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CAMBRIDGE -- Reducing the international threat posed by poorly-guarded nuclear facilities in former Soviet states will require a "sea change" in the level of sustained leadership from the highest levels of the U.S. government – including the President and the Vice President, according to a new report. The study, Managing the Global Nuclear Materials Threat: Policy Recommendations, outlines a comprehensive, step-by-step plan for reducing this risk.
The report was prepared by a bipartisan group chaired by former Senator Sam Nunn, under the auspices of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Experts from the Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs played a central part in crafting the report.
Although the end of the Cold War has reduced the risk of a nuclear war that could destroy all civilization, it has greatly increased the risk that a single nuclear weapon in the hands of a terrorist or of a rogue state could destroy a major city, the report warns. This risk has been exacerbated by the weakened controls in the former Soviet states.
At some sites, nuclear guards have left their posts to forage in the woods for food; security systems have been shut down for non-payment of electricity bills; and the nuclear weapons ingredients are stored in gymnasium-type lockers with simple padlocks. More than 1,000 tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium – essential for making nuclear weapons – are stored in more than 50 sites in the former Soviet Union.
These conditions exist in nations whose citizens face overwhelming poverty, rampant organized crime, and with black markets where virtually every commodity is for sale if the price is right. Theft of just a few kilograms of plutonium or HEU could allow a rogue state or terrorist group to make a nuclear bomb. There have been multiple documented cases of missing materials since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
To address this urgent threat to U.S. security, the next President of the United States needs to designate a senior, full time point person for the task of securing nuclear materials internationally, the report concludes. This individual should have direct access to the President.
Graham T. Allison, Director of the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, who chaired the task force to address the "loose nukes" threat, believes that elections in both countries this year mark an historic opportunity. "Russia’s Acting President Vladimir Putin has revamped national security strategy but makes no mention of domestic nuclear risks." said Allison, a former Pentagon official. "It is imperative that the next two Presidents of the United States and of Russia work together to diffuse this threat."
Matthew Bunn, Assistant Director of the Belfer Center’s Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, who chaired the coordinating committee for the report, argued that the costs of the needed actions "are tiny by comparison to the costs and risks of failure to act." While a wide range of programs to deal with these issues are underway, funding for them is "woefully insufficient," he said.
"For the cost of one B-2 bomber, we might get all the excess bomb uranium in Russia blended to a form that could never again be used in weapons, within a few years," said Bunn. "At the pace we are currently planning to fund security upgrades for these dangerous sites, it would take 15 years just to get the most urgent fixes in place. We just can’t afford to wait that long."
The report recommends that the United States:
Buy more Russian HEU, which when blended with low-enriched uranium, is both proliferation-resistant and commercially valuable. The current American HEU purchase agreement would blend less than half of the Russian HEU over a 20-year period.
Offer to provide the needed capital investment and financial incentives to make it possible for Russia to blend all its excess HEU in the next few years.
Work with Russia to consolidate nuclear material in far fewer locations as rapidly as possible.
Fund a major effort to reduce the size of Russia’s bloated nuclear weapons complex and re-employ the scientists and workers who are no longer needed.
Move rapidly to secure and then eliminate Russia’s excess plutonium stockpiles.
Provide the funding and personnel needed to improve security for the existing stockpiles as rapidly as the job can be done.
The report also calls for new steps to shore up eroding U.S. leadership in nuclear technologies, crucial to the U.S. ability to lead on nuclear nonproliferation issues for the long term.
At the same time, the report points out that nuclear insecurity affects the entire international community. The study calls on major European and Asian nations to contribute substantially to this effort, since it involves their security as well.
"It is simply unacceptable," the study concludes, "to continue a situation in which lack of sufficient funding and senior leadership attention on the U.S. side are among the major factors preventing faster and more effective actions to reduce these serious security threats."
An executive summary of the report is available at: http://ksgnotes1.harvard.edu/BCSIA/Library.nsf/pubs/nuclearthreat. A copy of the entire report is available from the CSIS Publications Sales Office at 1800 K Street, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20006, (202) 775-3119, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.