Russian Roulette: Canada's Role in the Race to Secure Loose Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Weapons

Article excerpt

Leonid Smirnov lives with his wife Natasha in the Moscow suburb of Podolsk where he once worked as a foreman at the Luch Scientific Production Association. Throughout the Cold War, the Luch site was used by the Soviets as a research and development facility for nuclear reactors. On the nondescript campus, Smirnov was tasked with measuring and dispensing highly enriched uranium (HEU)-the seed material for nuclear weapons-to the teams of researchers exploring massive space-based power generation capabilities for orbiting military satellites.' For decades, life as an employee of the massive Soviet nuclear infrastructure was generally one of great privilege, but by 1992, the first year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, life for this once sacrosanct community of scientists, engineers, and technicians was irrevocably altered. Tens of thousands lost their jobs or went months without a paycheque. Even the brightest scientists and engineers were forced to seek work where they could get it-whether driving taxi cabs or selling their nefarious talents to foreign governments.2 Inflation was rampant. The decontrol of most prices in January of 1992 prompted an average price increase of 245 percent in that month alone, and by the end of that year, retail prices had increased by 2520 percent. The cost of consumer goods became, for many, untenable. In 1990, a loaf of bread cost 0.14 roubles; a year later, the price had jumped to 1.40 roubles. By 1992, the price had soared to seven roubles. For the average Russian worker providing for his or her family, price increases of up to 5000 percent on basic goods at best meant financial ruin.3

Faced with these dire economic conditions, and knowing that the scales at the Luch plant were not sophisticated enough to detect minute deviations from previously recorded weights, each day Smirnov began filling vials with small quantities of HEU and smuggling the material out of the facility. As plant accounting records continued to show no changes at all to the overall stockpile of bomb-grade HEU, Smirnov ultimately succeeded in squirreling away 70 grams of material without detection-enough to give a would-be terrorist a head start toward building a crude nuclear weapon.4


In December 1991, the hammer and sickle, the symbol of Soviet dominion, was lowered from atop the Kremlin for the last time. As the world celebrated the end of the Cold War, a less palpable but no less sinister threat emerged in place of overt hostilities. This heretofore unimagined international security challenge was based not upon Soviet strength, but upon Russian weakness. For 40 years, the Soviet Union safely operated many tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, experimented with hundreds of deadly pathogenic cocktails, and stockpiled tons of chemical munitions. Management of this massive weapons complex occurred within the context of a dosed society with redundant security measures that prevented incursion of the complex by the outside world. The omnipresence of the KGB and the threat of harsh penalties made clandestine behaviour among insiders unlikely.

But by the early 1990s, Russia and its former Soviet neighbours were left to deal with the legacy of a massive nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons program with a vastly diminished resource base. As the Russian economy crashed, the temptation to surreptitiously divert materials from within for profit, as exemplified by Smirnov, led to new fears of an incipient nuclear, biological, and chemical black market in the former Soviet Union (FSU). From hundreds of excess strategic and tactical nuclear warheads and dozens of decaying nuclear submarines, to radioactive lakes and tens of thousands of unemployed nuclear and biological weapons scientists, the strain placed upon the fragile new governments of the FSU by virtue of their nuclear inheritance alone was overwhelming. Security measures designed to keep foreigners out were now inadequate as knowledge, materials, and weapons became instantly marketable products to terrorists and terrorist states. …