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Russia: Nuclear Security Poses Challenges

  • Tony Wesolowsky

In the area of nuclear safety, Russia poses particular challenges. Experts agree much of its nuclear material is not well-guarded. Many of the country's so-called "nuclear cities" are struggling to cope without the lavish state support they once enjoyed. Many Russian nuclear researchers are underpaid, leaving them susceptible to outside offers for their services. As the global fight against terrorism continues, RFE/RL correspondent Tony Wesolowsky takes a closer look at the issue of nuclear security in Russia today.

Vienna, 8 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The UN-affiliated International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) held a conference at its Vienna headquarters recently that focused on the risks of nuclear terrorism. The IAEA believes the threat of terrorists using nuclear weapons cannot be discounted in light of the scale of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. in September.

At the Vienna conference, special attention was focused on Russia, because it inherited a huge nuclear weapons program following the collapse of the Soviet Union. David Kyd, a spokesperson for the IAEA, says Russia occupies a unique role in today's nuclear universe.

"The position of Russia is somewhat special. First of all, they have a vast nuclear establishment even today. And 10 years after the end of the Cold War, it's estimated that about 1 million people still work in the nuclear industry and in the scientific dimension of nuclear affairs in Russia, and that is quite astounding. The number of laboratories is vast, so is the number of research reactors and other facilities."

The stakes in Russia are high. Although no exact figures are available, Russia is believed to possess about 1,100 tons of highly enriched uranium and more than 160 tons of plutonium, the essential ingredients for building a nuclear bomb.

The IAEA's Kyd spells out the challenge facing Russia today: "What, of course, is difficult today is to ensure that all the material generated and distributed through that vast network is properly protected. Now that is a Russian responsibility, primarily, but Russia recognizes that it does not have all the state-of-the-art equipment that the United States and other Western countries possess, and therefore there has been cooperation notably between Russia and the U.S."

Matthew Bunn is a Russian nuclear expert at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Bunn is concerned about the security of Russia's nuclear intelligence and weapons stockpile. He says one of the problems of nuclear security in Russia is that Moscow's security system is still suited for the communist system under which it took form.

"They had a perfectly sensible security system in Soviet times designed for a world that no longer exists. It was designed for a world with a closed society, closed borders, pampered, well-cared-for nuclear workers, everyone under close surveillance by the KGB. Now, it's largely the same security system having to face a world with an open society, open borders, rampant theft, crime, corruption, desperate unpaid nuclear workers. It's a totally different situation that the system was never designed to address."

The U.S. is spending about $200 million a year to help Russia improve its nuclear security system. Noteworthy success, according to Kyd, has been achieved at Moscow's Kurchatov Institute -- Russia's principle nuclear research center -- and at the Obninsk Institute, a nuclear research institute southwest of the Russian capital.

But Harvard University's Bunn, while applauding these measures, says they still fall short. He says U.S. and Russian officials privately admit that only about 40 percent of Russia's weapons-grade nuclear material has been secured as a result of these cooperative measures.

But it's not just the security of nuclear material that concerns the IAEA and other nuclear agencies. Russia's vast nuclear intelligence, experts fear, could end up in the hands of terrorists or in the weapons labs of so-called pariah states, such as Iran and Iraq.

Focus especially falls on nuclear workers employed in Russia, many of whom, as Bunn points out, only make about $300 a month, not much in today's Russia. The fear is that these workers could fall prey to the lure of exchanging nuclear intelligence for money.

In October 2000, the UN Security Council announced that Russian security forces had foiled an attempt to recruit a Soviet-era nuclear expert then living in Central Asia. In another case, Bunn says an expert at one of Russia's premier nuclear weapons laboratories was arrested in 1998 and charged with spying on behalf of both Iraq and Afghanistan. In the latter case, Bunn says advanced conventional arms, not nuclear weapons, were involved.

Another security challenge facing Russia is what to do with the 10 so-called "nuclear cities" set up in the Soviet era with the sole purpose of building nuclear weapons. Kyd describes these cities today as "rundown" and struggling to redefine their roles in a post-Cold War world. Bunn says some 750,000 workers still live in these antiquated communities.

Experts believes Iraq and Iran are the most eager to acquire nuclear intelligence. Bunn says the West has been critical of Moscow's cooperation with Iran over construction of a nuclear power plant at Bushehr, believing Iran may use the technology for nefarious purposes.

"Unfortunately, you have really two levels of cooperation. There's the official cooperation, which is entirely on civilian matters, and then there's the unofficial, 'under the table' cooperation, much of which is not directed by the Russian government, as it is in violation of much of Russia's own laws."

For example, Bunn claims that in 1995, then-Minister of Atomic Energy Viktor Mikhailov -- while negotiating with Tehran on Bushehr -- cobbled together a secret protocol. Under its terms, Bunn says, Russia would provide Iran with a gas centrifuge enrichment plant. Such a facility could be used to enrich uranium to weapons grade.

Bunn says the U.S. protested to Moscow once it heard of the plan, and the deal was eventually canceled.

After the Gulf War, Bunn says Baghdad succeeded in acquiring from sources in Russia the gyroscopes for strategic ballistic missile guidance systems, which were taken directly from Russian missiles, all in violation of Russian law and UN sanctions on Iraq.

It's not only nations that have turned to Russia to either recruit nuclear scientists or purloin nuclear material.

The Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult -- the architects of 1995's deadly nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway -- reportedly explored different pricing operations for buying a nuclear warhead from Russia. And there are reports that Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network has tried to acquire nuclear weapons from Chechen rebels.

Bunn, however, does not believe any of these attempts have been successful: "I don't think those reports are particularly credible. I think if actual nuclear weapons had gone missing in Russia, we would know. I do think that the evidence that Osama bin Laden has been attempting to acquire enriched uranium to fabricate nuclear explosives from Russia is reasonably strong. Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese terrorist sect, also attempted to acquire nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive material from Russia."

And while experts may have a handle on the scope of the nuclear security risks in Russia, they are on much shakier footing when it comes to assessing the situation throughout the rest of the former Soviet Union.

Kyd notes the nuclear establishment was spread throughout the Soviet Union. Today, Kyd says, many of the newly independent states are still trying to gauge just how much nuclear and radiological material they have on their territories.

In some cases, some of the nuclear waste was left behind by Russian armed forces as they withdrew. Kyd gives Georgia as an example: "In Georgia, the Russian forces as they were pulling out simply tossed radioactive sources away, sometimes at military sites that they were abandoning, sometimes just by the roadside or lying in open fields. And we were able to detect some of those by getting French helicopters that are specially equipped and flying over Georgia detecting those and having them secured and taken away for storage."

While Russia is now the focus of concern over nuclear security, it clearly is not the only former Soviet state with those problems.

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