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The New Nuclear Threat To American Security

A major achievement of the recent Nuclear Safety and Security Summit in Moscow was President Yeltsin's pledge to support a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. While this arms-control success has received the bulk of post-summit attention, even more important was the progress made on another agenda item: the more than 100,000 nuclear weapons or weapons-equivalent material that remains strewn about the former Soviet Union in unprotected facilities.

One of the greatest security threats in the post-cold-war era is the possibility that some of this nuclear material could be acquired by rogue states, criminal organizations, or terrorists, and used against American targets. We must understand the magnitude of the threat and muster the resolve and resources to address it.

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Of the tons of dangerous fissile material spread across Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakstan, only a fraction would be required to wreak unspeakable damage. Just 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium or 8 kg of plutonium - an amount of uranium the size of a softball, or a baseball in the case of plutonium - are enough to create a weapon capable of massive destruction. That amount could be easily concealed and transported in a briefcase or backpack.

The situation in Russia today presents enormous obstacles to securing nuclear material:

*First, the collapse of the Soviet command-and-control security system that prevented theft of nuclear material has been replaced by chaos and no controls at many storage sites.

*Second, the Soviet Union had no comprehensive accounting system for nuclear weapons and material. Thus we and the Russians do not know where all of the Soviet nuclear material is stored or how much exists. We think most nuclear material is located in 80 to 100 sites and that the Soviet Union produced some 1,200 metric tons of highly enriched uranium and some 200 metric tons of plutonium.

*Third, many of the labs, research centers, and power plants where nuclear material is stored do not have perimeter fences, electronic sensors, or monitoring cameras to deter and detect intruders. The Russian government says 80 percent of its nuclear facilities do not have radiation detectors to prevent those on the inside from walking out the door with nuclear material.

*Fourth, nuclear technicians and guards at these facilities have not been paid in months. I have heard that the senior staff of one nuclear facility abandon their posts a few hours a day to tend potato gardens, so they will have food to eat. Conditions are so ripe for corruption that the threat of an inside job is much greater than the threat of an outside thief entering a facility.

*Fifth, current border controls throughout the former Soviet Union are notoriously weak. If smuggled nuclear material passes through Europe, there is some chance that intelligence officials and law enforcement can stop it. Trafficking routes through the Caucasus or Central Asia, however, are another story.

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*Finally, thousands of nuclear scientists and technicians in the former Soviet Union know how to make nuclear weapons and are looking for ways to make a living. Their expertise would be welcome in several aspiring nuclear states.

We cannot ignore these problems and leave them for Russia to solve on its own. Likewise, Russia cannot downplay the threat and delay implementing concrete measures. The danger of uncontrolled nuclear material is a first-level national security threat to the United States, our allies, and Russia itself.

The nuclear summit succeeded in identifying nuclear-security problems and placing them on world leaders' agenda. The challenge now is to follow through on the rhetoric with swift preventative action. The critical first step must be to improve the protection of nuclear material at the source, with a comprehensive accounting system.

Thanks to President Clinton's leadership and the Nunn-Lugar Program - created by Congress in 1991 to assist the former Soviet states in dismantling nuclear warheads and protecting nuclear materials - we need not start from scratch. Important US-Russian efforts are under way and can be duplicated on a larger scale. The Energy Department, for example, is equipping nuclear facilities in Russia with fences and monitors.

No other nation can match the US's expertise and resources. We should not hesitate to use them. Investments made in this area today will reap a future return in the form of enhanced security for all Americans.