Nuclear Material in the Wrong Hands Pushes Russia to Cooperate with West from the Nuclear Summit in Moscow Came One Vital Question: How to Prevent Possible Acts of Nuclear Terrorism

By Valery Davydov. Valery Davydov is a visiting scholar Maryland, College Park. | The Christian Science Monitor, April 26, 1996 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Material in the Wrong Hands Pushes Russia to Cooperate with West from the Nuclear Summit in Moscow Came One Vital Question: How to Prevent Possible Acts of Nuclear Terrorism


Valery Davydov. Valery Davydov is a visiting scholar Maryland, College Park., The Christian Science Monitor


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 national security.

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 changed. 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. Smuggling rings 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. …

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