Washington, 22 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The danger that nuclear materials now located on the territory of the post-Soviet states might fall into the wrong hands and be used to build nuclear weapons has prompted the United States to adopt a radical new strategy to prevent a new kind of nuclear proliferation in that region.
As reported in the American and Georgian press on Tuesday and subsequently confirmed by Washington officials, the U.S with the agreement of the Georgian government is transferring a small quantity of highly enriched uranium from that republic to the United Kingdom. There, the material will be denatured and rendered harmless.
In confirming this operation, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that neither Washington nor Tbilisi wanted this material to fall into the "wrong hands" which might then be able to use it to build a nuclear weapon.
U.S. Defense Department officials added that the "wrong hands" in this case might be terrorists from the Northern Caucasus or even Georgia itself. But Albright's refusal to give any additional details about this hitherto secret operation suggests that Washington may be considering an expansion of this anti-proliferation policy to other countries in this region as well.
Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States and the West more generally defined the challenge of nuclear proliferation in a very different way. Washington saw its primary task as ensuring that all nuclear weapons in existence were removed from non-Russian countries to the Russian Federation, where it was assumed they would be more secure.
But even as that policy was succeeding, many both in the region and further afield noted that there was a much larger and potentially more serious proliferation problem: guaranteeing control over the enormous supplies of various kinds of nuclear materials on the territory of all these countries, Russia included.
The governments in these countries had significantly less information on such materials in the immediate post-Soviet period. Many acknowledged that they did not even know what they had, an admission that challenged any chance of control. And responding to Western policy statements, some of them appear to have decided that complete control of such materials was not a high-priority task.
Moreover, in contrast to existing weapons whose location was precisely defined and subject to close monitoring, nuclear materials were widely dispersed and often in the hands of institutions and even individuals potentially less able or willing to prevent the seizure or sale of these materials to others.
And that possibility is increasingly serious. Over time, it has become very clear that if they have such materials, rogue states or even terrorist groups could relatively easily construct a weapon. Indeed, up to now the inability of these groups to manufacture such nuclear materials without other countries knowing about it has been the chief limiting factor on their activities.
The operation in Georgia is not the first such American effort to help the governments of the region gain control over and then to denature nuclear materials that might be used to develop weapons. In 1994, for example, the U.S., also with the full support of the national government involved, removed some 600 kilograms of highly enriched nuclear materials from Kazakhstan.
As in Georgia, that operation too was initially clouded in secrecy lest protests in the country from which the materials were being removed or in the country to which they were being taken stop the transfer from taking place.
Now that the details of the Georgian operation have come out, there have been protests in the United Kingdom about bringing the nuclear materials there. Moreover, according to press accounts, several other Western governments refused to help in this transfer out of concern that their involvement would spark public outrage.
But the stakes involved of any leakage of such nuclear materials are so high both for the countries on whose territory they have been kept and for everyone else that the Georgian operation is unlikely to be the last, even if future activities of this type are also likely to remain a secret for as long as possible.
Despite complaints by some about this, secrecy in this case seems a small price to pay for preventing the proliferation of weapons that could wreak such havoc on the world.