The Race to Secure Russia’s Loose Nukes





The Race to Secure Russia’s Loose Nukes (pdf)

Four years after a bipartisan Task Force recommended an acceleration of programs to secure Russia’s vulnerable nuclear weapons and materials by 2009-2011, the United States has failed to dramatically hasten efforts. At the current rate, the United States may not reach that goal until 2020-2030. Today, enough Russian bomb-grade material for tens of thousands of nuclear weapons remains potentially vulnerable to theft. With al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations having stated their intent to acquire a nuclear device, this potentially catastrophic synthesis of factors has led to realistic fears of a nuclear 9/11.

In January 2001, a bipartisan Task Force led by former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-TN) and former White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler outlined a strategic plan for dealing with Russia’s so-called “loose nukes” problem. Finalized before the onset of the bitter partisanship that divides the country over the course of national security policy today, the plan represented the unvarnished consensus of a distinguished, bipartisan group of leading national security experts (see Appendix I). The Task Force concluded that implementing the proposed strategy would require sustained, active presidential leadership backed by a new senior-level White House coordinator, an infusion of financial resources, and strengthened cooperation with Russia. The Task Force’s overarching recommendation was for a rapid increase in the pace of programs to secure Russian weapons, material and expertise.

The United States government has made discrete but noteworthy progress in securing vulnerable nuclear weapons, materials and expertise in Russia since 9/11. It reached agreements with Russia to improve security at nuclear weapons facilities that were previously off-limits to cooperation. It revitalized efforts to secure civilian highly enriched uranium (HEU), and enhanced international political and, to a lesser extent, financial support for nonproliferation programs in Russia. The United States government has also taken steps to strengthen a dimension of nuclear security that the original Task Force left largely unaddressed: strengthening the global capacity for intercepting illicit shipments of weapons materials and technology.

But overall, the Bush administration and the Congress have neither achieved nor made substantial progress towards most of the strategic objectives. Of the 19 policy measures identified by the Task Force, only five have seen meaningful progress towards full implementation. For the remaining 14 recommendations, progress has been minimal.

The primary reasons for the failure to accelerate progress are similar to the obstacles identified by the Task Force in 2001. Intransigence on the part of the Russian government has complicated the full and effective implementation of these programs. Its stubbornness over allowing U.S. personnel sufficient access to sensitive sites to verify that cooperation has been especially disruptive. Poor leadership and an uneven commitment by the United States are also to blame. There is no clear, senior-level leadership in the United States responsible for coordinating and advancing American nuclear threat reduction objectives. The programs continue to suffer from insufficient and inconsistent budgetary support. And the United States has not done enough to address Russian sensitivities, especially with respect to which party bears liability in the event that an accident or sabotage occurs in the course of threat reduction work.

The Task Force’s assessment of the threat is as true today as it was in 2001:

[T]he 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.[1]

The proven cost-effectiveness of threat reduction programs, combined with the urgency of the threat, makes it imperative that the United States government exercise leadership to overcome obstacles in order to accelerate these critical programs.

In keeping with the urgency of this threat, we recommend that:

  • The president appoint a high-level coordinator with budgetary authority within the White House to coordinate U.S.-Russian nonproliferation programs
  • The administration settle the dispute over legal liability by accepting rigorous but more balanced liability provisions in bilateral threat reduction agreements
  • The administration offer reciprocal access to U.S. nuclear facilities in order to expand the scope of threat reduction work to sensitive Russian facilities
  • The president and the Congress dramatically increase funding for Russian threat reduction work, consistent with the elimination of obstacles that put a ceiling on the pace and scope of existing cooperation
  • The Congress grant U.S. program managers increased flexibility over programs and budgets to ensure more effective implementation
  • The U.S. and Russian presidents jointly develop comprehensive inventories of continued threats from the former Soviet arsenal including inventories of weapons, materials, and expertise
  • Congress and the administration strengthen involvement of the U.S. and Russian private sectors to make programs more effective and decrease the funding burden on U.S. taxpayers
  • The president redouble efforts to expand the scope of cooperation and support for the Proliferation Security Initiative, the G8 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, and UN Security Council Resolution 1540

The Race to Secure Russia’s Loose Nukes (pdf)

[1] The Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, United States Department of Energy, A Report Card on the Department of Energy’s Nonproliferation Programs with Russia, p.iii (January 2001), available at [hereinafter “Baker-Cutler Task Force”].

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