Order Code RL31539
Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Nuclear Smuggling and International Terrorism:
Issues and Options for U.S. Policy
Updated October 22, 2002
Consultant in International Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Nuclear Smuggling and International Terrorism: Issues
and Options for U.S. Policy
The collapse of the USSR and its framework of totalitarian control raised fears
of rampant nuclear proliferation, fueled by leakages of fissile materials from
increasingly insecure Russian stockpiles. A major U.S. concern is that such
materials and even complete nuclear weapons could gravitate into dangerous hands,
increasing the array of potentially lethal dangers to Western security and stability.
The dimensions of this threat have not been precisely calibrated. The amount
of weapons-usable material leaking out of Russia has been small. Little visible
evidence exists of participation by terrorists or rogue states in the black market for
stolen highly-enriched uranium or plutonium. Indeed, terrorists and rogues may
place a higher priority on other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) objectives or,
in the case of states, on domestic manufacture of nuclear bomb ingredients.
Nevertheless, the possibility can be considered that the observed market in the West
does not reflect the true state of affairs, because many smuggling incidents might go
undetected or unreported. Various worrisome scenarios can be contemplated, from
a “shadow market” organized by professionals and brokered by criminals to outright
“state-sponsored” proliferation by high-ranking Russian officials.
The United States is funding a broad range of activities in Russia and other
newly independent states (NIS) of the former Soviet Union designed to stem
outflows of nuclear material, weapons and weapons design intelligence. Such
programs have been controversial: some believe that they have been underfunded
and advocate major expansion, while others see the programs as intrinsically
unworkable in the Russian context or – put bluntly, that “nothing much can be done.”
Pervasive crime and corruption and Russia’s nuclear cooperation with Iran (which
seemingly contradicts the goal of non-proliferation) are cited to support the latter
position. Recent congressional budget decisions and bipartisan legislation currently
before Congress, indicate a desire that investment in proliferation prevention in the
NIS should be increased significantly.
Nevertheless, concerns remain that more investment by itself will not translate
into increased effectiveness against serious proliferation episodes, especially those
organized by well-placed nuclear insiders and corrupt officials in response to a
lucrative offer from states or groups of concern. Technological and managerial
improvements are being introduced in existing programs to address such
contingencies: yet some experts argue that Washington should move beyond what
is now a reactive and containment-oriented strategy to focus more on the demandside of the proliferation equation. In particular, improved intelligence collection on
potential adversaries – who they are, what they want and how they plan to obtain
it–is seen as a vital tool for guiding resource allocation and project management
decisions on proliferation prevention and in strengthening overall prospects for
nuclear risk management in the NIS.
How Much of a Threat? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Identifying Conditions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
The Appearance of the Nuclear Genie . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
The Nuclear Black Market . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
The Visible Market: Contents and Trends . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
A Shadow Market . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
International Terrorism’s Search for
Nuclear Weapons . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
Aum Shinrikyo and Al Qaeda . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
Nuclear Terrorism – A Plausible Threat? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
States Supporting Terrorism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
Secondary Proliferation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
The U.S. Response . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
Overview of U.S. Programs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
Stopping Proliferation at the Source . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
MPC&A . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
Warhead Security . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20
“The Second Line of Defense” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21
Measuring Effectiveness . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
Parallel Concerns: Knowledge Smuggling and Brain Drain . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23
Issues for Congress . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
Adequacy of Funding for U.S.-Russian Programs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
An Exaggerated Threat? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26
Risky Environment . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28
Intensive Improvements . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28
Pushing the Technology Frontier . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29
Intelligence: The Long Pole in the Tent . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30
List of Tables
Table 1. Trends in Radioactive Smuggling Incidents . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Table 2. Preventing Nuclear Theft and Smuggling in the NIS:
Core U.S. Programs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
Table 3. Progress of MPC&A Program Percentage of Former
Soviet Fissile Material (600 Metric Tons ) Covered, by Year . . . . . . . . . . 19
Table 4. Progress of MPC&A Program
Percentage of Russian Naval Warheads (4000) Covered,
by Year . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19
Nuclear Smuggling and International
Terrorism: Issues and Options
for U.S. Policy
How Much of a Threat?
The demise of Soviet communism and the end of the Cold War provided
welcome new opportunities for ending the arms race and advancing the cause of
world peace. Yet political and economic upheavals associated with the Soviet
collapse also sparked an array of new transnational concerns potentially as serious
as those emanating from the bipolar confrontations of the previous 50 years. Perhaps
foremost among these was the apparently diminished capacity of Russia and other
newly-independent states (NIS) of the former Soviet Union to monitor and control
their vast nuclear assets. The prospect of leaky nuclear stockpiles seemed
compatible with worst-case proliferation scenarios. As a U.S. bipartisan task force
reporting on U.S. nonproliferation prospects in Russia argued in a January 2001
report, “The most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States today is
the danger that weapons of mass destruction or weapons-usable nuclear materials in
Russia could be stolen and sold to terrorists or hostile nation-states and used against
American troops abroad or citizens at home.”1
The precise nature and implications of this threat and the adequacy of the U.S.
response to it form the principal subject matter of this report. This report highlights
two general problems: First, a penumbra of uncertainty exists regarding the extent
of proliferation from Russian nuclear stockpiles and also regarding the nuclear
procurement objectives of terrorists and “rogue states.” The extent of nuclear
smuggling may be greater than what is recorded in seizure statistics but how much
greater is unknown. Furthermore, information on the demand side–who the
adversaries are, what they want, and how they are trying to obtain it–is severely
lacking. Congress and the Administration might consider alternative ways of filling
these intelligence gaps as part of a broader counter-terrorism and counterproliferation effort.
Second, U.S. nuclear security programs in the NIS may not be sufficient to
contain the potential proliferation threat. For instance, U.S. programs to improve
protective regimens for fissile materials have not reached all facilities, signifying that
sites housing hundreds of tons of Russian highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and
Howard Baker and Lloyd Cutler. A Report Card on the Department of Energy’s
Nonproliferation Programs with Russia. U.S. Department of Energy: The Secretary of
Energy Advisory Board, January 10, 2001, p. ii.
plutonium apart from weapons lack up-to-date safeguards against insider theft. More
importantly, U.S. programs may not be calibrated to defend against sophisticated
diversion scenarios–those involving a degree of connivance of senior managers and
government officials and the services of professional smugglers, for example. Cases
of deliberate “state-sponsored” proliferation certainly would be well beyond the
capability of the new systems to detect, since they focus primarily on providing
support to states presumably desirous of preventing the diversion of their own
nuclear materials. Such concerns also tend to highlight the complementary
significance of new intelligence missions and platforms to identify “shadow” market
mechanisms and to disrupt nuclear deals in the making.
Worries about nuclear smuggling from the newly-independent states of the
former Soviet Union (NIS) reflect the sharp economic decline and wrenching societal
changes resulting from the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the USSR.
To cite some revealing statistics, Russia’s gross national product in 1998 was only
71 percent of what it was in 1992, and Russian government orders for nuclear
defense goods in that year were only one-seventh of what they were in 1990.2 The
economic downturn virtually destroyed the Soviet-era lifestyle of elite workers at
nuclear enterprises; as of 1999, the average salary of the work force in Russia’s
formerly secret nuclear cities was just $43 per month, and most employees had to
moonlight in other jobs to survive.3
Furthermore, the economic crisis “destroyed the foundations of the Soviet
nuclear custodial system.” As a July 2001 Department of Energy (DOE) strategic
plan observed, “Physical protective barriers have crumbled and the nuclear material
accounting system is in disarray.”4 Visitors to nuclear facilities in the former Soviet
Union in the 1990s reported various signs of deterioration: holes in perimeter fences,
nonfunctioning alarm systems, and paper records that fail to match physical
inventories of materials.
Overall conditions have improved in the nuclear complex since the late 1990s,
thanks partly to an array of U.S. assistance programs and partly to growth in the
Russian economy, which has averaged 5.3 percent since 1998. Salaries have
increased somewhat and new U.S. physical protection and control measures have
been initiated at some enterprises. Yet the strains of downsizing and defense
conversion continue to weigh heavily on the well-being and morale of Russia’s
(name redacted). “Russia’s Economic Performance Entering the 21 st Century” in Soviet
Economic Committee of the United States. Russia’s Uncertain Economic Future.
Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, December 2001, p. 6; and Oleg
Bukharin et. al. Conversion and Job Creation in Russia’s Closed Nuclear Cities. Based on
workshop held in Obninsk, Russia, June 27-29, 2000, Princeton, N.J., Program on Nuclear
Policy Alternatives of the Center for International Studies and the Center for Energy and
Environmental Studies of Princeton University, November 2000, p. 10.
Valentin Tikhonov. Russia’s Nuclear and Missile Complex: The Human Factor in
Proliferation. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institute of International Peace, 2001, pp. 27, 42.
U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) MPC&A Program: Strategic Plan Washington. D.C.
July 2001 p. 1
nuclear workers. For example, the Ministry of Atomic Energy plans to dismiss some
35,000 nuclear workers, nearly half of the nuclear weapons work force, in the
formerly closed nuclear cities by the year 2005.5 Whether new jobs can be created
for this number of workers by U.S. and Russian efforts is uncertain. Altogether, the
structure inside the Russian nuclear complex is still unstable and possibly conducive
to nuclear theft.
The Appearance of the Nuclear Genie
The diminished economic circumstances of Russia’s nuclear workers were in
themselves a source of proliferation concern. In addition, the lifting of Communist
political controls, the opening of borders and the ushering in of a market economy
made the potential theft and sale of nuclear materials both thinkable and possible.
The result was an emergent traffic in radioactive substances of various descriptions,
some of which found their way into international smuggling channels. Yet surveys
of confirmed thefts and smuggling from the early 1990s in the NIS indicate that
nuclear leakages pose less of a security danger than anticipated. Though the NIS has
been described as vast potential “supermarket” for nuclear goods, little material of
direct military value (at least for a fission weapon) has surfaced in the black market.6
As will be detailed below, the amount of HEU reported seized internationally since
the USSR’s collapse was not enough to make a single fission bomb. This has been
seen by some observers as cause for optimism. As one Los Alamos nuclear expert
wrote recently, “As we look back on the decade since the collapse of the Soviet
Union, the good news is that nothing terrible has happened in spite of the terrible
times faced by the Russian people.”7
Furthermore, as will be shown, evidence of interest by terrorists or nation-states
in stolen nuclear materials is extremely slim. In fact, the market is almost entirely
supplier-driven, consisting of chains of sellers (usually petty traders carrying the
goods on consignment) stretching outward from the source enterprise in search of
prospective customers. International demand for such items seems thin or
nonexistent. This finding implies that terrorists and rogue states have other
unconventional weapons priorities shaped in part by the technically simpler task of
developing chemical and biological – or radiological – weapons; alternatively,
terrorists might be content to wreak havoc on their victims with conventional
explosives or fuel-laden aircraft.
Other explanations, though, view the apparently supply-driven and anemic
traffic in nuclear materials in more ominous terms. For example, an analysis by the
Center for Non-proliferation Research of Washington’s National Defense University
argued in 1996 that “current patterns of nuclear theft and smuggling may be a
prelude to more serious episodes, including major covert exports of fissile material,
Conversion and Job Creation, p. 17.
Statement of Senator Sam Nunn in Hearings on Global Proliferation and Weapons of
Mass Destruction. Permanent Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Government
Affairs, March 13, 1996. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996, p. 4.
Siegfried Hecker, “Thoughts About an Integrated Strategy for Nuclear Cooperation with
Russia.” The Nonproliferation Review, Summer 2001, p. 3.
weapons components, and even intact nuclear weapons.”8 At the very least,
movement of radioactive material and successful interdiction by law enforcement
might produce a learning curve of sorts for smugglers, allowing them
opportunistically to shift methods and routes. Indeed, there is some evidence that this
is the case, as will be detailed below. Furthermore, it is possible that, as with other
illegally traded commodities, the totality of what is seized does not reflect what is
stolen and pushed onto the black market. Still, the impression of a sellers’ market
persists, raising questions about the severity and the immediacy of the proliferation
The Nuclear Black Market
The Visible Market: Contents and Trends
An extensive black market in nuclear materials and other radioactive isotopes
developed in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. Nuclear crime was almost
unknown in the Soviet period – systemic constraints such as closed borders,
restrictions on population movement, and the pervasive presence of the Committee
of State Security (KGB) virtually excluded opportunities and incentives for
privatized nuclear deals. Yet literally hundreds of thefts of radioactive substances
have occurred at nuclear enterprises and industrial installations across the former
Soviet Union since the early 1990s. Traffickers in such materials have looked for
buyers abroad – mostly in Europe, where radioactive seizures are commonplace.
The scope of the proliferation threat from this traffic and its potential for affecting
international security and relationships, though, are a matter of controversy among
policymakers and analysts. For example, no clear evidence exists of participation
in the market by terrorists, rogue states, or major transnational crime formations
(likely brokers between would-be sellers and interested buyers of nuclear goods).
Some observers believe that the current level of nuclear smuggling might help open
new trade channels and potential opportunities for proliferation of weapons of mass
destruction, as traffickers refine their tactics to exploit gaps in border defenses. Yet
it is not clear that sellers and buyers have been able to connect in ways that could
pose a serious danger to U.S. and Western security interests.
Various U.S. and international institutions maintain databases on nuclear theft
and smuggling incidents.9 Perhaps the most wisely-referenced one (though it is in
certain respects incomplete) is that compiled by the International Atomic Energy
Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. The IAEA data (and other data sets based on it) suggest
that nuclear trafficking, in its visible manifestations at least, is more a minor
international nuisance than a major proliferation threat. The Agency recorded a total
of 426 cases of nuclear trafficking worldwide between January 1, 1993, and
James L. Ford and C. Richard Schuller. Controlling Threats to Nuclear Security: A
Holistic Perspective. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University, 1997 p. 7.
Unclassified databases are maintained by the IAEA, the Monterey Institute of International
Studies, the University of Pittsburgh’s Ridgway Center for International Studies, the Institute
for International Studies at Stanford University, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the
Russian-American Nuclear Security Advisory Council.
December 31, 2001. However, nearly all of these cases involved radioactive junk
(contaminated scrap metal, low-enriched or depleted uranium, cesium-137, and the
like) which may pose environmental hazards but which is useless in making fission
weapons. Only 17 of the incidents, or 4 percent, concerned thefts or seizures of more
than microscopic quantities of weapons-usable uranium or plutonium. Some of them
were the product of sting operations by the German police and intelligence services.
The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) has compiled a list of 20 such cases
from 1992 and, based on information mostly from the IAEA list and from U.S.
government sources10, Russia is known or suspected to be the source of the material
in at least 15 of the cases. Significantly, the substance seized was not traceable to
weapons plants or stockpiles, but rather to naval fuel depots, fuel production plants,
and nuclear research institutions. Taken together, the amount of seized material
added up to only 16.7 kilograms. This quantity included 8.7 kilograms of uranium235 equivalent and 400-plus grams of plutonium–not enough to build a nuclear
bomb. Also, more than 80 percent of the gross weight of the material was seized in
the 1992-1995 period, suggesting a declining theft rate, perceptions of a weak market
(or of a market created by the authorities) for stolen wares, and (less certainly) an
improving nuclear security situation in Russia.
Table 1. Trends in Radioactive Smuggling Incidents
1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001
All Incidents (IAEA
Source: IAEA, GAO.
Other characteristics of the nuclear black market also bear mentioning. This
market, such as it is, appears to be largely supplier-driven. Few actual cases of
money changing hands for nuclear materials have been recorded by Western and
Russian authorities. Bona-fide buyers are conspicuously absent, even in the handful
of cases where weapons-grade materials are proffered. According to GAO, none of
the 20 incidents mentioned appeared to be “part of an organized criminal or terrorist
activity or organization.” Moreover, nuclear trafficking seems to be a relatively
disorganized and fragmented business, dominated by loosely-linked groups of
amateur criminals, petty traders, and scam artists. Established Russian and
international crime syndicates reportedly have largely stayed out of the business.
The reason may have less to do with gang taboos or patriotic self-restraint than with
simple cost-benefit calculations: Organized crime core enterprises such as narcotics,
explosives, bank fraud, and raw materials smuggling–offer relatively less risk and
more secure profits. Also, the absence of interested buyers, and the difficulty of
GAO. Nuclear Nonproliferation: U.S. Efforts to Help Other Countries Combat Nuclear
Smuggling Need to Strengthen Coordination and Planning. GAO-02-426, Washington, D.C.,
GAO, May 2002, pp. 31-34.
finding buyers, would deter a serious criminal organization from participating in the
The IAEA and GAO data sets show a fairly noticeable pattern: a surge of
incidents in the 1993 to 1995 period, a decline between 1996 and 1998 (when no
weapons-usable material was observed in the black market) and an increase again
between 1999 and 2001. (See Table 1.) Economic deprivation alone does not seem
to explain this pattern, since nuclear smuggling has shown an upward trend even as
the Russian economy has begun to show positive growth. The IAEA also shows a
shift in the geographical direction of smuggling. Between 1993 and 1995, Central
Europe, comprising Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary,
accounted for 45 percent of the interdicted cases; this slowed dramatically to 18
percent between 1999 and 2001. At the same time, the share attributable to Bulgaria,
Turkey, and the countries along Russia’s southern tier jumped from 7 percent to 52
percent between the two periods. Conceivably, the relatively high vigilance of police
and border control authorities in Central Europe has induced smugglers to ply their
wares along more accommodating pathways.
A Shadow Market
Thus, little nuclear material of significance and no nuclear warheads seem to
circulate in smuggling channels, and the market as a whole is seller-dominated. In
the view of some experts, however, the observed reality of the nuclear traffic may
not reflect the pattern of the traffic as a whole. A February 2002 report to Congress
by the National Intelligence Council (part of the U.S. intelligence community) notes,
“We assess that undetected smuggling has occurred, although we do not know the
context or magnitude of such thefts.” Some analysts have drawn an analogy to the
traffic in other illicit commodities, notably drugs.11 According to the U.S. Drug
Enforcement Administration, U.S. federal authorities are able to confiscate only 20
to 25 percent of the 500-plus tons of South American cocaine estimated to be in
transit to the United States in a given year.12 While fissile materials are not mass
market items like drugs; it is possible that what is captured represents a relatively
small percentage of what is stolen and delivered to smugglers.
A second and related problem is that many trafficking incidents simply go
unreported, or sufficient details about them are not made available. The NIS is a
particular offender in this regard. As William Potter of the Center for
Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies noted in
a recent paper, “Challenges in U.S.-Russian Cooperation,”
... to date there has been little if any meaningful cooperation between Russia and
the United States on illicit nuclear trafficking incidents. There is also cause to
question the reliability and scope of the reports Russia and other NIS states have
See for example George Bunn and Lyudmila Zaitseva, “Efforts to Improve Nuclear
Material and Facility Security.” Stockholm: Swedish International Peace Research Institute,
Yearbook 2002. Appendix 10D, p. 6. See also National Intelligence Council .Annual Report
to Congress on the Safety and Security of Russian Nuclear Facilities and Security Forces
Washington, D.C., February 2002, p. 2.
Telephone interview, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Washington, D.C., July 17, 2002.
provided the IAEA for its illicit trafficking database.... As a consequence, we
cannot exclude the possibility–I would say probability–that additional diversions
incidents have occurred but have been concealed by NIS authorities.13
For instance, Russian customs documented more than 500 attempts to smuggle
radioactive materials across Russian national frontiers in the year 2000, yet only one
such case was reported to the IAEA.14 Also, even incidents widely reported in the
Russian media, such as two multikilogram thefts of HEU from submarine fuel depots
in Murmansk in 1993, never became part of the official record maintained in Vienna.
Opinions differ about the extent of leakage from Russian nuclear stockpiles. In
a 1998 incident suggestive of a volatile security environment, Russia’s Federal
Security Service (FSB) foiled an attempt by staff members of a nuclear facility in
Chelyabinsk province to steal some 18.5 kilograms of “radioactive materials” that
“might have been used for the production of components for nuclear weapons.”
Subsequently, a U.S. academic reported being told in a visit to Russia that the
material in question was HEU.15 Where this material was headed and who the
customers were, if any, is not clear from published accounts. Also unclear is the
extent of outflow that might have occurred before FSB clamped down on the
conspiracy. On the other hand, accounts of the incident do not indicate whether or
not the conspiracy went beyond the planning stage – whether the participants
actually got their hands on the material in question.
Additional questions concern the overall shape of the nuclear black market and
the relationships of actors within it. The stereotype of the visible market, as noted,
consists of myriad sellers searching, usually vainly, for prospective customers. It is
conceivable, though, that purveyors of strategic nuclear wares could converge with
end-users or their representatives in ways that are not readily apparent to Western
intelligence or law enforcement agencies. Such a “shadow market” or clandestine
supply chain could be organized by would-be suppliers, potential customers, or thirdparty brokers (such as organized crime groups or quasi-legitimate trading firms) with
the appropriate contacts. Doubtless it would require the connivance of senior nuclear
managers and others in authority. The degree of official cover might vary. Some
U.S. intelligence analysts, for example, believe that–under the umbrella of Russia’s
technical cooperation agreements with Iran–ranking officials of a certain government
ministry facilitated transfers of nuclear-related materials and weapons technology to
the Iranian government.16 The nature and extent of such transfers cannot be
confirmed. Nevertheless, the Russian-Iranian relationship allows Iran to maintain
William Potter, “Challenges in U.S.-Russian Cooperation.” Paper presented at the
Conference on Cooperative Threat Reduction in the 21st Century. Oslo, June 1, 2002, p. 5.
Matthew Bunn, “Anecdotes of Nuclear Insecurity.” January 31, 2002 (unpublished paper),
Yevgeny Tkachenko, “FSB Agents Prevent Theft of Nuclear Materials.” ITAR-TASS,
December 18, 1998; “MINATOM Says 1998 Theft Involved HEU.” Center for
Nonproliferation Studies, NIS Nuclear Trafficking Data Base. October 30, 2000.
Interview, U.S. official familiar with Russian nuclear programs, Washington, D.C., July
wide-ranging contacts with Russia’s nuclear entities. and in the view of some U.S.
officials, to exploit these relationships to advance its nuclear weapons objectives.
International Terrorism’s Search for
Firm evidence that terrorist and rogue states are participating in the market is
sparse. To be sure, terrorists have demonstrated interest in nuclear weapons. Osama
bin Laden, for example, in a famous interview published in Time magazine in 1999
stated, in answer to a question about nuclear and chemical weapons: “Acquiring
weapons for the defense of Muslims is a religious duty.”17 Yet al Qaeda’s efforts to
acquire nuclear capability seem sporadic and unsophisticated. Only a single welldocumented case – involving negotiations for purchase of what was purported to be
enriched uranium in the Sudan in 1993 or 1994 – can be cited from available sources.
A Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report to Congress in 2001 concluded:
“Although the potential devastation from nuclear terrorism is high, we have no
credible reporting of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons or sufficient material to
In the case of nation-states, the picture is also unclear. As signatories to the
Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea are likely to use
extreme circumspection in their nuclear weapons acquisition programs. An Iraqi
defector familiar with Iraq’s nuclear weapon development, Khiddir Hamza, claims
that Iraq tried unsuccessfully to buy fissile material in the 1980s and early 1990s but
was scammed by black marketeers. They “came to Baghdad with bags of samples
and left with bags of money and we never got any serious nuclear materials,” Hamza
told NBC’s Geraldo Rivera in a January 2001 interview.19 A senior Iraqi official in
1996 offered a somewhat different version of events, stating that in the previous 10
years Iraq had received more than 200 offers of everything from “red mercury” to
fissile materials to complete nuclear weapons but had turned them all down.20 The
above-mentioned CIA report expresses concern that Baghdad “may be attempting
to acquire materials that could be used in resuscitating its nuclear weapons program”
but offers no details. Similarly, the report cites Iran’s interest in “acquiring foreign
fissile material for nuclear weapons development,” yet no cases of smuggling of
weapons-grade materials by Iranian nationals or agents have been recorded to date.
“Conversations with Terror.” Time, January 11, 1999, p. 39.
CIA, “Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to
Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions.” Washington, D.C.,
January 1-July 30, 2001, p. 8.
James Kitfield. “Nuclear Nightmare.” The National Journal, December 15, 2001, p. 3836.
David Albright and Khiddir Hamza. “Iraq’s Reconstitution of Its Nuclear Weapons
Program.” Arms Control Today, October 1998, p. 7.
Also, the case can be made that aspiring nuclear states prefer to manufacture
fissile ingredients of atomic weapons independently rather than pursuing the risky
and difficult course of acquiring them abroad. Hence, their purchasing strategies
focus on the means of production. For instance, Iran’s attempts to obtain gas
centrifuge enrichment and laser isotope separation technologies from Russia have
been well-publicized. Iraq’s nuclear program was set back as a result of the Gulf
War. Yet recent intelligence reports suggest that Iraq has tried to acquire spare parts
for flow forming machines used to produce components for uranium enrichment
systems.21 And North Korea has recently revealed the existence of a clandestine
program to produce enriched uranium for use in a nuclear bomb.
In the Iran case, though, concerns have been raised that clandestine transfers of
nuclear materials could occur under official cover. Iran’s various nuclear agreements
with Russia are constant sources of worry in this regard. For example, a U.S. State
Department official in October 2000 articulated U.S. concern that Iran would exploit
their Russian reactor project to develop “wide-ranging contacts with Russia’s nuclear
entities” and to engage in “more sensitive forms of cooperation with direct
applicability to nuclear weapons programs.”22
Aum Shinrikyo and Al Qaeda
Confirmed smuggling incidents show little or no evidence of a terrorist
connection. Nevertheless, some other types of information–media accounts, court
records, official statements, and the like–indicate that terrorists may have joined the
nuclear procurement game, though their seriousness and consistency of purpose can
be debated. Principal players in the game appear to be the al Qaeda network and the
Japanese apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyo.23 Aum–the architect of the deadly sarin
gas attack in the Tokyo subway in March 1995–had cultivated extensive contacts
with Russia’s military, political, and scientific elite to promote its WMD objectives.
Some money apparently was paid out in bribes. According to various accounts, the
Michael Evans and Richard Watson. “Iraq Building Up Deadly Arsenal, Say Defectors.”
The Times (London), July 11, 2002. Reportedly the conspirators were being smuggled on
return flights from Syria, to which Iraq had sent 24 planes carrying humanitarian aid to help
victims of a dam collapse.
Quoted in Brenda Shaffer. Partners in Need: The Strategic Relationship of Russia and
Iran. Policy Paper no. 57, Institute for Near East Policy, 2001, p. 70.
Other reported terrorist activity includes: In 1993, a Moscow news source reported that
the Islamic Jihad Organization, shortly after the collapse of the USSR, faxed a letter written
in English to the Federal Nuclear Research Center at Arzamas-16, offering to buy a single
nuclear warhead and specifying “the parameters, the sum of the transaction, and the mode
of shipment.” Whether the incident was an elaborate hoax, intended perhaps to cause
consternation in the West, or an incredibly obtuse solicitation by genuine terrorists cannot
be determined with certainty. Another case reported by the Institute of Science and
International Security (ISIS)concerns Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted of masterminding
the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Yousef, who may have had ties to al Qaeda,
reportedly had made an attempt to buy uranium in Kazakhstan in 1994, months before a U.S.
operation (“Operation Sapphire”) which funded the transfer of 600 kilograms of weaponsgrade uranium out of that country. See Kirill Belyaninov, “Utechka.” Literaturnaya Gazeta,
January 20, 1993, p. 3; and ISIS personal communication, June 25, 2002.
cult’s “construction minister,” Kiyohidi Hayakawa, had visited Russia extensively
on weapons-buying expeditions in the early 1990s, during which time he explored
the possibility of buying a nuclear bomb. Hayakawa’s diary, seized by police after
the Tokyo sarin attack, contained the notation “how much is a nuclear warhead” and
listed several prices (underlining one figure of $15 million). Where and from whom
the prices were derived is unclear.
Aum had other nuclear plans as well; it bought a half-million-acre sheep ranch
in Western Australia that contained uranium deposits, planning to mine and enrich
the uranium. The cult investigated laser technology for uranium enrichment and
reportedly sought the help of Russian scientists for its nuclear program. These
various projects, though, seem to have borne little fruit; they were overshadowed or
superseded by the cult’s chemical weapons acquisition program.24
Al Qaeda’s forays into the nuclear marketplace also began in the early 1990s,
according to U.S. federal authorities. A complaint filed by the Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI) in September 1998 against an al Qaeda aide, Mamdouh Mahmud
Salim, refers to attempts by al Qaeda “in the Sudan and elsewhere” to procure
“enriched uranium for the purpose of developing nuclear weapons.” Similarly, a
subsequent U.S. federal indictment against Osama bin Laden the following
November charged that “at various times but at least as early as 1993 Osama bin
Laden and others known and unknown made efforts to acquire the components of
nuclear weapons.”25 Court testimony by another al Qaeda member, Jamal Ahmed alFadl, provided details about the Sudan uranium deal. Al-Fadl said he was asked by
his superiors to meet with intermediaries in Khartoum concerning the purchase of the
uranium, the asking price for which was $1.5 million. One of the sellers was a
Sudanese army officer, one Moqadem Salah Abdul al Mobruk, who at one time had
served in Sudan’s cabinet. Al-Fadl reports being shown an engraved cylinder 2 to 3
feet tall and a paper in English saying “South Africa and serial number and quality
something.” Evidently arrangements were made to test the consignment, but whether
the transaction actually went through is not clear.26 However, some U.S. government
sources believe that the offer was a scam. A DOE source, for instance, reports that
the cylinder was likely a radioisotopic source holder, similar to other source holders
being peddled on the Sudanese black market in the early 1990s.27
Al Qaeda is said to have made other efforts to acquire nuclear materials in the
1990s, but these cannot be documented. A widespread consensus exists, though, that
The best source on Aum’s WMD procurement efforts is David Kaplan and Andrew
Marshall, The Cult at the End of the World: The Terrifying Story of the Aum Doomsday Cult.
London: Arrow, 1996, p. 126-134, 190-192. The ranch in Australia was also used for the
group’s sarin gas experiments on sheep.
U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York. United States of America v.
Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, September 14, 1998, pp. 2, 6; John Goldman and Ronald Ostrow,
“U.S. Indicts Terror Suspect Bin Laden.” Los Angeles Times, November 5, 1998, p. A1.
U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York. United States of America v. Osama
bin Laden et. al., February 7, 2001, pp. 357-366.
DOE. Illicit Trafficking in Nuclear Materials. Monthly Status Report, Special Section.
October 2001, p. 3.
bin Laden’s agents were nuclear novices, lacking fundamental knowledge about the
materials they sought to purchase; thus they likely “became targets of nuclear scams
of the sort that have victimized others for many years.”28 For instance, some
published reports suggest that bin Laden and his associates were offered “red
mercury,” a substance touted as a component of miniaturized nuclear weapons but
which U.S. nuclear experts declare is a “mythical, non-existent material.” Whether
bin Laden et al. actually bought “red mercury,” which was offered on the black
market for $100,000 to $400,000 per kilogram, cannot be determined from the
The search for fissile materials by al Qaeda seemed low-key and comparatively
innocuous – at least there is little to suggest otherwise. There are also media
accounts that bin Laden has sought – and successfully obtained – tactical or portable
nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union. For instance, a lurid story appearing
in the Paris-based Arabic newspaper, Al-Watan al Arabi, in November 1998 asserts
that bin Laden’s emissaries concluded a deal with members of the “Chechen mafia”
to buy 20 tactical nuclear warheads for $30 million and 2 tons of Afghan opium (said
to be worth $70 million). According to the source, the warheads originated from
different arsenals in several republics “such as Ukraine, Turkmenistan, and even
Whether such contacts led to al Qaeda representatives’ making offers for
nuclear warheads is conjectural. It is true that contacts between al Qaeda and the
Chechen resistance appear to have been extensive; Chechen fighters have trained in
al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and at least one al Qaeda camp where
Chechen rebels and others trained functioned at one time in the former Soviet
republic of Georgia, according to an April 2002 FBI affidavit. Also, according to the
affidavit, a U.S.-based charity with ties to al Qaeda, the Benevolence International
Foundation, is said to have diverted substantial funds to support the Chechen cause,
including $685,000 delivered to a Chechen-controlled relief organization in
Georgia.31 Whether the Chechens had any nuclear weapons to sell, however, is
unlikely. Gaps in intelligence reporting and the evident common hatred of both sides
toward the West may tend to inflate commentary on the issue.
Nuclear Terrorism – A Plausible Threat?
A number of observers have expressed skepticism about al Qaeda’s nuclear
procurement efforts, citing – among other things – the group’s pariah status and its
technical inexperience in nuclear matters. Generally, terrorists, unlike states, are
Stefan H. Leader, “Osama bin Laden and the Search for Weapons of Mass Destruction.”
Jane’s Intelligence Review, June 1999, p. 36.
DOE. Special Report: Scams in the World of Nuclear Smuggling. Livermore, CA:
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, May 1997, p. 3; also Leader op. cit.
Riyad ‘Alam-al-Din et. al., “Report Links Bin Laden, Nuclear Weapons.” Al-Watan AlArabi, November 13, 1998, pp. 20-21.
Robert Walker, FBI agent, “Affidavit in Support of Complaint Against Benevolence
International Foundation and Enaam Arnaout.” State of Illinois, County of Cook, April 28,
2002, p. 28.
unable to leverage official contacts and exchanges in the nuclear realm to advance
military procurement objectives. Aum Shinrikyo was an example of sorts – the
group had connections to the Russian government and a wide (estimated at 35,000)
membership in Russia, including members in a major nuclear research facility (the
Kurchatov Institute in northwest Moscow). But Aum failed in its attempts to buy
a nuclear weapon. As a target of international opprobrium, al Qaeda would have little
room to maneuver in Russia, especially if it maintained ties with separatist elements
in the Caucasus. A possible strategy for the group would be to use sympathetic
underworld elements – Chechen or other Islamic criminals might fit that description
– as intermediaries, but if the proposed transaction involved a nuclear weapon the
probability of being swindled is high.
Even if al Qaeda were successful in obtaining nuclear materials or a weapon,
major obstacles would remain. In the case of a finished weapon, the problem would
be to operate or bypass its multiple arming and fail-safe codes (though how elaborate
these are would depend on the type and origin of the weapon). Building a weapon
from scratch would be even more difficult. All experts agree that a “gun-type device
using HEU would be a substantially simpler project than an implosive device
involving HEU or plutonium. Yet a large amount of HEU might be required–some
40 to 50 kilograms for an unsophisticated device.32 Also, as one source observes,
“Although the basic principles are well-known and described at length on the
Internet, the devil is in the details.”33 A cadre of bomb-designers would need to be
assembled, and there is no evidence that al Qaeda succeeded in doing this, although
perhaps not for lack of trying. Osama bin Laden did apparently manage to cultivate
contacts with a Pakistani nuclear scientist–Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmoud–who had,
in his retirement, managed Pakistani programs to produce enriched uranium and
weapons-grade plutonium. However, Mahmoud lacked the specialized knowledge
necessary to make a weapon. Apparently the scientist had established a charitable
organization that operated in Afghanistan and, in the context of visits to that country,
met with bin Laden twice. It is not clear whether nuclear secrets of value were
passed, but according to one account, Mahmoud told bin Laden, “You can’t just
build a bomb – you need a big institution. You can forget it.”34
Bin Laden may or may not have heeded this advice. In any case, al Qaeda
appears to have explored other WMD options, including development of chemical
and biological weapons. Al Qaeda also contemplated building so-called “dirty
bombs,” radiological dispersal devices (RDDs). These do not produce a nuclear
yield but rather a conventional explosion designed to spread radioactive
contamination and to cause panic. RDDs present substantially fewer problems in
manufacture than do fission weapons. Also, the requisite materials (spent reactor fuel
and industrial or medical isotopes such as cobalt-60 or cesium-137) are widely
This is a widely-accepted figure. For a good layman’s discussion of the technical
constraints, see Carson Mark et. al., “Can Terrorists Build Nuclear Weapons?” Washington,
D.C.: The Nuclear Control Institute, undated, pp. 1-10.
Leader, op. cit.
Peter Baker, “Pakistan’s Scientist Who Met with Bin Laden Failed Polygraph, Renewing
Suspicions.” The Washington Post, March 3, 2002, p. A1.
available; they are present in more than 100 nations and often are poorly guarded.35
Even in the United States, some 200 cases of “orphaned” radiation sources–those
deemed to be missing, stolen, or abandoned–are recorded each year.
For this reason, RDDs are not preeminently a nuclear smuggling problem –
requisite materials can be readily obtained from inside most countries that are likely
to be targets of terrorist attacks. Al Qaeda’s interest in such weapons is welldocumented. An al Qaeda leader captured in Pakistan in March 2002 told U.S.
interrogators that the organization had planned on developing RDDs. Another
member of the organization, who was captured in Chicago last May, was accused of
“exploring a plan” to build and detonate RDDs in the United States.36 Terrorists
have some history of deploying such devices. In a solitary if widely reported 1995
case, Chechen terrorists buried containers holding cesium-137 wrapped in the
explosive TNT in a Moscow park and threatened to turn Moscow into an “eternal
desert” if Russia did not cease combat operations in Chechnya. The threat was not
RDDs, most experts agree, are not mass casualty weapons, because radioactive
particles disperse rapidly. The lethal zone is approximately identical to the blast
area. Khiddir Hamza reports that RDDs were tested one or more times in Iraq but
that the results were disappointing militarily and the project was dropped.38 The
psychological impact of detonating a “dirty bomb” admittedly would be
considerable. Yet fission weapons have vastly greater destructive power. Terrorists
efforts to procure these should not be ruled out but neither should the ease of doing
so be exaggerated.
So far, little indication exists that al Qaeda efforts to acquire ingredients of
either a nuclear bomb or radiological device were successful. In the wake of
successive U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, more than 110 government
buildings, military compounds, terrorist camps, safe houses, and caves have been
searched for clues about al Qaeda’s WMD plans. Investigators came across some
rudimentary designs for nuclear weapons inside a suspected al Qaeda safe house in
Kabul, which depicted essential components–HEU and explosives–common to such
weapons. Documents containing the terms “nuclear fission,” “nuclear fusion,” and
“isotopes” also were unearthed.39 Several containers were found that apparently
U.S. Department of State, International Information Programs. “Text: IAEA Cites
Inadequate Control of the World’s Radioactive Materials.” Washington File, June 26, 2002,
pp. 1-2; “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” The Economist, June 15, 2002, p. 28.
James Risen and Philip Shenon, “Traces of Terror: The Investigation. U.S. Says It Halted
Plot to Use Radioactive Bomb.” The New York Times, June 10, 2002, p. A1.
See for example Foreign Broadcast Information Services, “Baseyev’s Recent Remarks
Cited.” Daily Report: Central Eurasia, FRIS-SOV-95-226, November 24, 1995, p. 23.
Khiddir Hamza, “The Dirty Secret of ‘Dirty Bombs.’” The Wall Street Journal, June 12,
2002, p. A18.
CIA, “Unclassified Report,” op. cit. CNN News was able to obtain some of the
documents. See CNN.com, “Live From Afghanistan–Was al Qaeda Working on a Super
Bomb?” Aired January 24, 2002.
contained insignificant amounts of radioactive material, but “their value for weapons
was zero,” says a U.S. government official.40 The discoveries themselves reflect
little more than a superficial interest by al Qaeda in nuclear weapons, yet the full
scope and extent of the group’s acquisition activities has yet to be ascertained.
States Supporting Terrorism
Major gaps in reporting also exist regarding nation-states’ nuclear procurement
and smuggling agendas. In all likelihood, most place a premium on self-reliance in
their nuclear weapons programs. This does not preclude occasional shopping for
fissile material to accelerate their efforts.41 For states, though, the consequences of
exposure are higher than for terrorists. The threat of international sanctions or
actions to defeat their ambitions looms larger, since terrorists are not bound by
international control regimes for nuclear goods. Hence, states’ procurement
operations, where they exist are likely to be especially circuitous and well-concealed.
Significantly, no known agent of Iran, Iraq, or North Korea has been implicated, at
least publicly, in trafficking in nuclear explosives. Anecdotes of illegal transactions
involving these countries are unconvincing or lack corroborating detail.
Military representatives of these countries maintain a presence inside the former
Soviet Union, possibly with malign intent. Russia’s FSB reportedly distributed watch
lists of several Iranian, North Korean, Libyan, and Palestinian companies “reported
to be involved in military WMD programs”; whether these companies have made
overtures to Russian nuclear suppliers and with what result is not clear or not known
at all. Other companies may operate in Russia under various disguises and pretexts.
According to Iraqi defector Khiddir Hamza, Iraq maintains “hundreds” of
commercial fronts in Russia, seeking opportunistically to pick up WMD components
Thom Shanker, “U.S. Analysts Find No Sign Bin Laden Had Nuclear Arms.” The New
York Times, February 21, 2002, p. 1.
States may differ in their priorities, however. Some experts believe that Baghdad’s
preeminent concern is to reconstitute and improve upon its pre-Gulf War programs for
uranium enrichment. The current effort is thought to focus on gas centrifuge and gaseous
diffusion processes. According to Khiddir Hamza, Iraq mastered the technology for gaseous
diffusion in the early 1990s and has at least an experimental facility in place. Iraq also is said
to have some three tons of 3 to 4 percent enriched uranium to work with. Iran’s efforts to
acquire enrichment technology abroad reputedly have failed, as noted; hence, for Tehran,
buying foreign fissile material would be a potentially attractive shortcut to making a bomb.
In the case of North Korea–which possibly has the most advanced program of the three–the
DPRK is believed to have enriched enough plutonium in the early 1990s to make one or two
bombs. The DPRK is rumored to have bought 56 kilograms from Russia in the early 1990s,
but this cannot be confirmed. See, for example, author interview with Khiddir Hamza,
Washington, D.C., June 28, 2002 (hereafter Hamza interview); David Albright and Khiddir
Hamza, “Iraq’s Reconstitution of Its Nuclear Weapons Program,” Arms Control Today,
October 1998, p. 9-15; Larry Niksch, North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program, CRS Issue
Brief IB91141, April 5, 2002, pp. 5-6.
(not necessarily for nuclear weapons, he says) but these are managed by “Arabs with
different passports, not Iraqis.”42
In theory, a covert nuclear deal might involve various stratagems–chains of
intermediaries, fictitious commercial deals, smuggling arrangements to circumvent
or defeat border defenses, and multiple staging areas outside the NIS. Some level of
official protection would be required, especially if the transfer involved significant
quantities of HEU or plutonium. Iran’s nuclear agreements with Russia might lay the
groundwork for such a clandestine chain – as noted, some U.S. intelligence officials
believe this to be the case – but definitive evidence is lacking or has not surfaced
How states might conceivably go about smuggling nuclear weapons is
suggested by a report by an alleged defector from Iraq’s intelligence service, the
Muhkabarat, published in the magazine Vanity Fair. The defector recounts that he,
a Muhkabarat colleague, and a scientist traveled on a nuclear buying expedition from
Iraq to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1994. The route led by way of Amman,
Khartoum, Rome, and Algiers. The group changed passports at the first four
destinations. In Dar es Salaam, the conspirators, joined by other Iraqis, met at an
“isolated house” with five Eastern Europeans – Russians or possibly Ukrainians.
The defector said the Europeans carried a tube of heavy metal, inside of which was
“what looked like pieces of black rock, glittery.” The Iraqis paid cash (a briefcase
with “neat stacks of $100 bills”) for the consignment. The defector recounts being
told later that the merchandise had reached Baghdad safely. The conspirators
returned by way of Tunis, Brussels, Rome, Khartoum, and Amman, changing
passports again in Amman. The contents of the tube were never ascertained, although
experts interviewed by Vanity Fair believe that they might have been spent reactor
fuel cut into sections, possibly destined to be used in a dirty bomb. An alternative
explanation is that the Iraqis were less interested in acquiring the radioactive material
itself than in the process of obtaining it–that the elaborate machinations of the
conspirators were a dry run of sorts for a planned nuclear smuggling event of greater
proliferation significance. The defector’s account may mix fact with fiction, and it
may or may not be revealing about possible permutations of the nuclear smuggling
game that are not readily visible to Western observers.43
A widely-debated issue concerns the possibility that hostile nation- states such
as Iran, Iraq or North Koreamight deliberately transfer nuclear arms to terrorists for
use against the West. To date no credible published information has surfaced
indicating that state sponsors have deliberately supplied terrorists with weapons of
mass destruction or the means to make them. State support seems to have been
limited to providing shelter, financial aid, training, and (especially in the case of
Iran) conventional arms transfers to anti-Israel terrorist groups. No clear evidence
David Rose, “Iraq’s Arsenal of Terror.” Vanity Fair, May 2002, pp. 126-127.
of Saddam Hussein’s ties to al Qaeda has been discerned, and – compared to Iran –
Iraq’s support for other international terrorist groups has been modest. Moreover,
significant terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda, HAMAS, and Hezbollah boast
independent funding sources and political agendas, decreasing the likelihood that a
state would want to furnish them with WMD. (The risks that WMD in terrorists’
hands could be turned against the sponsoring state or that the use of such weapons
would bring retaliatory strikes against the sponsor obviously have to be considered.)
A more immediate problem is state sponsors’ own pursuit of a nuclear
capability. Iraq reputedly is resurrecting its nuclear weapons program, including
stepping up its international search for materials and components to make an atomic
bomb. North Korea now claims to have a nuclear weapons program centered on
production of enriched uranium. Iran’s wide-ranging nuclear relations with Russia
provide a possible conduit and cover for acquiring materials and technology relevant
to its WMD ambitions. All of these states’ initiatives are ominous in and of
themselves. However, the probability that they would share with terrorists nuclear
design intelligence and weaponry obtained with great national cost and effort seems
very low. Secondary proliferation scenarios might seem more conceivable, though,
if the state’s survival is threatened by outside attack: in that case, all possible
instrument of warfare might be used, including use of terrorist agents to carry a lethal
weapon to the intended target.
The U.S. Response
Overview of U.S. Programs
The United States supports a variety of cooperative nonproliferation programs
with the NIS. In fiscal year (FY) 2002, Congress allocated $1.014 billion for such
efforts, approximately one-third more than the Bush administration’s original budget
request for 2002 and 16 percent above FY2001 funding. Of the $1.014 billion,
approximately 44 percent is allocated for programs aimed directly at preventing
illegal transactions in nuclear goods.44 One of these is a DOE effort to provide
materials protection, control, and accounting (MPC&A) upgrades for nearly 600 tons
of weapons-usable material contained in several hundred buildings at 95 separate
storage locations in the NIS. The MPC&A program also includes security upgrades
for some 4,000 nuclear warheads belonging to the Russian navy. A second program,
managed by the Department of Defense (DOD), seeks to improve security at 123
nuclear weapons storage sites controlled by the Main Department of the Russian
Ministry of Defense. DOD also runs a smaller program to help the Russian military
secure warheads in transit. A third major thrust of U.S. nuclear nonproliferation
Matthew Bunn et. al. Securing Nuclear Weapons and Materials: Seven Steps for
Immediate Action. Harvard University, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
May 2002, pp. 18-19. CRS Report 97-1027, Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction
Programs: Issues for Congress, by Amy Woolf, March 6, 2002, pp.1-8. The programs
identified here are part of a broader Cooperative Threat Reduction effort that includes
disarmament and destruction of nuclear weapons, plutonium storage and disposition,
safeguarding of nuclear warheads and materials, and conversion of military activities to
activities in the NIS is to strengthen defense against cross-border smuggling of
strategic nuclear materials; several U.S. agencies, including DOE, the State
Department, and DOD provide funding for border security and related export control
programs. How the funding breaks down for these different areas is shown in Table
Table 2. Preventing Nuclear Theft and Smuggling in the NIS:
Core U.S. Programs
(in millions U.S. dollars)
DOD: Warhead Storage and
Export Control and
Source: Securing Nuclear Materials, p. 19. DOE’s border control effort is administered under the
Bipartisan support exists in both houses of Congress for accelerating all
proliferation prevention efforts in the NIS (this sentiment is reflected in the Russian
Debt Reduction for Nonproliferation Act contained in S. 1803 and H.R. 3836). Yet
some critics have observed that the programs suffer from weaknesses both in
coverage and in concept. Key issues are whether expanding current activities will
keep nuclear material and weaponry out of the hands of terrorists and their
supporters or whether distinctly new tools and approaches are needed. These issues
are discussed in the following sections of the report.
Stopping Proliferation at the Source
MPC&A. DOE defines MPC&A as “the nation’s first line of defense against
the threat of theft or diversion of unsecured Russian nuclear weapons or weaponsusable material.”45 The fact that U.S. nuclear experts have been able to gain access
to nuclear facilities of a former rival is itself remarkable. Yet for various reasons
–such as funding levels and difficulties in negotiating agreements– progress of the
program, underway since 1993, has been slow. As of year-end 2001, 10 years after
the USSR’s collapse, only about half of the 600 tons of material seen as potentially
at risk was protected in some fashion by the new systems (see Table 3). DOE
MPC&A Strategic Plan, p. i.
projections call for fully safeguarding all of the material by 2008; however, as one
commentator notes, “intelligent potential thieves will target the material that is not
yet secured.”46 The sluggishness of the progress to date is attributable to
“bureaucratic inertia, bolstered by mistrust and misperceptions on both sides,” say
two experts familiar with U.S.-Russian security cooperation.47 A contrast can be
drawn with efforts to safeguard the Russian Navy’s warheads (see Table 4). These
have proceeded relatively quickly because the technical issues involved are
substantially less complex and also because the Russian partners (the Navy and its
regulatory oversight authority) are “highly motivated, constructive, and flexible
participants in the program.”48
Oleg Bukharin et. al., Renewing the Partnership: Recommendations for Accelerated
Action to Secure Nuclear Material in the Former Soviet Union. Princeton, N.J.: RussianAmerican Nuclear Security Agency (RANSAC), 2000, p. 10. With respect to the $900
million figure, funding for MPC&A totaled $1.065 billion through FY 2002,of which 169
million was for warhead control. RANSAC personal communication, July 25, 2002.
Graham Allison and Andrei Kokoshin, “Bush and Putin Must Confront Nuclear Terror:
A Comprehensive Strategy Is Crucial.” Los Angeles Times, May 20, 2002, p. 11.
The fissile material part of the program has been hampered by MINATOM’s longstanding refusal to allow DOE personnel access to most buildings with nuclear weapons
laboratories and assembly sites. Since September 11, 2001, some progress has been made
in opening up these sites. DOD’s relations with the Russian Navy have been generally
healthier. The technical problems of securing 4,000 warheads pale beside those of securing
innumerable containers of material in a system where accurate physical inventories hardly
exist. See, for example, GAO, Nuclear Proliferation: Security of Russia’s Nuclear Material
Improving; Further Enhancements Needed. GAO-01-312. Washington, D.C., February 2001,
pp. 14-15. Renewing the Partnership, p. 60.
Table 3. Progress of MPC&A Program Percentage of Former
Soviet Fissile Material (600 Metric Tons ) Covered, by Year
Sources: DOE, MPC&A Scorecard, April 2002. GAO. Nuclear Nonproliferation: Security of Russia’s
Nuclear Material Inventory–Further Enhancements Needed. GAO-01-312, Washington, D.C.,
February 2001, p. 7.
Note: Program began in 1993.
According to DOE, “rapid” upgrades consist of such things as bricking up windows in storage
buildings, installing metal doors, electronic locks, and nuclear container seals, establishing
controlled access to areas around nuclear material, and implementing procedures requiring two
persons to be present when nuclear material is handled. “Comprehensive” upgrades include in
addition such components as sensors, motion detectors, closed circuit television, central stations
where guards can monitor cameras and alarms, and computerized inventory systems.
Table 4. Progress of MPC&A Program
Percentage of Russian Naval Warheads (4000) Covered,
Note: Program began in 1998.
Source: DOE, MPC&A Scorecard, April 1992.
Second, and possibly more fundamental, MPC&A’s technological reach and
deterrent capacity are limited. The new safeguards will not necessarily stop insider
theft even at the facilities where they have been introduced. Most of the new
safeguards fall into the rapid or partially completed category (see Table 3). DOE and
other sources affirm that the design-based threat against which initial upgrades
would be effective is a “snatch and grab” theft event by a solitary employee working
with several criminals on the outside.49 Admittedly, this was a fairly common pattern
in the 1990s. Nevertheless, more sophisticated threat scenarios can be envisioned–for
example, ones involving collusion among well-placed insiders (those able to shut
down alarm systems, bribe guards, and alter relevant paperwork, for example).
Author interviews, DOE, Washington, D.C., June 11, 2002; Steven Miller and Matthew
Bunn. Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. June 3, 2002; DOE. Guidance for Material
Protection Control and Accounting Upgrades at Russian Facilities. Washington, D.C.:
November 1998, p. 8.
Comprehensive MPC&A regimes might increase the critical mass of
conspirators required to orchestrate the theft; yet, a well-organized conspiracy might
still defeat the system, especially if senior management were involved. A consensual
“company” decision by top management to sell off fissile material stocks “is simply
beyond the capacity of the system being installed to effectively address,” says a
detailed 2000 study by the Russian-American Nuclear Security Advisory Council.50
Other observers such as Los Alamos’ Siegfried Hecker also see a significant danger
of diversion by the leadership of nuclear plants.51 The issue of insider corruption has
received relatively little attention–although the Chelyabinsk theft mentioned earlier
is an apparent case in point. Whether MPC&A systems can be improved
qualitatively to address this threat, or whether other lines of defense should receive
more emphasis, are issues that can be addressed by nuclear policymakers.
Warhead Security. Little has been published about DOD’s warhead security
programs in Russia; much of the relevant information is classified. The Web site of
the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) mentions projects to upgrade
perimeter security at “123 nuclear weapons storage sites, including 50 12th Main
Directorate national stockpile sites, 25 strategic rocket force sites, and 48 12th Main
Directorate sites located at Air Force and Navy bases.” Personnel training and safety
enhancements are part of the package.52 DOD also funds a Warhead Transport
Program, which helps its Russian counterpart transport warheads from operational
sites to secure storage facilities. The results of the storage program have been
described as mixed. While DOD has succeeded in establishing a presence in Russia’s
nuclear weapons complex the pace of the effort has disappointed some observers.
As Harvard’s Matthew Bunn, an expert in the cooperative programs, notes, “because
of disputes over access, little progress has been made in improving security for the
sites where most of Russia’s nuclear warheads are stored.” Another report states that
more than half of the sites “still lack basic modern security measures.”53 (Bunn notes
that performance has been better in improving in security for nuclear transport, “the
most vulnerable part of the nuclear life-cycle.”)54
Other critics believe that DOD’s programs are not addressing the right threat.
At least 7,000 tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) scattered at various locations across
Russia fall outside the scope of arms control treaties and are not covered under the
cooperative programs. Such weapons, designed to be fitted on short-range missiles,
aircraft bombs, land mines, and artillery shells, are thought to be the nuclear weapons
of choice for terrorists. As former Senator Sam Nunn states, TNWs are “even more
valuable to them than fissile material and much more portable that strategic
Renewing the Partnership, p. 11.
Telephone interview, Siegfried Hecker, Washington, D.C., June 18, 2002.
DTRA. “Nuclear Weapons Storage Security Project.” May 16, 2002,
Tom Collins and Jon Wolfsthal, “Nuclear Terrorism and Arms Control in Russia.” Arms
Control Today, April 1, 2000, pp. 15-19.
Securing Nuclear Weapons and Materials, p. 36.
warheads.”55 Also, such devices may lack the elaborate safety devices of strategic
warheads. Media reports of Osama bin Laden’s attempts to acquire “suitcase”
bombs from former Soviet arsenals, if uncorroborated, seem to add urgency to their
concerns. However, a general consensus exists among U.S. nuclear specialists and
intelligence experts that Russian nuclear weapons are substantially more secure than
are their fissile material components, for which no national inventory yet exists, and
that no weapons, including TNWs, have been stolen.56 How vulnerable the TNWs
are to theft in theory would depend on how many there are, where they are stored,
and under what conditions–information that Russian authorities reportedly have not
chosen to make available.
“The Second Line of Defense”. Possibly because of the slow
implementation of MPC&A and corresponding fears of leakages from nuclear
enterprises, U.S. border control programs in Russia and the NIS have been a growth
industry of sorts. For instance, DOE’s funding increased from $1.9 million in
FY2001 to $24 million in FY 2002 and the State Department’s from $8 million in
FY1998 to $82.9 million in FY 2002 (2002 figures include the supplemental). In
FY2002 export control and border security funding was 43 percent of that allocated
for the MPC&A fissile material and naval warhead security program. For the entire
period 1993 through 2001, the equivalent proportion was 11 percent.57
Currently, the border programs in the NIS encompass eight countries:
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia,
and Russia. DOE has installed sophisticated portal monitors to detect gamma
radiation and neutron emissions at 11 sites in Russia, including the major airports in
St. Petersburg and Moscow and plans to outfit 12 additional sites by the end of FY
2002. The U.S. Customs Service, using mostly State Department funds, is training
and equipping customs officers in the other above-mentioned states but the
equipment is less sensitive than DOE’s and less useful in detecting strategic nuclear
An important issue concerns the technological capabilities and limitations of the
equipment being introduced at NIS frontier points. DOE at present is active only in
Russia. In the other NIS countries, the hand-held radiation pagers and monitors being
supplied to border officials can detect “contaminations” levels of radioactivity but
are ineffective against shielded HEU or plutonium–materials of consequence for
making a fissile weapon. Virtually all of what is detected, therefore, would fall into
the radioactive junk category. DOE’s more advanced equipment includes a “plaster
scintillator” to record gamma radiation and a helium-3 tube that can pick up neutron
emissions from lead-shielded plutonium. Importantly, though, HEU–which basically
David Filipov, “Russia’s Scattered Tactical Arms a Temptation for Terrorists.” The
Boston Globe, June 18, 2002, p. A1.
“Challenges in U.S.-Russia Cooperation,” pp. 3-4; Author interview, U.S. intelligence
expert. Washington, D.C., March 8, 2002.
Data from Nuclear Nonproliferation, pp. 9-10 and Securing Nuclear Weapons and
Materials p. 19.
Nuclear Materials pp. 23-24.
has a weak neutron signature – cannot be detected easily if properly shielded.59 At
the same time, many analysts believe that HEU is the material most likely to be
sought by terrorists because a gun-type device, using substantial quantities of that
material, would require less engineering expertise to construct than an implosiontype device using either uranium or plutonium.
Such realities suggest that U.S. border activities in the NIS might be more
effective in measuring general patterns and trends in nuclear smuggling than in
intercepting serious smugglers with the requisite technological expertise and
knowledge of the terrain to move their wares covertly. In any case, catching
smugglers of nuclear materials, drugs, or any contraband is at best a hit-or-miss
proposition, dependent substantially on prior intelligence information available to
law enforcement officials. As Harvard University expert Matthew Bunn argues,
“once nuclear materials are removed from the enterprise, much of the battle is
already lost...finding stolen material within a country or detecting and interdicting
its passage across borders are Herculean tasks, in most cases only practicable if good
intelligence and police work tells officials where to look..”60
Measuring Effectiveness. Difficulties arise in trying to monitor the
effectiveness of U.S. programs in deterring or stopping nuclear smuggling from the
NIS. The GAO has noted, with respect to the MPC&A programs, that “DOE has not
established a means to systematically measure the effectiveness of the security
systems that it has installed at Russian nuclear sites.” Measures of effectiveness are
not the same as measures of performance. The latter would enumerate, for example,
the number of locks and alarms installed or windows bricked up within a specified
timeframe. The former might look at rates of attempted theft before and after
installation of MPC&A safeguards at a given enterprise or compare them at secured
and unsecured enterprises. Apparently, such comparisons have not yet been made
and they might be tough to implement in any event. Conceivably, the cases where
thieves have been stopped before leaving the grounds of a facility owe more to the
vigilance of law enforcement or security officials than to the capabilities of the
installed safeguards. The above-mentioned Chelyabinsk incident that FSB authorities
decided (for whatever reason) to publicize could be a case in point (although it is
possible that no MPC&A upgrades had been introduced in the facility where the theft
With respect to the border control programs, apparent successes have been
recorded, at least in Russia. According to Russian Customs, in 2001 there occurred
approximately 400 attempts to smuggle radioactive materials out of Russia. Some
95 percent of these were detected by portal monitors, most of them built in Russia
according to U.S. technical design. Twenty-eight percent of the monitors were
actually installed by DOE, and this 28 percent accounted for 55 percent of the “hits”
Author telephone interview, DOE, Washington, D.C., July 25, 2002; Author interview,
DOE, Washington, D.C., June 6, 2002.
Matthew Bunn. The Next Wave: Urgently Needed New Steps to Control Warheads and
Fissile Material. A Joint Publication of Harvard University’s Project on Managing the
Atom and the Non-proliferation Project of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Cambridge, Mass. and Washington, D.C. April, 2000 p. 39
(machine detections) recorded by Russian authorities.61 Such data offers a gross
measure of effectiveness of DOE’s activity, but a key indicator–the relative
percentages of special nuclear materials and non-nuclear radioactive isotopes in the
trafficking mix–has not been divulged by DOE’s Russian counterparts.
Uncertainties also abound concerning the underlying U.S. expectations for
proliferation prevention in the NIS, including the design-based threats that the
various programs are intended to counter. U.S. officials interviewed for this project
view the intent of the counter-smuggling efforts (including MPC&A, warhead
protection, and border control) as building a multilayered defense against serious
proliferation events. At this point, however, they seem less likely to be effective
against lower-probability but possibly high-consequence diversion scenarios –
especially those involving large nuclear consignments with management
participation in sophisticated procurement operations by determined outsiders.
Parallel Concerns: Knowledge Smuggling and
The U.S. nonproliferation work in the NIS includes creating alternative income
opportunities for excess nuclear personnel as Russia downsizes its nuclear complex.
In contrast to the counter-smuggling programs discussed above, the principal aim of
these initiatives is to prevent outflows of weapons design intelligence–to keep such
knowledge out of the hands of states and groups attempting to develop weapons of
The United States is spending $108 million in FY2002 on various economic
lifeline projects for unemployed or underemployed weapons scientists in the NIS (a
percentage of those helped work in missile design and chemical or biological
fields).62 Types of projects range from short-term grants and subsidies to weaponsprogram personnel, to collaborative research with U.S. weapons labs, to partnerships
with private industry to develop commercially viable technologies. The Russian
Transition Initiatives, which is funded at $57 million, includes a component focused
on business development and civilian job creation in three of the 10 nuclear cities in
Russia (Sarov, Snezhinsk, and Zheleznogorsk).63 Results have been modest so far.
As of mid-July 2002, 565 jobs had been created, which compares to the 35,000
Author telephone interview, DOE, Washington, D.C., July 25, 2002.
The United States also provides certain economic assistance to employees of nuclear
enterprises through labor contracts under the MPC&A program. The contracts pay up to
$125 per month for work in installing the new safeguards, a fairly significant addendum to
government salaries paid at nuclear enterprises. How many employees actually receive this
benefit and for how long is unclear.
The Russian Transition Initiatives represent a consolidation, effective in FY 2002, of
earlier U.S. programs, the Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention and the Nuclear Cities
Initiative. Both programs had focused on nuclear downsizing and transitioning weapons
experts to alternative jobs.
employees that MINATOM has scheduled to cut from nuclear weapons-related
production, mostly in the 10 cities, over the next few years.64
Russia has been mounting its own defense conversion efforts, also supported
by U.S. funding, which appear to have a wider impact. The bulk of these efforts
apparently are financed by a 1993 U.S.-Russian HEU purchase agreement.
According to the agreement, the United States is spending $12 billion over 20 years
for 500 tons of Russian HEU blended down to an enrichment level of 4-5 percent
(the enrichment product is resold by the United States as fuel for nuclear power
plants in the United States.) According to a 2000 Princeton University conference
report, MINATOM allocated $50 million in 1999 to support 26 conversion projects,
creating, by its own estimate (not confirmed from other sources), 2,500 non-weapons
jobs in 1999 and the first half of 2000; most of the $50 million derived from HEU
The overall impact of the U.S. and Russian efforts remains to be seen. Some
proliferation events already may have occurred. Reflecting the economic hardships
of the 1990s, some nuclear specialists seeking greener pastures already have left
Russia, mostly for Western Europe, the United States, and Israel, although not
necessarily to share nuclear knowledge. This flow includes about 9 percent of
specialists working in enterprises in closed cities, according to a Carnegie
Endowment study.66 Whether any of the emigrants have settled in the three main
countries of proliferation concern, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, also cannot be
determined from available data. Yet some U.S. experts have argued that Russia’s
transfer of nuclear technology to such nations as Iran and India, which may require
temporary assignment of Russia’s specialists to these countries, are accelerating the
drain of WMD expertise and risks undercutting the cooperative nonproliferation
Furthermore, as various U.S. observers have pointed out, scientists that remain
in their home bases in Russia could supply nuclear or ballistic missile designs to
foreign clients via the Internet, facsimile transmission, or various covert channels.
Military-scientific knowledge is universally difficult to contain within national
boundaries. Reports indicate that America could not prevent its own closely-held
atomic secrets from gravitating to the Soviet Union in the 1940s. Supply-side
leakages of nuclear intelligence or material may reflect complex motivations.
Economic uncertainty and the need to make ends meet may play a role (this is the
assumption driving U.S. economic assistance to NIS weapons scientists), but greed,
resentment, or ideological conviction also can be factors.( An ideological case in
point was the British nuclear physicist Klaus Fuchs, who provided atomic data of
great military significance to the Soviet Union in the 1940s. Fuchs, one among many
Personal communication from Steve Mladineo, Pacific Northwest Laboratories,
Washington, D.C., July 12, 2002.
Conversion and Job Creation, pp. 4-17.
Whether any of those who left possessed direct knowledge of nuclear bomb-making is not
clear. The destination countries mentioned included Israel, Germany, the United States,
France, Sweden, Finland, and India. See Russia’s Nuclear and Missile Complex, pp. 66-67.
See, for instance, “Challenges in Nuclear Cooperation,” p. 1.
who had worked in the Manhattan Project and later at Los Alamos, seemingly did not
fit the profile of an unemployed or economically desperate scientist.)
U.S. experts frequently cite the professionalism and dedication of Russia’s
nuclear elite as barriers to proliferation. Siegfried Hecker, for example, says that
“most of the credit for avoiding disaster in the Russian nuclear complex must go to
the Russians – most importantly to the loyalty and patriotism of the Russian nuclear
workers.”68 No direct evidence has surfaced that Russia’s scientists have tried to sell
secrets of nuclear bomb construction abroad. Concerns remain, nevertheless. For
example, in December 1998, an employee of the Federal Nuclear Research Center
at Sarov reportedly was arrested for espionage by the FSB, ostensibly for attempting
to sell documents on new conventional weapons designs to agents of Iraq and
Afghanistan for $3 million.69
Issues for Congress
Adequacy of Funding for U.S.-Russian Programs
In the years following the Soviet collapse, the threat of loose nukes and the
apparent proliferation danger posed by Russia’s large and poorly-secured stock of
fissile material have emerged as major national security issues for the United States.
Various cooperative U.S.-Russian programs aimed at securing nuclear material,
weapons, and experts against theft and diversion have been mounted since the early
1990s. Yet a widespread perception has existed that these programs were
inadequately financed. The DOE Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, for example,
noted in its task force report of January 2001 that “current nonproliferation programs
in the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, and related agencies have
achieved impressive results thus far but their limited mandate and funding fell short
of what is required to address adequately the threats.”
The report advocated spending of $30 billion over the next eight to 10 years for
proliferation prevention in the NIS, including $5 billion for MPC&A – a 300 to 400
percent increase over the $170.5 million that was allocated to MPC&A in FY 2001.
(The report contained the caveat that the United States would not be the sole provider
of funds for such a program.)70 The recommendation apparently carried some
weight. The Bush administration’s budget request for former Soviet nonproliferation programs for FY 2002 actually had proposed a 13 percent decrease
from FY 2001, from $876.1 million to $759.6 million, including a 19 percent cut in
MPC&A, from $170.5 million to $138.8 million. Yet Congress restored most of the
funding in its regular FY 2002 appropriation ($808.1 million). After September 11,
Siegfried Hecker, testimony before Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on
“Increasing Our Nonproliferation Efforts in the Former Soviet Union,” April 23, 2002, p. 3.
“Anecdotes of Nuclear Insecurity,” Matthew Bunn, Harvard University, Cambridge,
Mass., January 31, 2002, p. 11. From “Nuclear Center Worker Caught Selling Secrets,”
Russian NTV, Moscow, 16:00 Greenwich Mean Time, December 18, 1998. Translated in
BBC Summary of World Broadcasts. December 21, 1998.
Report Card, pp. iii-iv.
Congress substantially boosted programs aimed at keeping weapons of mass
destruction out of the hands of terrorists, including those focused on nonproliferation
activities in the NIS, which received additional funding of more than 25 percent of
the regular FY 2002 appropriation ($206.2 million).
The Administration’s budget request for 2003 represents a slight decrease from
the final FY 2002 allocation ($956.9 million compared to $1,014.3 million) for all
Cooperative Threat Reduction programs. However, the Senate and the House
currently are considering legislation in companion bills (S. 1803 and H.R. 3836) that
could add significant funds to the nuclear non-proliferation budget in coming years.
The money would come from transfers of principal and interest currently paid on the
$2.7 billion Soviet-era debt owed by the Russian Federation to the United States.
In contemplating funding decisions for nuclear security in Russia Congress and
the administration may wish to consider several major issues. One is simply whether
the overall threat of proliferation to hostile states and groups is overstated–of
particular concern is whether evidence of demand for strategic nuclear items by such
adversaries is sufficiently compelling to justify significant increases in current
programs. A second is whether increases in funding for existing programs are likely
to translate into increases in their effectiveness against major diversion threats. The
essentially reactive nature of U.S. programs, their supply-side focus, and
technological limitations, and what some view as Russia’s ambiguous commitment
to nonproliferation are points to be considered. A third issue is related to the role of
intelligence in proliferation prevention–how this role should be defined and shaped
to improve overall U.S. nuclear security policy in the NIS. These issues will be
An Exaggerated Threat?
As was noted earlier, overt evidence of proliferation pressures on the demand
side is sparse. There is virtually no evidence of participation by terrorists, rogue
states, or organized crime formations in the market. The amount (calculated in
weight) of weapon-usable material being offered for sale, never voluminous, appears
to have diminished drastically since the early to mid-1990s. While this may reflect
improved security at Russian facilities, it may also suggest the absence of demand
for these items. Whether such groups as Aum and al Qaeda have made a sustained
effort to acquire a nuclear capability can be questioned. As one Harvard University
researcher observed, “Al Qaeda has a superficial and unsophisticated interest in
nuclear weapons, but nothing on the scale that would be required for a nuclear
weapons program.”71 Adequate documentation exists (from court testimony) of only
a single attempt by al Qaeda to acquire enriched uranium, which occurred in the
Sudan circa 1993. U.S. DOE officials suspect that al Qaeda was taken in by
Sudanese scam artists in that transaction. Media accounts of al Qaeda’s efforts to
acquire nuclear warheads from former Soviet arsenals lack supporting detail and
remain unconfirmed. Also, U.S. intelligence experts reportedly believe Russia’s
Dr Jim Walsh. “Multilateral Non-proliferation Regimes, Weapons of Mass Destruction
Technologies and the War on Terrorism.” Testimony before the Subcommittee on
International Security, Proliferation and Federal Services of the Senate Committee on
Governmental Affairs. February 12, 2002 p. 30.
contention that no Russian nuclear weapons are missing. General Igor Valynkin,
head of the 12th Department of the Defense Ministry, stated categorically in August
2000 that there had been no incidents of attempted theft, seizure, or unauthorized
action involving nuclear weapons.72
Firm evidence of nation-states’ efforts to obtain nuclear materials or weapons
also is largely lacking. What President George Bush calls the “axis of evil” states
all appear to have nuclear weapons programs, but emphasis has been on trying to
produce special nuclear materials indigenously, rather than procuring such materials
from foreign sources. Concern about the variable quality of material proffered on the
black market, much of which is below the standard used in weapons, and about the
substantial risks of being caught trying to buy such material doubtless affect states’
Counterarguments also may be advanced, and some of these have been
introduced in this report. One related to gaps in reporting relating to the nuclear
smuggling business and the actors engaged in it. Should the traffic in fissile materials
conform to the pattern of certain other illegal enterprises, what is seized by the
authorities might represent a small portion of what has been detected and seized.
Furthermore, evidence suggests that many theft and smuggling incidents from Russia
have gone unreported. (The pattern of dissimulation or denial goes back years; in
1994, Russian authorities were asserting that “not a single gram of plutonium” had
been stolen, even as 363 grams of plutonium from a Russian research institute was
seized in Munich – the result of a German sting operation.)74 In addition, mention
can be made of the large resources available to aspiring nuclear states and groups
(Osama bin Laden’s personal fortune has been estimated at $200 to $400 million)75
and of the difficult economic situation prevailing at many Russian nuclear
enterprises. Efforts of nation-states to procure nuclear weapons material are likely
to be painstakingly devious and well-concealed, as previously noted. The
hypothetical possibility can be advanced of a shadow market in which the interests
of would-be sellers and prospective buyers have converged in ways undetected by
Western authorities. A variant of this scenario frequently mentioned by U.S. officials
is that the Russian nuclear relationship with Iran creates channels for a flow of
technology, components, and possibly materials that could directly benefit Iran’s
nuclear weapons program.76
Author interview, U.S. intelligence expert, March 8, 2002; National Intelligence Council,
Annual Report to Congress on the Safety and Security of Russian Nuclear Facilities and
Military Forces. Washington, D.C., February 2, pp. 6-7.
Weapons-usable material is defined as uranium with a 20 percent or higher uranium-235
content, or any plutonium containing less than 80 percent of the isotope plutonium-238.
Weapons-grade material is defined as uranium enriched to more than 90 percent uranium235 or plutonium-239 with less than 6 percent of the isotope plutonium-240. See Annual
Report to Congress, p. 8.
R.W. Lee III. Smuggling Armageddon: The Nuclear Black Market in the Former Soviet
Union and Europe. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999, pp. 73-103.
“Holy Warrior,” op. cit.
For a restatement of this concern, see Dana Priest, “Iran’s Emerging Nuclear Plant Poses
Intensive Improvements. Nuclear security in Russia has improved in recent
years, but risks remain. As noted, clever adversaries might find ways to defeat the
new protection systems being installed at nuclear enterprises and along NIS borders.
Certainly economic uncertainties and the relatively low (if improving) pay of nuclear
workers add to the proliferation danger.77 Containing the spread of nuclear
intelligence is an intrinsically difficult objective – given the A-bomb’s long history
and the broad array of channels through which military secrets can be disseminated.
Some U.S. and Russian observers have noted that efforts to open up the nuclear cities
for business development ironically could allow hostile elements to gain greater
proximity to centers of nuclear activity – actually widening the “pipeline” for
leakages of fissile materials and weapons expertise.78
Concerns also are raised about the Russian government’s level of commitment
to the goal of nonproliferation. Certainly the picture here appears to be mixed. U.S.
personnel within Russia report positively on the spirit of cooperation and sense of
shared objectives in relations with their Russian counterparts. U.S. customs officials
are enthusiastic about the professionalism and performance of Russia’s customs
services in interdicting flows of radioactive material. The FSB, though not part of
this cooperative activity, appears to have stopped a number of thefts. Since
September 11, 2001, Russia and the United States have showed signs of forging a
common strategy to fight terrorism, which could have positive connotations for
nonproliferation. Yet factors can be noted in the negative side: These include
limitations on U.S. access to much of the Russian nuclear weapons complex (which
has slowed implementation of MPC&A), lack of transparency in Russia’s reporting
of nuclear smuggling incidents (creating the impression of a large underlying
problem), and above all, Russia’s extensive nuclear relations with Iran and its
possible implications for covert state-sponsored proliferation. U.S. Energy Secretary
Spencer Abraham stated in Moscow in August 2002 that “we consistently urge
Russia to cease all nuclear cooperation with Iran, including its assistance to the
reactor in Bushehr.”79 Within Russia, forces appear to be pulling in different
directions on proliferation issues.
Test for U.S.” The Washington Post, July 29, 2002, pp. A1, A16.
For instance, low and high base salaries at the Federal Nuclear Research enter in
Snezhinsk were respectively $30 and $150 in 2002, 25 percent above the level in 2001.
Employees receive some additional compensation, but this varies from month to month. By
comparison, the national average salary was said to be $135 per month in 2002.
Communication from the Foundation for Russian-American Economic Cooperation, July 15,
Hecker testimony, p. 3; Yuri A. Yadin. Significance of the Russian Federation Legislation
for Manufacture and Strengthening of the Nonproliferation Program. Moscow: International
Science and Technology Center project no. 1763, 2001, p. 29.
Dmitri Zhdannikov “U.S. deeply worried by Russia-Iran nuclear deals.” Moscow, Reuters
August 1, 2002.
A majoritarian view, though, holds that stakes in the nonproliferation game are
much higher than for other international programs – and that consequences of
failures can be catastrophic for regional and global stability, and even for life on the
planet. Within Congress, the tendency has been in recent years to increase spending
for proliferation prevention – even beyond the level requested by the Bush
Administration. The apparent threat of nuclear terrorism, however defined, has
added urgency and legitimacy to U.S. nuclear containment efforts. In the NIS, and
indeed worldwide, given Congress’ evident desire to support such efforts, a critical
issue is how the overall U.S. nuclear security position in the NIS might be
strengthened. One possible course is to introduce qualitative improvements in
existing programs, for instance making MPC&A more resistant to insider corruption
and introducing better radiation detection equipment on NIS borders. To some
extent, steps are already being taken in this direction. A second approach is to move
beyond the generally reactive and supply-side orientation of U.S. nuclear security
policy to focus more attention on the demand side of the proliferation equation – that
is, on the machinations of the adversaries themselves. The preeminent need here is
for a greatly enhanced intelligence collection effort – what Harvard University expert
Graham Allison calls the “long pole in the tent” where U.S. nuclear security and
nonproliferation interests are concerned.80
Pushing the Technology Frontier. Qualitative improvements for U.S.
nuclear security programs appear to be in the works. For instance, both DOE and
DOD reportedly have plans to improve “human reliability” systems for nuclear
custodians. These include providing breathalysers and drug testing equipment. DOD
reportedly also has provided polygraphs to its Russian military counterparts, and
DOE is also contemplating such steps as part of the MPC&A program.81 DOE is
initiating a new phase in MPC&A – the MPC&A Operations Monitoring project
(MOM) – that potentially could help deter or defeat insider nuclear conspiracies.
The basis of MOM is the introduction of motion-detection cameras for untended
visual surveillance at nuclear material storage vaults and guard posts. The data
recorded by the cameras would be transmitted to review stations inside the enterprise
(for example, the Office of the Chief Engineer of the Vice President for
Administrative Security). Importantly, the data flow also would be reviewed beyond
the enterprise, at the regional and national level, by representatives of different
agencies–for example, GAN, MINATOM, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the
Ministry of Defense. MOM even contemplates review of the take of the cameras at
the “bilateral” level–that is, by U.S. government personnel.82
Such technological solutions, if not fail-safe, offer some promise. Aspects of
MOM and of “human reliability” systems, though, might be perceived as excessively
intrusive by the Russian counterparts, so how extensively or effectively such
innovations will be introduced remains to be seen.
Author interview, Graham Allison, Cambridge, Mass., July 3, 2002.
Author telephone interview, DOE, Washington, D.C., July 30, 2002; “Nuclear Weapons
Storage Security Programs,” op. cit.
DOE MPC&A Operation Monitoring Project. Washington, D.C.: DOE Office of
International Material Cooperation, pp. 1-11.
With respect to border control, recommended directions for improvements
include creating a uniform requirement for radiation monitoring equipment
throughout the NIS. As noted, equipment deployed by DOE in Russia is of a higher
standard than that being introduced under U.S. State Department auspices in the
other NIS states.83 A corollary step might be to grant DOE responsibility for
managing all U.S. border security programs in the NIS. Gaps in sensor technology
will inevitably remain; for instance, prototype technology exists (“active neutron
interrogation”)84 for detection of HEU behind lead shielding, but commercial
introduction is years away by most reckonings and systems based on the technology
would be expensive to install. Nevertheless, it can be argued that state-of-the-art
equipment, more extensively deployed at NIS border crossings, can enhance the
deterrent value of current systems.
Intelligence: The Long Pole in the Tent. Much attention has been given
to the failure to anticipate the apparently well-planned and coordinated terrorist
attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A major concern of Congress
has been whether existing U.S. intelligence capabilities – especially in the sphere of
human collection – are adequate to detect and prevent further terrorist episodes. The
report of the House of Representatives on the Intelligence Authorization Act for the
Fiscal Year 2003, for example, notes,
Of all the lessons that should be learned in the wake of September 11, the
importance of having reliable and timely human intelligence is among the most
important. The information most important to the nation’s national security is
identifying and understanding the plans of and intentions of those who would
harm our interests. Some of that information is available only through
The lesson seems highly relevant to the nuclear proliferation field as well.
Here, gaps in intelligence collection and reporting appear particularly striking, as
noted throughout this report. While all-source intelligence is required to cover these
gaps, the role of HUMINT operations appears critical because of the clandestine and
idiosyncratic nature of nuclear smuggling activities and because of the high-level
collusion required to orchestrate significant nuclear deals.
The importance of intelligence in proliferation prevention is essentially threefold. One task is simply to clarify the nature of the threat. This means collecting
information about the adversaries – who they are, what material and weapons they
seek, and where and how they intend to obtain these items. While broad assumptions
have been made about the nuclear intention of certain states and non-state actors,
their precise targets and plans remain unclear. A second objective is to assist in
preemption – to identify and disrupt adversaries’ WMD procurement operations or
demand-side chains within the former USSR. Not enough is known about such
activities, to the extent that they exist–how they are organized and financed, what
front companies, criminal groups, and other intermediaries are used, who the inside
Nuclear Nonproliferation, pp. 13-14.
Author telephone interview, DOE, Washington, D.C., July 30, 2002.
Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal
Year 2003. Committee Report, July 18, 2002, p. 18.
collaborators are, and so on. Better intelligence could be assembled as a dynamic
component of nuclear defense, complementing the essentially reactive and stationary
“risk management” systems that the U.S. currently is introducing in the NIS.
A third objective is damage control. Where leakages of nuclear materials or
weaponry already have occurred, intelligence is potentially a key to identifying the
perpetrators and the recipients. Intelligence can guide such preparations or sting
operations against suspected targets as well as what one nuclear expert calls “joint
emergency response exercises” that run the gamut from disabling an adversary’s
nuclear capability to “mitigating the consequences of nuclear attacks.”86
An issue for Congress and for the U.S. intelligence community itself is how an
enhanced collaboration effort in the NIS would be organized and implemented. One
possible mechanism is an increase in formal information sharing with intelligence
and law enforcement counterparts and nuclear security officials in the NIS. (Relevant
agencies would include the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the FSB, Russian Customs
and GAN, among others.) These authorities harbor a wealth of information on
nuclear smuggling incidents, actors, and trends that could be of great value in
configuring U.S. nonproliferation prevention programs in those countries. A vehicle
for advancing such sharing might be the newly-formed U.S.-Russian Working Group
on Terrorism, which recently issued a statement stressing the importance of
cooperation against “threats posed by nuclear, biological, and chemical terrorism.”87
Nevertheless, it can be argued that the liaison partners – Russia and other NIS
countries – have different interests from the United States as well as different
assessments of the nuclear proliferation threat.88 For this reason, according to some
observers, maintaining and expanding a unilateral U.S. capability may be of central
importance. The clear differences between the United States and Russia or the
latter’s nuclear relations with Iran are obvious cases in point. Ideally, a welldesigned effort would provide advance warning of covert nuclear deals; failing that,
it might pick up clues (such as sudden displays of wealth by low-salaried nuclear
employees) that a smuggling conspiracy already was afoot and aid in subsequent
damage control operations. In any event, intelligence about adversaries’ activities
can usefully be factored into project design and resource allocation decisions
affecting the overall U.S.-Russian cooperative security effort, as a complement to
Hecker testimony, p. 6.
“Joint Press Statement by the U.S.-Russia Working Group on Counterterrorism” Office
of the Spokesman, Annapolis Md. July 27, 2002
Another report from the Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security of the
Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence discusses the issue: “Using both unilateral and
liaison resources will be necessary. Recognizing that liaison partners may have different
interests maintaining a unilateral capability is of key importance.” See Subcommittee on
Terrorism and Homeland Security, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence,
“Counterterrorism Intelligence Capabilities and Performance Prior to 9/11.” A Report to the
Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Minority Leader. July 2002, p. ii.
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