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Senate: US Must Help Russia Safeguard Nuclear Stockpile - 2002-04-23

Several U.S. Senators joined weapons' experts Tuesday in appealing to the Bush administration to do more to help Russia safeguard its nuclear stockpile. They expressed concerns about the potential for terrorists to gain access to such material.

The Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Joe Biden of Delaware, told a committee hearing that the former Soviet Union has 40,000 metric tons of chemical weapons and enough highly enriched uranium to produce 20,000 nuclear weapons.

Many in Congress are concerned that well-educated but underpaid weapons scientists in the cash-strapped former Soviet Union may seek to sell weapons-grade material or their expertise to potential terrorists.

It is a concern shared by former Defense Secretary William Cohen. "Every moment that we hesitate," he said, "every moment that we fail to do whatever we can to reduce the amount of nuclear materials, chemical, biological in existence, we come closer to that kind of Armegeddon that we all want to avoid."

Siegfried Hecker, a senior fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, agreed. Mr. Hecker said, "We must develop a rigorous 'MPCA,' that is, the materials protection control and accounting program, not only in Russia, but wherever those materials might be, that is weapons-usable materials. That means either materials that originated in the defense programs of a country or those that are part of the civilian program."

Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana is working with Senator Biden on a proposal that would forgive some of the Russian Federation's debt obligations to the United States in return for progress on nonproliferation. Senator Lugar said, "We must be clear with Russia that full transparency and accountability must be forthcoming with respect to former Soviet stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction."

Senator Lugar is the author of decade-old legislation that provides U.S. assistance to the former Soviet Union for the dismantling of weapons of mass destruction. The so-called 'Nunn-Lugar' law, also named for former Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, seeks to establish verifiable safeguards against weapons proliferation.

But funding for the program this year is being held up because the Bush administration has yet to certify that Russia is complying with its commitments.

Several senators are not happy that the funding has stopped. They are urging Congress to approve a waiver so that the program can continue. At the same time, they are urging the administration to make clear to Moscow that weapons proliferation threatens not only the national security interests of the United States, but those of Russia as well.

Nonproliferation is expected to be high on the agenda when President Bush meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow next month.

Tuesday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing came as news reports quoted a U.S. official saying a top al-Qaida leader captured in Pakistan has told U.S. interrogators that his terrorist network knows how to make a radiological bomb. The official said Abu Zubaydah made clear that al-Qaida is working to acquire such a bomb, which uses radioactive material dispersed through conventional explosives.