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Nuclear Smuggling From The Former Soviet Union: Threats And Responses
By Rensselaer Lee
Foreign Policy Research Institute A Catalyst for Ideas
April 27, 2001

Rensselaer Lee is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and President of Global Advisory Services. For a detailed discussion of nuclear smuggling, see his book Smuggling Armageddon: The Nuclear Black Market in the Former Soviet Union and Europe (St. Martin's Press, 2000).



by Rensselaer Lee

The collapse of the Soviet Union and its framework of totalitarian control raised the specter of rampant nuclear proliferation, fueled by leakages of fissile material from increasingly insecure stockpiles. Indeed, thefts of nuclear and radioactive materials, propelled by deteriorating economic and security conditions in the nuclear complex, have surged in the former Soviet Union since the early 1990s. Most incidents of nuclear theft and smuggling have been militarily innocuous, involving radioactive junk (such as low-grade uranium, cesium-137 or cobalt-60) that is useless in making fissile weapons. However, some 15 to 20 seizures of weapons-usable plutonium and highly-enriched uranium (HEU) have been recorded internationally in the past decade, and U.S. policymakers must contemplate the possibility that -- as with other illegally traded commodities -- what was seized is only a small fraction of what has been circulated through smuggling channels.[1]

Furthermore, a few high-profile episodes point to a spreading ethos of corruption in the Russian nuclear establishment that could presage major covert exports of fissile material, weapons components and even intact nuclear weapons. For instance, in two recorded cases in the 1990s, Russian managers of top secret defense plants offered plutonium for sale to visiting foreign scientists. Elsewhere, military officers stole HEU fuel from a submarine base in Murmansk. In a bizarre episode suggesting a wider conspiracy, agents of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service reportedly masterminded the delivery of almost a pound of plutonium oxide from Moscow to Munich in August 1994. In a 1998 incident, the Russian Federal Security Service reportedly foiled an attempt by "staff members" of a major nuclear weapons plant in Chelyabinsk to steal some 18.5 kilograms of unspecified weapons-usable material -- possibly enough to fashion a single nuclear weapon.

Less well documented but nevertheless ominous are reports from Russia that large quantities of plutonium and HEU were removed from nuclear labs in the early 1990s (whether the material was exported or remains in Russia is anyone's guess), that scores of "suitcase-sized" nuclear weapons are missing from storage, and that certain labs are engaged in criminally-brokered schemes to enrich uranium and sell the weapons-grade product to unspecified Middle Eastern states. If any such reports are true, serious nuclear leakages from Russia are no longer a threat, but a fact.

SELLERS AND BUYERS Both supply- and demand-side factors contribute to the danger of criminal nuclear proliferation. In Russia, strains of privatization and defense conversion have created a shambles in the nuclear complex. Reports are rife of generalized economic distress -- low or unpaid salaries and shortages of essential goods such as food, clothing and heat. Strikes, work stoppages and pilfering attempts apparently are widespread. Security at nuclear facilities, once ensured by the control machinery of a police state, is frequently porous, despite infusions of U.S. equipment and expertise. Under such dismal circumstances, opportunistic nuclear custodians -- concerned for the survival of their enterprises or their families -- could easily be tempted to steal and sell materials to which they have access.

Contextual factors such as endemic official corruption and pervasive influence of organized crime contribute to the general atmosphere of uncertainty. More powerful Russian crime formations may well possess the capability to penetrate the defense-nuclear complex, to bribe or intimidate key personnel and to make off with stocks of weapons-grade materials. Also, Moscow's central control over the provinces and, by implication, over Russia's far- flung nuclear weapons cache, has deteriorated significantly over the past ten years (although President Vladimir Putin recently introduced administrative incentives to reverse this trend). Weakness at the center amidst Russia's current financial difficulties increases the prospect of regionally inspired nuclear deals -- involving collaboration between regional bosses and criminally motivated managers to peddle nuclear materials and components abroad.

Further contributing to supply-side pressures is the Russian state's international behavior in the nuclear realm. Of particular concern is Russia's long-standing nuclear relationship with Iran, which involves billions of dollars in current and future contracts for so-called dual-use nuclear technology and equipment. At certain points in the relationship, considerations of commercial gain have outweighed concern for proliferation risks. For instance, in 1995 Russia signed a protocol to sell a centrifuge plan for uranium enrichment to Iran. (It backed off under U.S. pressure.) Last year a controversy erupted over a plan by a Ministry of Atomic Energy officials to sell Iran laser isotope separation technology also used for uranium conversion; that deal also is on hold, but perhaps not for long. Furthermore, even Russia's ostensibly civilian nuclear ties with Iran are helping an entire generation of Iranian physicists and engineers acquire knowledge that is potentially applicable to a weapons program.[2]

The potential market for nuclear weapons components on the demand side consists of a handful of anti-Western states with nuclear weapons programs and (less definitively) a few relatively well-heeled terrorist organizations. Of the "rogue" states, Iran and Iraq are known to be actively seeking nuclear materials inside the former Soviet Union, and the odds of success of such efforts are uncomfortably high. The countries maintain good relations with Russia, and both have benefited from Russian transfers of advanced weapons systems such as technology and components for guided missiles.[3] Iran is a major market for Russian nuclear goods -- both official deals sanctioned by the government and, conceivably, black market deals without official approval. External procurement operations by nation-states are likely to be well-organized and protected -- Iran's various nuclear agreements with Russia, for example, can provide requisite official entree and cover for contacting potential collaborators inside the nuclear weapons complex.

Terrorist organizations also have joined the nuclear procurement game, though perhaps not on a sustained level. A 1998 U.S. federal indictment charges that Osama bin Laden and his associates have tried to buy bomb-making components "at various times" since 1992. The Japanese Aum Shirinkyo cult, the architects of a deadly nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995, reportedly explored different pricing operations for buying a nuclear warhead from Russia. A Moscow news report claimed that the Islamic Jihad organization, shortly following the USSR's collapse, sent a faxed letter to the Federal Nuclear Research Center at Arzamas-16 offering to buy a single atomic weapon and specifying the "parameters, the sum of the transaction and the mode of shipment."[4]

Terrorists, though, face significant problems of access -- unlike states, they cannot leverage existing technical or commercial relationships in the nuclear realm to advance military procurement objectives. Their contacts with key insider elites are likely to be limited if they exist at all. Terrorists also may lack the technical expertise and the resources to manufacture a fission bomb. The extent of the nuclear terrorist threat thus cannot be determined with certainty; by contrast, the danger of proliferation to hostile states with nuclear ambitions seems immediate and real.

A FLAWED U.S. RESPONSE U.S. non-proliferation policy in Russia and other newly- independent states (NIS) emphasizes improving protective regimes for nuclear materials, components and knowledge. The aim, of course, is to keep bomb-making wherewithal out of the hands of so-called rogue states, terrorist organizations and other hostile actors. U.S. efforts to safeguard the Soviet nuclear legacy, though, have progressed painfully slowly; indeed, the containment thrust of U.S. policy is probably inadequate, given the magnitude of Russia's proliferation problems.

Representative U.S. programs in the NIS illustrate these problems. The Department of Energy (DOE) funds an initiative, underway since 1993, to improve "material protection, control and accountability" (MPC&A) at former Soviet nuclear enterprises. The program enjoys substantial bipartisan support in the United States and is considered the first line of defense against unwanted proliferation episodes.

As of February 2000, more than 8 years after the collapse of the USSR, new security systems had been installed at 113 buildings, most of them in Russia; however, these sites contained only 7 percent of the estimated 650 tons of weapons-usable material considered at risk for theft or diversion. DOE plans call for safeguarding 60 percent of the material by 2006 and the rest in 10 to 15 years or longer. Obviously prospective thieves and smugglers will not wait until all Russian sites are MPC&A-ready before initiating a major diversion. Hence, the strategic rationale for the DOE effort makes decreasing sense as the timeframe for completing it lengthens.[5]

Furthermore, DOE's hard technical fixes may do little to deter theft even in facilities where they have been introduced. The safeguards can defeat isolated theft attempts by lone employees, but they offer little defense against organized conspiracies of well-placed insiders able to circumvent alarm systems, bribe guards and fudge relevant paperwork. A consensual "company" decision of top managers to sell off fissile material stocks likewise would probably go undetected. Yet in the unstable and turbulent environment of Russia' nuclear weapons complex, such scenarios seem eminently plausible.

The limitations of containment are also reflected in another DOE program, the so-called "Initiative for Proliferation Prevention" aimed at preventing transfers of militarily- sensitive knowledge to hostile states and groups. The program focuses on transferring weapons technology into commercial applications and as early as 1999 had employed some 2,200 scientists in 20 former Soviet institutes. Nevertheless, at least 3,000 scientists with expertise in weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have left Russia since 1992, some of them heading for aspiring nuclear states such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Some of those who remain reportedly are feeding information on WMD systems to foreign clients via the Internet.[6] Also, Russia's international technology transfers to countries such as Iran and China are accelerating the drain of WMD expertise and hence undercutting the U.S. non-proliferation effort.

RETHINKING THE PROBLEM Non-proliferation advocates are inclined to blame failures of U.S. programs in the NIS on inadequate resources and personnel. Indeed, a recent DOE-sponsored report by a bipartisan task force called for spending up to $30 billion over the next 8 to 10 years to expand and improve safeguards for Russian fissile materials. (Current spending for nuclear threat-reduction and anti-brain drain activities in the NIS is approximately $800 million per year.) More containment, though, is not necessarily the most appropriate response to the proliferation threat from Russia; indeed, the basic assumption of current policy -- that the United States can protect Russian nuclear materials and atomic secrets -- seems fundamentally flawed.

In reviewing non-proliferation, the United States should consider the experience of supply-side programs in other fields -- most notably in the failed U.S. international war against drugs. In that sphere, as is known, Washington provides the funding and the agenda for efforts elsewhere in the world, but has had little success in countries whose own leaders lack the political will to control lucrative narcotics exports. Similarly, non-proliferation programs that emanate from Washington are headed for defeat if NIS governments are too weak or venal to keep their own nuclear houses in order. In fact, the parallels between Russia, the world's largest potential proliferator, and Colombia, the world's largest cocaine exporter, are disturbingly similar. In both countries the regimes have been unable to control their own institutions, to rein in the large organized crime sectors, and to successfully establish the rule of law. Vladimir Putin's efforts to recentralize Russia, which could also improve security over the nuclear complex, are noted, but such changes are down the road. In the meantime, the environment for non-proliferation in Russia and other states is extremely unpromising.

Such considerations argue for a more dynamic nuclear security strategy -- one which goes beyond containment, or at least broadens the definition of it. In particular, more emphasis must be placed on the demand side of the proliferation equation. This means on one hand intensifying efforts to track the military procurement efforts of the main adversaries -- again, "rogue" states and international terrorist organizations. There the aims of strategy are to decipher adversaries' procurement chains -- how they are organized and financed and what front companies or other intermediaries are used, for example -- and to disrupt nuclear deals-in-the-making where possible.

Such tasks must necessarily be intelligence-based, requiring a wider deployment of collective resources in proliferation- sensitive zones (such as Russia's formerly secret cities, main Caspian and Black Sea ports and Russia's frontier with Trans-Caucasian and Central Asian states). Right now, the United States faces a shortage of intelligence about the weapons programs of rogue states and about their efforts to obtain nuclear technology and materials on the international black market. This is partly a result of misplaced priorities of intelligence production, especially an overemphasis on space-based reconnaissance systems and the denigration of human assets -- that is, traditional spycraft -- in the process. Techniques that are useful in counting missile silos or measuring the size of the Soviet wheat crop are largely useless in countering unconventional threats such as criminal nuclear proliferation.[7] A reversion back to intelligence basics must underlie a revised and refocused nuclear security policy.

Finally, U.S. non-proliferation must where possible emphasize demand reduction-curbing the international appetite for nuclear weapons programs. If the adversaries already are nuclear-capable (with the largely open proliferation window in Russia it would be irresponsible to assume otherwise), then the imperative is to discourage or prevent them from building and deploying a nuclear arsenal.

Obviously a multitude of factors drive demand for nuclear weapons, and the United States cannot change the strategic calculations of hostile states and groups on its own. A prime source of proliferation danger, though, is the continued exclusion of designated state actors from membership in the international community -- the conferring on them of "outlaw" status, as it were. Current economic and military sanctions against Iraq, for example, are not particularly effective, but they help to legitimize Saddam Hussein's regime and keep alive Saddam's nuclear ambitions. Ending the rogues' economic and diplomatic isolation and enveloping them over time in the global economy would help undercut the strategic rationale for WMD programs (at least those directed against the West), possibly eroding leaders' commitments to continuing them. Alternatively, expanded international ties could create an incentive for internal political change in the countries -- resulting, perhaps, in the emergence of more moderate leaders willing to forego such programs.

Certainly the demand-side strategy proposed here is not without risk. It does not address the nuclear threat from terrorists, which will have to be dealt with by other means. Bringing the likes of Iran Iraq and North Korea into the international community will be a protracted process involving difficult negotiations and trade-offs. These countries' military programs and procurement efforts will have to be constantly watched and evaluated. But in confronting proliferation there are no risk-free alternatives. If current containment regimes in Russia and elsewhere are pursued as though in a political vacuum, a more rather than a less insecure world will be in the offing, even as weapons stockpiles in the Untied States and Russia are reduced.

----------------------------------------------- Notes

[1] Oleg Bukharin, et al., Renewing the Partnership: Recommendations for Accelerated Action to Secure Nuclear Material in the Former Soviet Union (Princeton, NJ: Russian American Security Advisory Council, 2000), p. 5.

[2] See, for example, Fred Wehling, "Russian Nuclear and Missile Exports to Iran," The Non-Proliferation Review vol. 6, no. 2 (Winter 1999), pp. 134-142; Judith Miller, "U.S. Asks Russia Not to Sell Iran a Laser System," The New York Times September 19, 2000.

[3] Stephen Blank, "Russia as Rogue Proliferator," Orbis Vol. 44, no. 1 (Winter 2000), pp. 94-95, 100.

[4] Stefan Leader, "Osama bin Laden and the Terrorist Search for Weapons of Mass Destruction," Jane's Intelligence Review vol. II, no. 6 (June 1999), pp. 34-35; Kirill Belyaninov, "Utechka," Literaturnaya Gazeta, no. 3, January 20, 1993, pp. 13; John Sopko, "Staff Statement" in U.S. Senate, Committee on Governmental Affairs, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation, Hearings on Global Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Part 1 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1995).

[5] U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), Nuclear Nonproliferation: Limited Progress in Improving Nuclear Material Security in Russia and the Newly-Independent States (Washington, DC: GAO, March 2000), p. 8; Bukharin, et al. Reviewing the Partnership, pp. 8-9. Such projections might be overly optimistic. One Russian scientist interviewed by former White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler in a recent trip to Russia estimated that it would take as long as 60 years to secure all nuclear-sensitive sites in his country. See Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Proliferation Brief: The Greatest Unmet National Security Threat vol. 4, no. 1, January 30, 2001 (e-mail publication).

[6] Steve Goldstein. "Russia's Dejected Scientists See Bomb Skills as Ticket Out," The Philadelphia Inquirer January 11, 1999 (www.phillynews.com/programs/aprint).

[7] Robert Gates, "Revitalize the CIA," The Wall Street Journal January 23, 2001.


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