The New Nuclear Threat to American Security

By Joseph R. Biden Jr. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware is ranking Democrat on the Senate European Affairs Subcommittee. | The Christian Science Monitor, May 9, 1996 | Go to article overview

The New Nuclear Threat to American Security


Joseph R. Biden Jr. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware is ranking Democrat on the Senate European Affairs Subcommittee., The Christian Science Monitor


A major achievement of the recent Nuclear Safety and Security Summit in Moscow was President Yeltsin's pledge to support a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. While this arms-control success has received the bulk of post-summit attention, even more important was the progress made on another agenda item: the more than 100,000 nuclear weapons or weapons-equivalent material that remains strewn about the former Soviet Union in unprotected facilities.

One of the greatest security threats in the post-cold-war era is the possibility that some of this nuclear material could be acquired by rogue states, criminal organizations, or terrorists, and used against American targets. We must understand the magnitude of the threat and muster the resolve and resources to address it.

Of the tons of dangerous fissile material spread across Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakstan, only a fraction would be required to wreak unspeakable damage. Just 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium or 8 kg of plutonium - an amount of uranium the size of a softball, or a baseball in the case of plutonium - are enough to create a weapon capable of massive destruction. That amount could be easily concealed and transported in a briefcase or backpack.

The situation in Russia today presents enormous obstacles to securing nuclear material:

*First, the collapse of the Soviet command-and-control security system that prevented theft of nuclear material has been replaced by chaos and no controls at many storage sites.

*Second, the Soviet Union had no comprehensive accounting system for nuclear weapons and material. Thus we and the Russians do not know where all of the Soviet nuclear material is stored or how much exists. We think most nuclear material is located in 80 to 100 sites and that the Soviet Union produced some 1,200 metric tons of highly enriched uranium and some 200 metric tons of plutonium.

*Third, many of the labs, research centers, and power plants where nuclear material is stored do not have perimeter fences, electronic sensors, or monitoring cameras to deter and detect intruders. The Russian government says 80 percent of its nuclear facilities do not have radiation detectors to prevent those on the inside from walking out the door with nuclear material.

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