Russian Nuclear Materials, Security Issues

Russian Nuclear Materials, Security Issues


The breakup of the former Soviet Union in 1991 raised fears about the disposition and security of that nation's nuclear materials, including its strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. Of more immediate concern is the security of Soviet stores of plutonium and enriched uranium, which could be used to make either nuclear weapons or "radiological dispersal devices" (RDDs), or "dirty bombs"— conventional explosives that would spew radioactive debris packed around them over a wide area. Since 1991, the United States has provided financial and technical assistance to help Russia and other former Soviet states secure these materials.

Background. During the cold war, the Soviet Union, like the United States, amassed an imposing stockpile of nuclear weapons. Western estimates were that by 1991 the Soviets had in excess of 27,000 nuclear weapons—at least 11,000 strategic weapons on land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and at least 15,000 warheads for tactical weapons such as artillery shells and cruise missiles. Later information suggested that the total might have been as high as 45,000 warheads. Additionally, the Soviets had as much as 1,200 metric tons of weapons-grade uranium and 160 metric tons of plutonium, enough to triple their stockpile of nuclear weapons. Eighty percent of the strategic weapons were deployed at bases in Russia, but the remainder were deployed in the Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Tactical nuclear weapons were deployed closer to potential theaters of operation, including Eastern Europe and the former Baltic republics. Still others were deployed in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Georgia, and the Central Asian states (Kirghizia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan).

While these nuclear materials were under the command and control of Soviet authorities in Moscow, the chief threat they posed to the West was strategic: They could be used against the West in a nuclear exchange. Regardless, in contrast to the modern situation, Soviet authorities maintained account of these materials and security around nuclear facilities was tight. Weapons could be fired only through a central command authority. Although an enemy to the West, the Soviet regime was at least a politically stable state that could be anticipated act rationally in its own self-interest, and which was unlikely to allow the use of nuclear materials for terrorist purposes. Essentially, the threat that nuclear materials posed to the West was predictable, manageable, and able to be reduced through negotiation and arms-control treaties.

The status quo began to change in the 1980s. The Soviets were finding it increasingly difficult to maintain control over an enormous empire that stretched from the German border to Asia. They also faced increasingly restive ethnic and national populations demanding self-determination. Under these pressures, the Soviet Union began to disintegrate and finally collapsed in late 1991. By then, the Soviets had retrieved their nuclear materials from Eastern Europe and the Baltics, as well as from submarines, but many remained closer to home, primarily in Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Eventually, and after much diplomatic wrangling, these new nations agreed to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and either destroyed the missiles and warheads on their soil or returned them to Russia, though stockpiles of plutonium and weapons-grade uranium remained behind. Security surrounding these materials, and at nuclear power plants, was often lax, raising fears that they could fall into the wrong hands. Within Russia, a poor economy, crime, and corruption raised fears of "loose nukes," or poorly guarded nuclear materials that could be stolen or sold to rogue states such as Iraq or Libya or to terrorist organizations, primarily al-Qaeda. The United States estimates that only about 40 percent of Russia's nuclear storage sites are up to U.S. security standards.

The U.S. response. Recognizing the need for the United States to provide assistance, Senators Sam Nunn of Georgia and Richard Lugar of Indiana sponsored legislation that allocated funds to help Russia and other former Soviet states either dismantle or secure nuclear materials. Congress agreed, and in 1991– 92 it authorized $800 million for the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Each year after that, additional funds were authorized so that by 2001 the United States had provided $4 billion. These funds have been used by the Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Energy (DOE), and other U.S. agencies to help the Soviet states destroy nuclear materials, upgrade security, and provide alternative employment for former Soviet nuclear scientists.

Nunn-Lugar funds have helped Russia, for example, deactivate nearly 5,800 nuclear warheads, destroy 439 ballistic missiles, eliminate hundreds of missile launchers and bomber aircraft, and secure nuclear materials by upgrading fencing, motion sensors, storage and transportation facilities, and the like. Originally, the George W. Bush administration had planned to cut funding for the program, but in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, 2003 budget proposals called for $800 million for Russia, a 17 percent increase from 2002. Financial help is coming from other sources, too. At a 2002 summit, the industrialized nations pledged an additional $10 billion over the next ten years to help Russia eliminate or secure its nuclear arsenal, as well as its chemical and biological weapons.

The threat of "loose nukes." The true extent of the threat of "loose nukes" is uncertain and may never be known conclusively. Because of poor documentation at Russian nuclear storage sites, for example, materials could disappear, and it is plausible that no one in authority would know their status. Analysts thought that the problem was easing in the mid-1990s, but in the late 1990s and into the new century, instances of black-market smuggling seemed to be on the increase. Since 1993, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria, a watchdog agency of the United Nations, has reported 411 cases of trafficking in nuclear materials. While 18 cases involved plutonium or weapons-grade uranium, most cases involved low-level medical and industrial radioactive waste, the kind used in dirty bombs. The first documented case of stolen Russian nuclear materials occurred in 1992, when an engineer at a nuclear research facility near Moscow stole three pounds of weapons-grade uranium. Fortunately, the case was resolved in almost comic fashion when the engineer was accidentally swept up in an arrest of a group of his neighbors suspected of theft from their workplace, and the uranium was discovered. Other cases have been more chilling. In 1994, Czech authorities searched a car parked on a street in Prague and discovered 3 kilograms of enriched uranium that came from an engineering institute near Moscow. Since 1999, three similar cases have been reported in Paris and Germany and at the Bulgarian-Romanian border.

An open question concerns the likelihood that an actual weapon could be stolen. The former Soviet states, including Russia, insist that no weapons have been stolen or reported missing, despite numerous efforts on the part of terrorists and others to get their hands on one. Russian officials say that they have been vigilant in breaking up hundreds of plots to steal and smuggle nuclear materials and weapons, but U.S. officials believe that al-Qaeda and rogue states are always in the market for a nuclear bomb and could eventually succeed in getting one. More fright ening is the prospect that poorly paid or unemployed Russian nuclear scientists might be vulnerable to the temptation to sell their know-how to terrorists or rogue states. The Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan tried, without success, to recruit Russian nuclear scientists.

Most troublesome is the possibility that so-called suitcase bombs—miniature nuclear devices weighing less than a hundred pounds and small enough to fit into a small p>container—have gone missing from Russia. These bombs could easily be smuggled into the United States or other countries, where they would cause enormous death and destruction. Indeed, in 1997 a former Russian general made headlines when he claimed that several dozen such Soviet-made bombs dating to the 1970s were unaccounted for. While Russian authorities insist that no such bombs ever existed, many Western analysts remain skeptical. Even if suitcase bombs never existed, the threat remains that small tactical nuclear weapons could be stolen or sold. These weapons pose a high threat for two reasons besides the relative ease with which they could be trans ported and hidden: one, they may lack safeguards that would prevent unauthorized detonation; and two, they have never been subject to arms-control treaty monitoring and verification, so their locations and the security surrounding them are difficult to assess.



Bunn, Matthew, Oleg Bukharin, and Kenneth N. Luongo. Renewing the Partnership: Recommendations for Accelerated Action to Secure Nuclear Material in the Former Soviet Union. Princeton, N.J.: Russian American Nuclear Security Advisory Council, 2000.

Marples, David R., and Marilyn J. Young, eds. Nuclear Energy and Security in the Former Soviet Union. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1997.


Daughtry, Emily Ewell, and Fred L. Wehling. "Cooperative Efforts to Secure Fissile Material in the NIS." Nonproliferation Review 7, Spring 2000.


Council on Foreign Relations. "Loose Nukes," 2003. < > (February 28, 2003).

Jasinski, Michael. "Nonproliferation Assistance to Russia and the New Independent States." Center for Nonproliferation Studies for the Nuclear Threat Initiative, August 2002. < >. (February 28, 2003).

Woolf, Amy F. "Nuclear Weapons in the Former Soviet Union: Location, Command, and Control." Congressional Research Service Report 91144, November 27,1996. <–144.htm > (February 28, 2003).


Arms Control, United States Bureau
Ballistic Missiles
Cold War (1972–1989): The Collapse of the Soviet Union
Department of State, United States
DoD (United States Department of Defense)
DoE (United States Department of Energy)
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
Nonproliferation and National Security, United States

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