Keeping the world safe from nuclear weapons is a key issue at the summit meeting this coming week between U.S. President Bush and Russian President Putin. Given the September 11 attacks in the United States, a special concern is that nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of terrorists like Osama bin Laden.
Secret forces crept up to the U.S. nuclear research site at Los Alamos in New Mexico. Within minutes, they had disposed of the guards and carried off several bombs worth of nuclear materials in a garden cart.
A fearful action, but luckily only simulated. U.S. special forces conducted mock raids on Los Alamos and other nuclear facilities around the country to test their security. In half the attempts, they succeeded in their mission.
If this could be done in America, says Frank von Hippel, chairman of the American Federation of Scientists, imagine what might happen in Russia, where nuclear facilities are far less secure. On a visit to one of them, he found 30 tons of plutonium inside a 50-year-old warehouse with a padlock on it. While the United States spends $800 million a year to protect its facilities, Russia commits $170 million.
At a recent meeting of the Federation of American Scientists, participants said the terrorist attacks in the United States are also a nuclear wake-up call. They said terrorists willing to give their lives for their cause would not hesitate to use a nuclear weapon.
FAS president Henry Kelly said it is crucial to keep reducing the thousands of nuclear weapons in both the United States and Russia that might fall into terrorist hands.
"We need to work closely with other countries, with Russia in particular, to address the very difficult problem of preventing terrorist attacks, as to nuclear materials, biological materials, and chemical weapons. One of the major concerns we have is the ability of groups like the Taleban to get hold of nuclear materials, and there are a lot of nuclear materials left over from the cold war," he said.
These materials are not serving any useful purpose, said FAS member Richard Garwin, one of the architects of the hydrogen bomb. On the contrary, their danger has been recognized by Presidents Bush and Putin, who have agreed on a mutual reduction of nuclear missiles along with acceptance of some form of U.S. missile defense.
"Now this really is a different world. We no longer have a Soviet super power. We do not need to worry about them combing the oceans of the world and destroying our strategic submarines before they could strike back. And so we do not need all of these weapons, and we do not need to be ready to launch them ourselves promptly because they are now invulnerable at sea, and many of the in their silos are pretty invulnerable there, too," he said.
Mr. Garwin said a stolen nuclear weapon could kill far more Americans than died on September 11. Yet Russia has prevented adequate inspection of its nuclear facilities even while the United States is helping pay for the clean-up.
At a recent Congressional hearing, Representative Ron Kind said a new agreement with Russia will allow access to these facilities. "A window of opportunity has opened for us to get into areas of Russia that we were excluded from just a short time ago. We should be taking full advantage of the relationship that the president has now developed with President Putin, so we can fully fund these programs that have a new opportunity of doing a better job of preventing the great next catastrophe from striking the American people," Representative Kind said.
Congressman Russ Holt, a physicist who has worked on nonproliferation issues, warned against reducing funds for these programs. "As disruptive and troubling as the recent incidents with anthrax have been, they pale in comparison to what would happen if people were using materials from the former Soviet weapons labs. I do not believe there is a man or woman in America who thinks we should be doing less this year than we were doing last year to control and stop the flow of materials and technology from the former Soviet weapons labs," he said.
Members of Congress noted the two nations are in complete agreement on the nuclear danger. Now it is a matter of reducing it.