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Russia's 'Loose Nukes' - a Myth That Distorts US Policy

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Since the Soviet collapse, the United States public has been bombarded with the "loose nukes" myth. The myth is that Russian nuclear weapons and materials are leaking to terrorists or rogue states, such as Libya, Iran, Iraq, or North Korea.

Despite warnings from the Clinton administration, Sens. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia and Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana in the last Congress, the Russian government, editorial pages, the Central Intelligence Agency, and a March 1996 General Accounting Office report, the "loose nukes" myth is not credible for several reasons:

1. Fissile materials are not leaking from Russia. The myth is that bomb-grade materials - highly enriched uranium or plutonium - are leaking. In fact, there is no evidence of any significant leakage. Contrary to media reports since 1992, low-level radioactive isotopes smuggled into Europe, notably Germany and the Czech Republic, cannot be used for nuclear weapons. Occasional leakages involve such minuscule amounts - fractions of grams, not the kilograms necessary - that building nuclear weapons is technically impossible.

2. Nuclear weapons are not leaking from Russia. Rumors in 1992 that Kazakstan sold two tactical nuclear weapons to Iran have been discredited by US, Russian, Iranian, and Kazak officials. Russia's security and intelligence organizations remain quite large and competent. The real threat to US interests is Russia's sale of nuclear technology to rogue states. This Russian policy is vastly more hazardous than "loose nukes" and continues unabated.

For example, Russia continues its $1 billion nuclear power reactor sale to Iran, despite tremendous pressure from the Clinton administration. Iran is more likely to develop nuclear weapons with the reactor being rebuilt by Russian technicians than from "loose nukes."

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