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Week of: June 10, 2001

Who's Minding Russia's Nuclear Store?

by F.R. Duplantier

No one knows for sure what's become of the nuclear materials stockpiled by the former Soviet Union.

Alvin Rubenstein of the Foreign Policy Research Institute insists that "Russia is not an enemy; it may not be a friend, but there is nothing inevitable about its becoming a global adversary as it was in the recent past. Putin's Russia is not bent on restoring the empire," he asserts. "It lacks the capability, the resources, and the ideological impetus," says Rubenstein. "A severely wounded civilization and power still in decline, Russia must look inward to its own parlous condition or face further retrogression," he counsels. "Whatever its perception of itself and its role in the world, in this era of globalization and transparency, its relative backwardness is apparent to all."

That relative backwardness is cause for concern, however. "The collapse of the Soviet Union and its framework of totalitarian control raised the specter of rampant nuclear proliferation," says Rensselaer Lee, another Foreign Policy Research Institute analyst. "Indeed, thefts of nuclear and radioactive materials, propelled by deteriorating economic and security conditions in the nuclear complex, have surged in the former Soviet Union since the early 1990s. Most incidents of nuclear theft and smuggling have been militarily innocuous," he contends, "involving radioactive junk . . . that is useless in making fissile weapons. However, some 15 to 20 seizures of weapons-usable plutonium and highly-enriched uranium have been recorded internationally in the past decade," says Lee, "and U.S. policymakers must contemplate the possibility that -- as with other illegally traded commodities -- what was seized is only a small fraction of what has been circulated through smuggling channels." He worries that "a few high-profile episodes point to a spreading ethos of corruption in the Russian nuclear establishment that could presage major covert exports of fissile material, weapons components, and even intact nuclear weapons."

Lee also considers ominous "reports from Russia that large quantities of plutonium and highly-enriched uranium were removed from nuclear labs in the early 1990s (whether the material was exported or remains in Russia is anyone's guess), that scores of 'suitcase-sized' nuclear weapons are missing from storage, and that certain labs are engaged in criminally-brokered schemes to enrich uranium and sell the weapons-grade product to unspecified Middle Eastern states. If any such reports are true," he warns, "serious nuclear leakages from Russia are no longer a threat, but a fact."

Lee examines the factors contributing to "the danger of criminal nuclear proliferation. In Russia, strains of privatization and defense conversion have created a shambles in the nuclear complex," he observes. "Reports are rife of generalized economic distress -- low or unpaid salaries and shortages of essential goods such as food, clothing, and heat. Strikes, work stoppages, and pilfering attempts apparently are widespread. Security at nuclear facilities, once ensured by the control machinery of a police state, is frequently porous, despite infusions of U.S. equipment and expertise. Under such dismal circumstances," Lee avers, "opportunistic nuclear custodians -- concerned for the survival of their enterprises or their families -- could easily be tempted to steal and sell materials to which they have access."


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