At Large

Nuclear Security at the G-8

Russia's unprotected nukes should be a top item of discussion with His Excellency, Mr. Putin.

By 7.14.06

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When the G-8 leaders meet in Russia this weekend, nuclear proliferation will be high on the agenda. While much of the focus will be on Iran and North Korea, President Bush should raise another key issue with Vladimir Putin: the continued security (or lack thereof) of Russia's nuclear materials and expertise. A recent Council on Foreign Relations report calls Russia's commitment to non-proliferation into question. In light of Moscow's cozy nuclear relations with Iran and the tendency of some Russian officials to downplay the threat of nuclear theft, it is well past time to address these issues and ensure that nuclear materials do not fall into the wrong hands.

The chief obstacle is not a lack of money, at least on the American side. As of 2005, the United States was spending almost $1 billion a year on overseas nuclear security and related disarmament projects, with most of the funds being directed towards Russia. Washington's efforts to counter nuclear theft in Russia have focused largely on strengthening security at nuclear facilities, deploying technological monitoring equipment at key border crossings, and checking the dissemination of militarily significant know-how.

Yet serious security gaps still exist, most noticeably in the realm of Russian personnel. Background checks and monitoring of scientists and security guards at nuclear facilities is extremely lax, and this gap could allow well-funded and determined black marketers and terrorist groups to procure weapons-grade material. Russian and U.S. experts agree that a successful theft can be pulled off with four to five insiders at most. According to Matthew Bunn of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, "once stolen material is removed from authorized control, much of the battle is already lost...finding stolen material within a country, or detecting and interdicting its passage across borders, are Herculean tasks." Given that, what has the U.S. government done to bolster this security? Not enough.

The Material Protection, Control, and Accounting program (MPC&A), Washington's plan to prevent nuclear theft, fails to address these personnel issues properly. The program attempts to instill a "culture of security" into the Russian nuclear community, but has no stipulations for deterring criminally inclined insiders. Instead of creating extensive monitoring systems that would raise the risks of stealing nuclear materials, the program merely tries to teach scientists how to follow norms and procedures. Even if these programs were appropriately targeted, their timeframes leave us vulnerable: goals projected in the Department of Energy's 2007 budget include securing 350 border crossings by 2012 and creating 11,000 private sector jobs for displaced scientists by 2019. 13 years to allow terrorists to pilfer Russia's nuclear materials is far too long.

The U.S. and Russia need to address these personnel issues cooperatively. This approach would create "vulnerability profiles" of every Russian facility that works with nuclear materials. Profiles could be based on economic conditions, wage scales, and the presence of organized crime and terrorist groups. It would also be possible, with U.S. cooperation, to gauge the susceptibility of the workforce to bribes or blackmail, with drug use, gambling, and conspicuous consumption as warning signs.

Such a system would be expensive to implement, and to date, the Russians have been unwilling to provide the required funds. This is where the U.S. role would be key. We could redirect funds toward this system, while at the same time using our own security processing experience to help the Russians create a robust defense against nuclear theft. Further, we should enlist other G-8 nations that share a vested interest in ensuring that these materials do not fall into the wrong hands. A $500 million MPC&A fund would include U.S. funds transferred from less worthy projects and investments by other G-8 members. But without Russian cooperation, our efforts will bear no fruit, so we should engage Russia and secure its support, both for this proposal and for fighting nuclear proliferation in general.

Time is not on our side. The longer Russian nuclear materials are unprotected, the more time terrorists and black marketers will have to procure them. We should use the G-8 meeting to take tangible steps to end this threat and make the United States more secure.

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About the Author

Rensselaer Lee is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the author of the Cato Institute Policy Analysis "Reappraising Nuclear Security Strategy."