luck because especially in 1990, the situation was so poor that one should be surprised that the worst-case scenario wasn't realized.”

"You cannot say, well, 50 percent is OK. Situation in 99 percent of facilities is OK. Because even if in one facility, which contains probably less than one per cent of the dangerous nuclear materials is bad, the amount of that nuclear material might be enough to make a bomb. So this is still dangerous,” adds Mr. Pikayev.

Both the U.S. and Russian governments have widely publicized the dismantling of elements of their nuclear stockpile. Missiles are broken apart, the fissile material recovered, and then their parts melted down for scrap. A U.S. congressional initiative -- the Nunn-Lugar Co-Operative Threat Reduction Program -- succeeded in deactivating 312 Russian nuclear warheads last year alone. But there is an enormous amount of work ahead: comprehensive security upgrades have not been completed on more than half of Russia's potentially vulnerable nuclear material.

And defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says decommissioning warheads can create a raft of new problems to resolve.

"Decommissioning means that they're dismantled. But the material that they're composed of didn't disappear. That means it's stored somewhere. Most likely stored in less secure conditions than it was when it was a nuclear warhead. So dismantling nuclear weapons is good, but that means that the material is less secure as a result. It's not an easy situation, and it's made worse by a mutual lack of trust, by ambiguity over the direction in which U.S.-Russian relations might develop," says Mr. Felgnhauer.

And U.S.-Russian relations, rocky in general over U.S. concerns about Vladimir Putin's rollback of democratic reforms, are tense on the nuclear issue. The Russians won't allow U.S. inspectors to visit some of their most sensitive sites. A response, they say, to Washington's refusal to co-operate with Russian inspections in the USA.

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed the nuclear issue with President Putin and senior members of his government. In an appearance on a Russian radio station she was asked whether the U.S. is infringing Russian sovereignty by seeking access to the country's nuclear sites.

"We do not consider, in any way, the inspections that need to take place, issues of sovereignty. These are issues of cooperation, because we all need to be concerned about what happens as we dismantle the old nuclear weapons arsenals," said Dr. Rice.

It isn't only disagreement over how to implement accords on nuclear security that are keeping Russia's so-called "loose nukes" in the headlines. Those seeking a higher priority for the nuclear issue on the U.S.-Russian bilateral agenda also point to strategic realities that they say are contributing to the delay in bringing Russia's potentially deadly materials under control. The U.S. and Russia remain on "hair-trigger" nuclear alert, still capable of mounting a nuclear attack on one another at a moment's notice.

"That's a problem that can be resolved only at the level of heads of state, it cannot be done just by confidence-building measures,” says Pavel Felgenhauer.

So, on the 60th anniversary of the allies' victory in Europe at the end of World War II, it is falling to President Bush and President Putin to try and advance the modern nuclear agenda.

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