Nuclear Terrorism and Warhead Control in Russia

By Collina, Tom Z.; Wolfsthal, Jon B. | Arms Control Today, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Terrorism and Warhead Control in Russia


Collina, Tom Z., Wolfsthal, Jon B., Arms Control Today


The Bush administration's nuclear posture review exacerbates the threat of proliferation by encouraging Russia to maintain a large reserve of active warheads.

Since September 11, there has been unprecedented concern that the next terrorist attack against the United States could involve a nuclear weapon or radiological bomb. To respond to these threats, the Bush administration has placed radiation sensors at U.S. borders and put elite Delta Force commandos on high alert to seize control of nuclear materials. According to The Washington Post, after an October briefing on al Qaeda's nuclear ambitions by CIA Director George Tenet, President George W. Bush "ordered his national security team to give nuclear terrorism priority over every other threat to the United States."'

The most likely source from which terrorists might acquire nuclear material or a complete warhead is Russia, which possesses a vast nuclear complex containing hundreds of tons of fissile material (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) protected by inadequate or nonexistent security. In January 2001, a bipartisan commission chaired by Howard Baker, former Senate Republican majority leader, and Lloyd Cutler, former Clinton White House counsel, found that "[t]he most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States today is the danger that weapons of mass destruction or weaponsusable material in Russia could be stolen and sold to terrorists or hostile nation states and used against American troops abroad and citizens at home. 112

More recently, in February 2002 the U.S. intelligence community confirmed to Congress that "weapons-grade and weaponsusable nuclear materials have been stolen from some Russian institutes. We assess that undetected smuggling has occurred, although we do not know the extent or magnitude of such thefts. 113 According to Viktor Yerastov, who heads the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy's Nuclear Materials Accounting and Control Department, "quite sufficient material to produce an atomic bomb" was stolen from the Chelyabinsk region in 1998.4 Commenting on that theft to The Washington Post, a U.S. official said that, "given the known and suspected capabilities of the Russian mafia, it's perfectly plausible that al Qaeda would have access to such material."5

Bush administration officials are fond of saying that, because the United States and Russia are no longer enemies, the size of the Russian nuclear arsenal no longer matters to U.S. security. But that sentiment-even if accepted at face value-completely ignores that the main risk posed by Russia is not from a deliberate nuclear attack but from the possible leakage of its nuclear weapons or material to would-be nuclear states or terrorist groups.

To address this highest priority threat properly, one would expect that U.S. policy toward Russia would place concerns about securing Russian nuclear weapons and materials above all others. But recent information about U.S. nuclear policy indicates that this is not the case. In fact, the Bush administration's nuclear posture review exacerbates the threat of nuclear proliferation by encouraging Russia to maintain a large reserve of nuclear warheads and an artificially large nuclear complex. Given the weak security provided to Russia's nuclear infrastructure-and the fact that terrorists are known to be targeting it-U.S. policy should instead aim to place Russian nuclear warheads and materials under adequate multilateral control and on the fast track to secure storage and elimination.

To do so, the Bush administration will need to abandon the idea of storing, for potential future use, the thousands of warheads to be removed from strategic launchers over the next decade. There is no compelling justification for a reserve of this size. Instead, Presidents Bush and Vladimir Putin should agree at their May summit to eliminate excess nuclear warheads under strict verification and task their governments to negotiate by 2003 a binding agreement to that effect. …

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