IT is difficult to imagine a more urgent meeting of world
leaders than the recent nuclear summit in Moscow. For the first
time since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold
war, leaders met to discuss new cornerstones of international and
At the forefront of their discussion, many hoped, would be ways
and means to provide global safety from the enormous nuclear
arsenals produced in the past. Russia has become the first, but
certainly not the last, nuclear power to face new and unthinkable
threats from its own nuclear weapons. The world community awaited
concrete and decisive steps.
But in spite of an encouraging official declaration, the summit
provided more questions than answers. One vital question looms: how
to prevent possible acts of nuclear terrorism - a threat that
Russia faces immediately.
In the days of the Soviet Union, the risk of nuclear terrorism
was virtually nonexistent. Western experts praised the reliable
security and safety systems of Soviet nuclear weapons and weapons
installations. In the 1980s, the Soviet government did not rush to
answer US requests for cooperation in this arena. But with the
disintegration of the Soviet Union, the situation drastically
The disappearance of strong party and KGB controls, poorly
implemented market economy reforms, increasing political turmoil,
declining military discipline, and organized crime and corruption
all helped set the stage for a growing number of attempted
fissile-materials thefts. Many reports reached the Russian press
about thieves with radioactive materials being arrested by police
in hotels, train stations, and subways in downtown Moscow.
In general, these materials were not weapons grade and were
stolen from nonmilitary facilities. Experts confirmed only three or
four such smuggling cases involving weapons- grade materials. The
last significant smuggling case occurred Aug. 10, 1994, at Munich
Airport, when German police arrested criminals with plutonium. The
West became anxious that these little "drops" could become springs
and rivers, from which renegade nations and sub-national groups
could satisfy their thirst for superweapons.
Unlike the West, the Russian government has never paid serious
attention to the illegal traffic in radioactive materials - or, for
that matter, to related issues of public health and nuclear
nonproliferation. After the Munich case, however, alarm in the West
and strong diplomatic pressure forced Moscow to take a more
cooperative stance on preventing the traffic of nuclear materials.
But Russia has never admitted that it could lose control of its
nuclear materials and allow conditions favorable to terrorist acts.
Moreover, officials try to convince the Russian people that the
West wants to impose international controls on nuclear weapons, and
that this is what's behind talk of an absence of reliable safety
systems in Russia. In reality, people on the street in Moscow don't
believe this Soviet-style propaganda.
The bloody and lengthy war in Chechnya is more on their minds.
That war appears to undermine the government's self-confident
statements about security. The Chechen warriors are constantly
dropping hints that they have nuclear devices captured during the
quick evacuation of Soviet garrisons from Chechnya in 1991. …