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Ex-Soviet Weapons Material Threatens U.S., Experts Say

Washington, March 14 (RFE/RL) - A panel of U.S. experts says "the number-one threat to American national security today is loose nuclear weapons and weapons-usable material from Russia."

The threat is not posed by Russia itself or any other Soviet successor states, the experts say, but instead, they say the danger is the real possibility that nuclear materials "will soon fall into the hands of a rogue state or terrorist groups."

The conclusions were contained in a report released in Washington on Wednesday by the Harvard University Center for Science and International Affairs. Similar concerns were raised in a report released Tuesday by the U.S. Government's General Accounting Office. The U.S. Senate is conducting hearings this week on the issue and on what measures the U.S. should take.

The Harvard report blamed the existence of the threat on conditions in the former Soviet Union.

"The continuing collapse of all central control systems in Russia and the former Soviet Union leaves everything there vulnerable to theft, seizure or loss," the report said. "Russia is now in a state of revolution that has freed individuals to do whatever they choose. Elimination of all traditional constraints combines with rampant criminalization to threaten chaos. In today's Russia, every item of value is vulnerable."

Graham Allison, an expert on the former Soviet Union and a co-author of the Harvard study, told a press conference that the risk to Russian security is also grave. He said that separatist organizations or criminal gangs could fashion a weapon to threaten Moscow.

Allison said that only a small amount of nuclear material could cause a catastrophe. He said that a terrorist with a grapefruit-size quantity of highly enriched uranium, or plutonium the size of a child's ball, and equipment available from any electronics store could make "a serious nuclear device."

He said that if such a device had been used in the terrorist bombing of New York City's World Trade Center, "the lower part of Manhattan would have disappeared."

The Harvard report said the amount of nuclear material in the former Soviet Union means the threat cannot be overstated.

"One hundred thousand nuclear weapons and weapons-usable nuclear equivalents of highly enriched uranium and plutonium remain scattered across several hundred locations in Russia and the former Soviet Union," the report said. "These include weapons storage depots, weapons dismantlement sites, research labs and facilities now closed at which nuclear fabrication or research previously occurred. Security at most of these facilities is poor."

The General Accounting Office report said the former Soviet Union has stockpiled about 1,400 metric tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium. The stores in Russia and the newly independent states are growing as missiles are dismantled, but authorities lack the resources to guard them.

"Much of this material is outside of nuclear weapons, is highly attractive to theft, and the newly independent states may not have accurate and complete inventories of the material they inherited," the Government report said.

The Harvard University experts suggested several immediate steps that the U.S. Government should take to protect itself from the threat.

First, they said the President, the Congress and concerned citizens must make the issue the top priority for the U.S. security agenda. Next, the U.S. should seek to convince Russia to make the issue a top priority in its relations with the U.S. and the West.

"But since Russian leaders are overwhelmed by the challenge of surviving today and cannot afford to focus on the future," the report said, "U.S. policymakers must help Russia perceive the problem and must facilitate a joint program of action to contain the problem."

The Harvard panel suggested that the U.S. and its allies purchase and remove the material from Russia to place it "beyond the reach of increasing chaos."

Finally, the panel said the remaining material in Russia "must be concentrated and protected in all the ways any other object of high value or danger has to be under conditions of collapsing control, increasing lawlessness, growing desperation of the guardians and potential chaos."