Nukes in Russia

The following article appeared in the Foreign Service Journal of July-August 2007.



Nukes in Russia: 

Situation Terrible, But Much Improved

By Bob Guldin


Bob Guldin is a Washington writer and editor.  He was the editor of the Foreign Service Journal from 1998 to 2001, and was previously editor of Arms Control Today.



On Nov. 23, 1995, a group of Chechen separatists placed a crude “dirty bomb” containing a mixture of radioactive cesium 137 and dynamite in Moscow’s Ismailovsky Park.  But instead of detonating the bomb, they informed a national TV station about its location.  This incident, occurring in the midst of the first Chechen War, was intended as a warning to the Russian government.  The message was, “Keep up your campaign in Chechnya and you may face terrible consequences.  We can strike at your center.”


For the rest of the world, the incident carried a message too.  “Terrorism with nuclear materials is not just a bad dream.  It can happen.”  While the Chechens apparently thought they could achieve greater political impact with a widely publicized threat than an explosion, they reminded the world that even with little technological sophistication, one can plant fear in a great city.


The incident also served as a warning sign of how serious the dangers of nuclear theft, terrorism and proliferation are in Russia and the former Soviet Union.  That was especially true in the 1990s, when the collapse of the old Soviet dictatorship led to chaos and disorder in many sectors of society, including the military and the nuclear industry.

But even today, when that disorder has largely subsided, the risks are extremely serious. Russia continues to host a vast array of nuclear materials – weapons deployed and dismantled, production complexes, nuclear power plants, waste storage sites, research reactors, even radiological power sources in remote wilderness locations.  Not all of these can be used to create weapons, but even radioactive material can contaminate large areas.


Speaking about the Russians, Rose Gottemoeller, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, tells the Foreign Service Journal, “They’ve got way too much fissile material spread around.  Some of these facilities are huge, and they have fissile materials spread everywhere.”  Gottemoeller was deputy under secretary of defense for nuclear nonproliferation at the Department of Energy under President Clinton.


Graham Allison, the director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a highly regarded expert on terrorism, also sees a vast potential for problems in Russia.  Allison wrote recently, “If a nuclear terrorist attack occurs, Russia will be the most likely source of the weapons or material — not because the Russian government would intentionally sell or lose weapons or materials, but simply because Russia’s 12-time-zone expanse contains more nuclear weapons and materials than any other country in the world, much of it vulnerable to theft or sabotage.”


But Matthew Bunn, a senior research associate at the Project on Managing the Atom in Harvard’s Belfer Center, also urges readers to remember that “there is potential nuclear material in more than 40 countries, some of it well secured and some of it poorly secured. This is a global problem, not one limited to Russia.”

Deepening the concern about Russia is that “in some of these facilities, they don’t even know what they have,” says Laura Holgate, vice president for Russia/New Independent States programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington NGO widely considered the premier source of information on nuclear proliferation.  (Holgate previously managed the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program at the U.S. Department of Defense.)


Especially in Russia’s research centers, abandoned nuclear materials from decades worth of experiments are simply “put in some container and put off in a corner,” Holgate says.  “The notion that there will be perfectly traceable and preserved records of every gram” is “just not reasonable.”  


In addition to Russia itself, six former Soviet republics — Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Latvia, Georgia and Uzbekistan — have some nuclear facilities that concern proliferation experts.  


Three of those — Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan — also once had Soviet nuclear weapons stationed in them, but by 1996 all those weapons were removed to Russia, and most have been dismantled.


However, those three countries also have civilian research reactors containing highly enriched uranium, which can be used to build nuclear bombs.  Various organizations, including NTI and DOE, are working with the three governments to make the facilities safer; for example, by getting them to convert to low-enriched uranium, which can’t be used for weapons.  


“Potatoes Were Guarded Better”


As troubling as things are now, every expert we talked to agreed that conditions were far worse in the early and mid-1990s.  Siegried Hecker, co-director of Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and emeritus director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, first visited Russia as a DOE representative in 1992.  “The situation was truly alarming,” he tells the Journal, “especially in terms of their naval fleet — submarines, icebreakers — as well as their civilian institutes.  The actual physical security [had] collapsed, so the threat was very, very high.”


The horror stories from that period are numerous.  In one instance, a thief entered a facility through a hole in a fence, snapped the padlock, retrieved nuclear materials and was able to leave without being detected.  The theft might not have been discovered for weeks if the perpetrator had not been sloppy and left the padlock lying in the snow.  When the identity of the thief was discovered months later and he was put on trial, the prosecutor concluded that — in a phrase that has become famous among proliferation experts — “potatoes were guarded better.”


Conditions were even worse in the non-Russian areas of the former Soviet Union, because they had never had operational responsibility for managing nuclear materials. That had always been Moscow’s job.  According to experts at Harvard’s Belfer Center, when civil war broke out in Georgia, scientists at one nuclear facility in Tbilisi which housed 10 kilograms of HEU took turns guarding it “with sticks and garden rakes.”  There were simply no security guards.


A principal reason for the collapse in security was that the old Soviet system was predicated on the existence of a closed society, not a fragile, crime-ridden market economy.  As Matthew Bunn of Harvard observes, “In the Soviet Union, the whole point of the security controls was to keep American spies out — they weren’t focused on theft.”


Bunn adds, “The old closed society of the Soviet Union meant that you could have lower security at the perimeter of nuclear facilities.”  If someone did manage to smuggle some nuclear material out of a nuclear facility, what were they going to do with it?  It was almost impossible to meet with foreigners without being detected.  There was no way to leave the country without the KGB detecting it.  Some analysts called the dictatorial state “the second line of defense” for nukes, but that protection disappeared with the Soviet collapse.


While the situation has improved considerably in the last 15 years, Russian nuclear security still has very serious flaws.


A revealing article on the weak “culture of security” surrounding Russian nuclear facilities highlights the reality that technical fixes can only achieve a limited amount if the human element is deficient.  Published in the Russian journal Nuclear Control in 2003, the piece by Igor Goloskokov, who was then deputy general director of a massive nuclear complex in Siberia, discusses a plethora of problems with the forces that guard nuclear installations:


  • Security routines are still based on procedures of the old Soviet GULAG system of the 1940s and 1950s, which the Ministry of Internal Affairs refuses to update.


  • In training exercises in which mock terrorists attempt to breach defenses, the “terrorists” are usually successful, but the guards’ tactics remain unchanged.


  • Corruption is widespread and endemic; guards often steal state property.


  • Guards are ineffective and poorly trained.


  • Guards often patrol without ammo in their guns; night vision goggles are kept in the commandant’s safe, rather than being available for use.


  • Pay is low and funds are in short supply.


Moreover, the old Soviet system of keeping track of nuclear materials was sloppy in the extreme.  Matthew Bunn says that at some sites, any difference between input and output was defined as “losses to waste.”  In effect, theft was ruled out as a possibility.  Those rules persisted for many years after the disintegration of the USSR.



Militants and Mafiyas


The weakness of Russia’s nuclear security measures wouldn’t be of such concern if it weren’t for the fact that it faces a capable and desperate foe: the Chechen nationalist movement.  Fighting for the independence of their small province, Chechen militants have shown time and again that they can form armed detachments of more than 20 fighters, deceive and overpower Russian guards, seize poorly guarded facilities and hold them for several days.


Simon Saradzhyan, an editor at Moscow News, examined the threat of Chechen nuclear terrorism in a 2004 discussion paper for Harvard’s Belfer Center.  He pointed out that as the Chechen fighters lose hope of beating the Russian forces by conventional or guerrilla warfare (and they have been losing in recent years), “committing a catastrophic nuclear terrorist attack will become an even more appealing option for them.”


Gottemoeller confirms that when she was a DOE official working on nonproliferation programs between 1997 and 2000, “I would meet with Russian facility directors and security people.  They would comment to me that their biggest nightmare was a truckload of Chechen terrorists pulling up at the gates and shooting their way into the facility – and then either exploding a truck bomb next to the reactor that would cause radioactive material to be dispersed, or stealing fissile materials.”  And Allison points out that Chechen forces are reported to have contemplated seizing a nuclear research reactor in Moscow, and have obtained small quantities of radioactive materials on several occasions.


Researchers at Harvard’s Managing the Atom Project concluded in their comprehensive report, Securing the Bomb 2006, that “Russia remains the only country where senior officials have confirmed that terrorists have carried out reconnaissance at nuclear warhead storage facilities.  In late 2005, Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev ... confirmed that in recent years ‘international terrorists have planned attacks against nuclear and power industry installations’ intended to ‘seize nuclear materials and use them to build weapons of mass destruction.’”


Chechen militants are not just a concern for Russia.  From the viewpoint of U.S. security, the situation is made more grave by the probability that al Qaeda has ties to Islamist radical separatists in Russia’s North Caucasus region and has had Chechen members. Adds Matthew Bunn, “Some Chechen factions are known to have close ties to al Qaeda. By some accounts, the Chechen leader Khatab (who was Jordanian) may have been sent to Chechnya by bin Laden.”


Allison states that there are definite links between Chechen and jihadist forces, and that Chechen militants have received funds from al Qaeda.  As he comments, “While the Chechens’ target of choice for their first nuclear terrorist attack will surely be Moscow, if the Chechens are successful in acquiring several nuclear bombs, their al Qaeda brethren would be likely customers.”


Saradzhyan of Moscow News emphasizes that the Chechen militants are more dangerous because of the “corruption and ideological conversion of law enforcement officers,” who frequently steal weapons, fuel and other military equipment.  Saradzhyan also cites case after case in which Russian policemen – usually from non-Russian nationalities and Islamic backgrounds — have “gone over to the other side” and begun to help Chechen or Islamic militants.  Russia’s well-known “mafiyas” (gangsters) also play a role in bribing, threatening or coercing guards or employees at nuclear facilities.


Terrorist and criminal groups are also displaying an increasing tendency to merge and cooperate.  Alexander Ovchinnikov, the head of the anti-organized crime directorate of the Interior Ministry, said in 2002, “The trend of organized crime groups merging with terrorism and extremism-oriented groups is gaining strength.”


How does the Russian leadership react to this worrisome state of affairs?  With blithe, hollow reassurances that all is well.  During a 2004 visit to Washington, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that “It is impossible for Moscow’s stockpiles of nuclear weapons and nuclear fuels to fall into the hands of terrorists.”  


Perhaps the most authoritative U.S. assessment, an April 2006 report to Congress by the Director of National Intelligence, concluded: “Undetected smuggling of weapons-usable nuclear material has likely occurred, and we are concerned about the total amount of material that could have been diverted or stolen in the last 15 years.  We find it highly unlikely that Russian or other authorities would have been able to recover all the material likely stolen.”


Proliferation experts think it’s quite unlikely that terrorists would get access to an intact nuclear weapon, in part because weapons are much better guarded and are difficult to smuggle.  A much more likely scenario would be theft of highly enriched uranium, which can be assembled into a weapon without great technical difficulty.


Another troubling possibility is that terrorists or other bad actors could assemble and explode a “dirty bomb,” which presents a very different problem than a true nuclear weapon.  As Gottemoeller comments, “You could have major panic among the population, major problems with radioactive materials spread around.”   In addition, Gottemoeller says that Russia finds it difficult to lock up radiological materials, because they are used for medical and industrial purposes in thousands of locations.



Why Hasn’t Disaster Struck?


Given the abundant nuclear material scattered around the former Soviet Union and the dangerous people who’d like to get their hands on it, it’s logical to ask, “Why haven’t we seen a nuclear 9/11 yet, either in Russia or the West?”


The answer, says Bunn of Harvard, lies partially in the practical difficulties.  Potential thieves most likely are afraid of getting tricked or cheated by their partners in crime.  And of course, there’s always a risk of the getting caught.  The Russian federal security police or FSB have established a stronger presence than in years past.  It’s also hard to make the connection with the end user: “There’s no 1-800-Osama number you can call.”


Beyond that, he notes, “The world owes a great debt to the patriotism and dedication of the Russians who have been in the nuclear industry.”  Through months and years of economic turmoil, infrastructure decay and payless paydays, the scientists and engineers have for the most part kept their dangerous charge out of the wrong hands.  And while democratic freedoms have waned under Putin, the re-establishment of strict order is good for nuclear safety.  So is the fact that security forces and nuclear scientists are getting paid regularly, which was often not true in the 1990s.


Another enormously important factor has been the assistance and active intervention from the United States and other Western countries.  The Cooperative Threat Reduction program has helped Russia and other states make rapid and valuable strides toward securing their at-risk materials and facilities.



Cooperating to Reduce the Threat


The United States began taking cooperative threat reduction seriously in 1992, shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union.  Two senior senators, Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., joined together to sponsor the Nunn-Lugar bill that has been the basis of U.S. efforts to reduce the proliferation threats in the former Soviet Union.


Most observers believe that Nunn-Lugar and related programs have been one of the smartest, most cost-effective approaches to protecting U.S. security devised in recent decades.  (The terms “Nunn-Lugar” and “Cooperative Threat Reduction” officially apply only to Defense Department programs, though they are often used more broadly.)


At present, three U.S. Cabinet departments have significant roles in counterproliferation efforts.  The Department of Defense has worked principally with the Russian Ministry of Defense on weapons-related threats.  The Department of Energy, including its National Nuclear Security Agency, has worked both with the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (known as Rosatom) and its defense ministry.  The State Department has supported a range of programs, including export controls and re-employment for thousands of Russian nuclear specialists whose skills could otherwise be used in unfortunate ways.  In all, there have been dozens of cooperative nonproliferation programs sponsored by the United States over the last 15 years.


In part, the programs have been successful because the Russian government has both taken the risk seriously and has been willing to accept advice and technical assistance from its former adversary.  Gottemoeller notes that the Russians have allowed U.S. personnel into “sites that in the Cold War years, we would never have gotten within 100 miles of.  They have taken some risks, in a national policy sense, in letting foreigners become involved in protecting their nuclear materials and their warheads.”


She adds that this year, “We are completing the work with the Russian Navy, including warhead storage sites.  [And] there are ongoing projects with the Strategic Rocket Forces and with the Russian Air Force.”


Interestingly, the cooperative threat reduction continues, even when there are rough patches in other aspects of our ties to Moscow.  “Even now, which is a very bad time in the U.S.-Russian relationship, they are continuing to support the cooperation,” Gottemoeller said in April.  “They see it as a very serious security issue, and obviously they believe it’s in their interest to pursue it.”


U.S. programs have also tackled the issue of finding employment for scientists and engineers formerly employed in the Soviet WMD complex.  It’s estimated that in 10 closed nuclear cities, the Soviet government employed more than 150,000 scientists and engineers.  (There were another 65,000 specialists in biological weapons and 6,000 chemical weapons experts.)


The United States, through the State Department, has funded Science and Technology Centers in Moscow and Kiev.  These have been largely successful in providing scientists with short-term incomes, but have been less successful in finding meaningful productive work for the scientists.  A program with similar goals run by the DOE, called Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention, is reported to have supported 16,000 specialists from 180 institutes for a time, with participation from private companies and the U.S. national laboratories.


According to William Tobey, deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at DOE’s NNSA, the risk of nuclear scientists going astray is also reduced by the improved situation in Russia.  “The Russian nuclear industry is undergoing significant growth,” Tobey tells the Foreign Service Journal. “They’ve announced ambitious plans for reactor construction, and that has fueled the demand for nuclear technicians.”


NNSA and Rosatom also signed an agreement in April designed to make sure that the Russians sustain the security upgrades after the United States phases out its assistance, which will probably happen over the next few years.


Overall, the United States can point to impressive success in its counterproliferation efforts.  Says Gottemoeller, “We’ve made an enormous investment but it’s been a valuable investment.  We have managed in historical terms to prevent a huge catastrophe,  the uncontrolled breakup and dissipation of the Soviet nuclear arsenal.  A lot of that stuff could have been sold or stolen.”


Gottemoeller is quick to caution that we can’t “guarantee that every single warhead is safe and secure and will not ever fall into the wrong hands.  I can’t prove a negative.”  But it’s still a great success story, she says. 


Matthew Bunn at Harvard emphasizes how essential it is to sustain the effort. He tells the Journal, “If Russian and other recipient countries don’t put in place the resources, organizations and incentives to maintain high security after U.S. assistance phases out, we will end up losing the large investment we’ve made. It’s an urgent threat, not just to our security, but to their security as well.”



Boxed Sidebar: What’s Been Accomplished So Far


  • More than 6,900 nuclear warheads deactivated


  • More than 600 international ballistic missiles dismantled\


  • 30 nuclear submarines destroyed


  • 83 percent of Russian facilities storing weapons-usable fissile materials received security upgrades


  • 285 metric tons of highly enriched uranium from dismantled nuclear weapons blended down to non-weapons-usable low-enriched uranium


  • More than 4,000 former Soviet weapons scientists redirected toward sustainable and peaceful work


Credit: Henry L. Stimson Center, 2007 study, “25 Steps to Prevent Nuclear Terror: A Guide for Policymakers”


end Box



Progress on cooperative threat reduction was spurred in 2005, when President Bush and President Putin signed an agreement in Bratislava to put deadlines on the completion of certain cooperative tasks.  Among those is improving security at warhead storage sites in Russia, a task assigned to the NNSA.


“We’ve completed work at roughly 75 percent of the sites,” says Tobey, the top nonproliferation official at that agency, and “the work is ahead of the original schedule that we set out.”  Under Bratislava, that work is supposed to be completed by the end of 2008, which coincides with the end of the Bush administration.


An interesting side-note: According to Tobey, 10 percent of the electric power generated in the United States is fueled by former Soviet weapons.  That’s half of America’s total nuclear power generation.


Hecker, who helped start the DOE programs in the 1990s, says that the NNSA programs are good as far as they go – but they don’t go far enough.  Those gains don’t “mean that Russian plutonium and highly enriched uranium have a modern, comprehensive safeguards system.  They’re not adequately protected in the long run.”  In addition, notes Hecker, the Russian systems of “control and accounting” — i.e., keeping careful track of their nuclear materials — are still terribly inadequate.  “The reactors and research facilities are very high on my list of the Russian threats.”


The problem, NTI’s Holgate explains, is that the research reactors often contain HEU, which is the ideal raw material for amateur bomb-makers.  It can be easily handled and worked with, and it can be assembled into a “gun-type” nuclear device, the design for which is robust and relatively well understood.



Lower Priority for Russian Nukes?


After 15 years of progress in cooperative threat reduction work with Russia, the  counterproliferation experts and purse-string holders are getting ready to move on to the next big challenge.  Lugar (until January the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) has been very protective of the program that bore his name, and now he is looking to expand its scope.


In 2004, the law was changed to permit Nunn-Lugar programs to operate outside the former Soviet Union, though that provision has gone almost unused.  And Lugar announced in February that he would ask for $100 million in Fiscal Year 2008 to respond to the threat of biological weapons.  He also sponsored a bill that passed in 2006 to stop proliferation of conventional weapons, such as shoulder-fired missiles, worldwide.


But on the administration side, the FY 2008 budget requests for nonproliferation programs at the three main WMD counterproliferation agencies — DOE, DOD and State — are all down from 2007 requests, by 5 to 19 percent.


These datapoints may well mean that the heyday of Nunn-Lugar is coming to a close. Perhaps all the low-hanging nukes have been picked, and some key players have decided it’s time to declare victory and go home.  The remaining tasks — and there are plenty — would be left to the Putin regime and its successors, which hopefully can be trusted to take care of Russia’s own security needs.


Perhaps that’s OK.  Hecker, a veteran observer of the proliferation scene, today counts Russia as the number-four proliferation threat in the world — after Pakistan, North Korea and HEU reactors around the world.  “Russia is still very high on my list,” he says, “but it’s not the highest.”