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Nuclear shadow

PART 2

Russia has loose grip on nuclear stockpiles

By Anne E. Kornblut and David Filipov, Globe Staff, 5/20/2002

   
A series of occasional articles on the most worrisome threat in an age of terror.
 THE SERIES

Part 1
Russia may be boosting Iran's nuclear aims

Part 2
Russia has loose grip on nuclear stockpiles

Part 3
Mobile teams on hunt for atomic threats

Part 4
Russia's scattered tactical arms a temptation for terrorists

Part 5
Anti-American mood poses a security risk

 GRAPHICS

How Iran's new reactor would breed plutonium

How NEST searches for radioactive material

Russia's sprawling nuclear arsenal

Tracking Russia's nuclear capability

MOSCOW - Maxim Shingarkin wanted to prove a point about the security of Russia's vast network of aging and depressed nuclear facilities. So one day in February, Shingarkin, an antinuclear campaigner for Greenpeace Russia, led a Russian legislator and a camera crew past unwitting guards, around fences, and into the heart of a supposedly high-security restricted area in Siberia where 3,000 tons of highly radioactive, spent nuclear fuel are stored. Filming the whole way, traveling on well-worn footpaths, the six men spent several hours in the facility and left unnoticed.

"There were no alarms, no signals, no cameras," Shingarkin said of his break-in at the Krasnoyarsk Mining and Chemical Plant. "The guards drove past us several times and we passed by their sentry boxes, but we pretended to be locals and nobody bothered us."

"A group of armed men could go in as we did, control the building and approaches, and set off an explosion here," he said. "It would be like 100 Chernobyls."

The decade-old US effort to stem the flow of Russian nuclear technology to nations such as Iran that the United States says are trying to develop atomic weapons is likely to top the agenda when President Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin meet in Russia on Friday.

US spends $5 billion to secure facilities

Nuclear cooperation with Iran is one of many problems Russia faces in containing proliferation. No one has a ready answer on what to do about the questionable security of Russia's vast, aging nuclear industry, where even the most impregnable facilities are vulnerable to break-ins and where sensitive materials are vulnerable to theft by poorly paid, disillusioned staff members.

Shingarkin, a former major in the Russian military department that oversees the country's huge nuclear arsenal, said he also knew the way into the highly guarded weapons-grade plutonium production facility in the closed city of Zheleznogorsk. There, with the help of US financing, the Russians have installed a state-of-the-art security system, but it apparently has not made the facility impregnable.

"People have gone in undetected through the ventilation shafts," Shingarkin said.

The United States has spent approximately $5 billion since the end of the Cold War to help Russia safeguard its nuclear materials and weapons, developing vast programs at the Defense Department, the Department of Energy, and other US agencies that provide paying work for unemployed scientists and basic security materials, such as fences and alarms.

Known broadly as the "Nunn-Lugar" program, after the two US senators who launched it in 1991, the effort is credited with securing weapons facilities and deactivating some 6,000 warheads and nearly 400 intercontinental ballistic missiles in Russia and former Soviet states, weapons that were once aimed at the United States.

Despite that $400 million-a-year US effort, the Nunn-Lugar programs and their subsidiaries have secured only a portion of the facilities in Russia, leaving numerous aging, underprotected facilities in danger of attack or sabotage, nuclear specialists contend. Among the biggest source of concern: loose nuclear materials unattached to weaponry and guarded by civilian scientists in remote locations with little supervision.

"You've got dozens of stockpiles all over the country, and people safeguarding them who don't get paid for months, and scientists who know how to make weapons of mass destruction who can't feed their families," said former US senator Sam Nunn, the Democrat from Georgia who chaired the Senate Arms Services Comittee and teamed up with Senator Richard G. Lugar, Republican of Indiana, to create the US-Russia joint venture.

Nunn and Lugar, along with about a dozen members of Congress, are holding their own summit in Moscow this week, timed to coincide with Bush's summit with Putin in part to remind legislators from both countries that the problem still exists.

"The question of theft or sale is the most likely threat," Nunn said. "I think a country that turned over nuclear materials to a terrorist group would be putting its own survival in jeopardy . . . It's not nearly as likely as an illicit sale or a theft of this material."

That differs from the view of the White House. In the months following Sept. 11, Bush identified nations trying to build weapons of mass destruction -- namely the "axis of evil" countries of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea -- as the most dangerous threats to the United States because they might simply deliver nuclear weapons into the hands of terrorists.

"We will not wait for the authors of mass murder to gain the weapons of mass destruction," Bush said last November.

But even in the seemingly transformed post-Sept. 11 era, as the focus of concern has shifted to the Middle East and Central Asia and international terrorist cells, the more traditional nuclear threat persists in a uniquely old-fashioned place: Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union.

According to Sergei Mitrokhin, the legislator who accompanied Shingarkin on the break-in at the nuclear storage site, there is no federal financing for safety measures at most of Russia's 96 nuclear plants and research centers.

US says only a third of stockpile secured

The situation is little better at nuclear facilities in the former Soviet republics.

Authorities in Lithuania are still looking for 90 pounds of highly enriched uranium -- more than enough to make a nuclear bomb -- stolen a decade ago from the Ignalina nuclear power plant.

No one has ever found 84 nuclear "suitcase bombs" that Alexander Lebed, the former Siberian governor who died last month in a helicopter crash, pronounced missing when he briefly became national security adviser in 1996 and ordered an inventory of Russia's nuclear stockpiles. Those stockpiles include all of the warheads from Russia's arsenal of 30,000 tactical nuclear weapons, plus more than 1,000 tons of highly enriched uranium and at least 150 tons of plutonium still remaining in high-security Russian facilities -- enough to build some 60,000 nuclear weapons.

According to US government estimates, only about one-third of that stockpile has been secured through Nunn-Lugar and related programs. The remaining two-thirds is scheduled to be handled in the next decade, leaving what security analysts describe as an appalling hole in Russia's protection of nuclear material.

Nine months before the Sept. 11 attacks, a blue-ribbon congressional panel described the risk this way: "The most urgent, unmet national security threat to the United States today is the danger that weapons of mass destruction or weapons-usable material in Russia could be stolen and sold to terrorists or hostile nation-states and used against American troops abroad or citizens at home." The panel, headed by former senator Howard Baker of Tennessee and former White House counsel Lloyd Cutler, concluded that the threat required a $30 billion program in Russia over the next 10 to 12 years -- far more than the United States has ever been willing to commit.

In fact, before Sept. 11, the Bush administration prepared to slash its funding for Nunn-Lugar by about $140 million, funding that was restored in Congress and approved after the attacks. Bush, who promised during the campaign to fully fund Nunn-Lugar, has proposed a full budget for the program next year.

At the same time, the Bush administration told the Kremlin this spring that it may be forced to curtail a number of aid programs that help Russia keep control of its weapons of mass destruction and technologies because it could no longer certify that Russia complies with treaties banning the spread of such weapons.

In particular, the administration was forced to notify Russia that it could not grant certification because of Russia's refusal to share a bioengineered strain of anthrax developed by its scientists and its failure to provide a complete history of decades of secret work on biological and chemical weapons, a US official in Moscow said.

Russia has denied Western scientists access to four military-controlled biological laboratories where such weapons were made. Russia maintains it is not violating the biological or chemical warfare conventions it has signed in the last decade.

The Bush administration has said it would ask Congress for a waiver of the certification requirement so that it could keep financing Nunn-Lugar programs that seek to prevent the theft of Russian nuclear materials.

The International Atomic Energy Agency reports 18 cases of nuclear trafficking in the past decade involving small amounts of plutonium or enriched uranium, virtually all from the former Soviet Union, but each time the missing material was seized. In 1998, a group of workers in a restricted nuclear facility tried to swipe more than 40 pounds of uranium suitable for building weapons.

At Stanford's Institute of International Studies, researchers have compiled a database of nearly 700 incidents of international smuggling involving nuclear or radioactive material that could be turned into a so-called dirty bomb (which is expected to cause mass panic but cause fewer deaths than a nuclear bomb). Among the cases: a 2-kilo supply of highly enriched uranium, about 4.4 pounds, that was stolen in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia and never recovered. Scientists contend they may be aware of only a fraction of the missing nuclear goods, given how porous Russia's borders are.

Plant faces thefts,

addiction, recruitment

At the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant in Sosnovy Bor, 50 miles from the 4 million people who live in St. Petersburg, Russia's northern capital, the potential for more security breaches is evident.

Not long ago a worker showed up with a gun just to see whether he could make it through the security check, according to Charles Digges, a researcher for a Norwegian environmentalist group, Bellona Foundation. The man got inside.

Like all Russia's important nuclear sites, Sosnovy Bor is closed to everyone but staff members. But after a recent spate of thefts of metals, tools, and computers, Anatoly Volkov, the head of the local police department, acknowledged that the security procedures could not prevent crime by employees.

Because the plant does not carry out alcohol or drug screening, employees can and do drink and use narcotics on the job. In 1998, two employees died of heroin overdoses, said Oleg Bodrov, a former physicist at the plant and chairman of the local environmental group Green World.

And Bodrov said specialists at the reactor realized that better money was to be made abroad. Ten specialists had already left for projects in China, Iraq, and Iran.

This points to a problem that better fences and security guards cannot fix: the potential for scientists to sell their knowledge to the highest bidder.

Alexander Pikayev, a specialist on proliferation issues for the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the Taliban have tried to recruit scientists at nuclear research centers in Central Asia.

"A guy with 1960s-era knowledge of nuclear physics is interesting enough for the bomb the Taliban would want to make," he said.

Part 1: Russia may be boosting Iran's nuclear aims