Washington, March 21 (RFE/RL) - Conditions in Russia have increased the danger that materials used to build nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of terrorists or governments bent on aggression, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency director John Deutch said Wednesday
"The diversion threat is real," Deutch told a panel of U.S. senators. "There are serious customers for strategic nuclear materials who are up to no good."
The Senate's Governmental Affairs Committee began hearings last week into the issue of the danger posed to the United States by nuclear weapons material stored in Russia.
A Harvard University study group report issued last week warned that it was becoming increasingly difficult for the Russian Government to protect the plutonium and enriched uranium extracted from the warheads of former Soviet nuclear weapons.
Another report issued by the U.S. Government's General Accounting Office said there are 1,400 metric tons of nuclear materials stored in Russia and that this material is a tempting target for international terrorists, organized crime and so-called "rogue" nations wanting to build atomic weapons.
Russia has made a number of efforts to control its nuclear weapons and nuclear material stockpile, Deutch said. He said most of the weapons the Soviet Union had deployed in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine have been returned to Russia for dismantling. He says some progress has been made in improving the security facilities in the Russian nuclear weapons complex.
"However, due to severe resource shortages, the Russian nuclear weapons complex is deteriorating, and it continues to be a serious threat for diversion of nuclear technology and materials to other proliferating countries in the world," Deutch said.
He said that Russia does not have the resources allocated to maintaining security at their weapons complex.
Deutch said that obtaining enough strategic nuclear materials to make an explosive device "is the central hurdle" for groups or nations which want to build a nuclear weapon.
He says the CIA believes that "several nations at one time or another have explored the possibility of purchasing strategic nuclear materials as the simplest and quickest and cheapest way to acquiring nuclear weapons capability."
Prominent examples, Deutch said, include Iran and Iraq, and North Korea and Libya. For terrorists, he said, "the only practical way to acquire nuclear weapons is either to steal or purchase a device, or to purchase the strategic nuclear materials," and then make the bomb.
The intelligence agency chief said the threat should not be minimized or denied, and he said that the time to do something is now.
"If a significant act of diversion occurs ... we will face a crisis of enormous proportions," Deutch said. He added that it would cost significantly more to react to a theft than it would to prevent one.
"In some sense, making these efforts today is insurance about having to make much larger and much more dangerous resource commitments in the future," he said.
Deutch said everything possible must be done to reduce the materials stockpile. He said the U.S. should also continue its program of financial assistance to Russia to help it dismantle nuclear weapons and store the materials safely. Finally, he says, the U.S. must help the Russians improve the protection and control of nuclear facilities.