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How Secure is Russia's Nuclear Stockpile?

With the Cold War over for nearly 15 years, Russia and the United States have been working together to reduce Moscow's nuclear stockpiles and ensure that what remains is held securely. But questions remain as to whether protection from theft and terrorism has been achieved.

In 1985, the term “nuclear security” referred to the doctrine held by the United States and the Soviet Union that the nuclear forces of each nation were substantial enough to deter aggression by the other. Today, with the Cold War between the two superpowers long over, the term “nuclear security” is frequently used in the context of whether nuclear weapons and materials are properly safeguarded against theft and terrorist attacks. While many analysts say that Russia’s nuclear stockpile is better protected now than in the years immediately after the end of the Soviet Union, it’s still not sufficiently safeguarded despite nearly a decade-and-a-half of U.S. / Russian cooperation.

One of those expressing concerns in recent days is Tom Kean, chairman of the U.S. commission that investigated the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Kean on Russian Nuclear Security: "Unacceptable" Progress

“About half [of] the nuclear materials in Russia still have no security upgrade whatsoever," he says. "At the current rate of effort, it’s going to take 14 years to complete this job. This is unacceptable. [Osama] bin-Laden and the terrorists will not wait.”

Nuclear experts who have visited Russian storage facilities say security ranges from top-level at some sites to rusty fences and disinterested guards at others, and that security is not always matched to the dangers of the nuclear materials being stored.

Thousands of Warheads Dismantled, but Many More Still Exist

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists says the current Russian nuclear inventory has roughly 16,000 weapons, of which 7,200 are considered active and ready. Since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow’s inventory has been cut in half through U.S. / Russian strategic agreements.

But while many weapons may not be active, their nuclear components still exist. In addition, Russia continues to produce weapons-grade plutonium, which the United States no longer manufactures.

David Albright at the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security says Moscow has a massive nuclear stockpile.

“We would estimate," he says "that the total stock of plutonium and highly enriched uranium in Russia that we’re worried about is about 1,280 tons. You know, a relatively few kilograms -- four or five kilograms of plutonium [or] 15 to 20 kilograms of highly enriched uranium -- this is enough for a nuclear weapon.”

Bilateral Efforts at Nuclear Threat Reduction

Moscow’s nuclear arsenal has been reduced through several initiatives. There have been the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, START I and START II, which cut the number of Russian and U.S. long-range nuclear weapons. There is also the Cooperative Threat Reduction program. CTR is commonly called “Nunn-Lugar" for the two U.S. senators, Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, who initiated it.

Since 1991, the Nunn-Lugar program has not only deactivated nuclear warheads but also led to the destruction of hundreds of ballistic missiles, strategic bombers, and submarines. The program has also turned three former Soviet republics -- Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan – into states without nuclear weapons. This effort has so far cost the United States roughly $7 billion.

High-Security Nuclear Materials Storage Facility Built but Unused

The Cooperative Threat Reduction program has spent $400 million building the massive “Mayak” repository for nuclear warheads and materials near the Russian city of Ozersk. It was completed in December 2003, and features walls 7 meters thick built to withstand bombs, shellfire and other types of attacks. But it remains empty, though Russia says it plans to start storing nuclear materials there in the middle of next year.

Kenneth Luongo, Executive Director of the non-governmental Russian-American Nuclear Security Advisory Council, says transparency has been an issue.

“The U.S. wants to monitor what’s going in there," he says "and we haven’t really come to agreement with the Russians yet. The U.S. would like more intrusive monitoring; the Russians would like the minimal amount of monitoring. So we have a little bit of a stalemate on this question.”

A number of observers say that Russian hesitation stems in part from concerns that close-up inspection of nuclear materials may give the United States valuable insights into Moscow’s weapons technology. They say such attitudes are a holdover from decades of Cold War tensions between the two nations.

Russian Political Changes Impact Nuclear Security Effort

Another factor affecting the effort to collect and secure nuclear materials is the changing Russian political landscape. Laura Hogate, with the Washington-based advocacy group Nuclear Threat Initiative, points to the Kremlin as a growing impediment.

“In the [President Boris] Yeltsin era, you were able to get a lot more done on a facility-to-facility basis. As some of that independence caused problems for both countries, they [i.e., the nuclear facilities] became more and more centralized. And that coincided with the rise of the security services under [President Vladimir] Putin to prevent and disrupt U.S. / Russian cooperation.”

Kimball: No Known Thefts of Russian Nuclear Devices

Since the end of the Soviet Union, stories have surfaced about the possibility that terrorists and their allies have obtained Russian nuclear weapons or components. But Daryl Kimball, Director of the non-governmental Arms Control Association in Washington, calls those stories myths.

“There are no known or confirmed instances of the theft of a nuclear device," he says. "We know about a certain amount of black market activity that’s going on, [but] nothing has happened so far that should make us think that somebody has enough material for a nuclear weapon.”

But other analysts say the words “known” and “confirmed” are not reassuring. They worry that lax security at Russian nuclear facilities may enable workers to steal plutonium and sell it to others wanting to build a nuclear weapon or a “dirty bomb.” Regardless of who might obtain nuclear materials, most analysts say the onsequences of such illicit transfers could be catastrophic far beyond Russia’s borders. Because of that, they say efforts to protect Moscow’s nuclear stockpile must be stepped up.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.