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Mothballed warheads pose continuing threat

Russian missiles decommissioned under the new nuclear treaty are likely to land in poorly guarded storage depots.

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To terrorists trying to lay their hands on the stuff of atomic weapons, Russia's nuclear nerve center is a daunting fortress.

High, video-monitored concrete walls, bomb-proof steel gates, and hundreds of military guards protect the 247-acre site of Moscow's Kurchatov Institute, birthplace of the USSR's first atomic bomb and still a beehive of research on fusion and on methods for storing radioactive materials left over from the cold war.

But experts say the institute is the Russian nuclear program's best face. Flung across Russia's vast hinterland are 52 military storage depots for the enriched uranium and plutonium from which nuclear warheads are made. At those sites, security is often lax and weapons-grade materials are not closely accounted for.

"Active-duty nuclear weapons are well protected, but there are serious security problems with stored warheads and other highly dangerous materials," says Sergei Yushenkov, deputy head of the State Duma's Security Committee. "The key problem in Russia, which will not be resolved by the current Russia-US dialogue, is that we have no civilian oversight in the nuclear sphere. The glimpses we have are very worrisome, but even in the Duma [Russia's lower house of parliament] we cannot get a full picture."

In addition, at the hundreds of civilian facilities around Russia, where thousands of tons of spent reactor fuel and other nuclear wastes are stored, security is often nonexistent. While these materials might not be easily fashioned into atomic weapons, they could provide the ingredients for a so-called "dirty bomb" – radioactive substances wrapped around a conventional explosive.

"Control over low-level nuclear wastes in this country is very weak," says Dmitry Kovchegin, a nuclear-safety specialist at the independent PIR Center for policy studies in Moscow. "Terrorists could easily acquire the means to make a dirty bomb in this country."

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