March 19, 1998
Former Russian security adviser Alexander Lebed today testified that the danger of "loose nukes" in the hands of terrorists is very real. According to Mr. Lebed and other experts, the threat arises not just from the nuclear weapons themselves, but also from the scientists once employed to build the bombs for the Soviet Union. Following a background report on the situation, Jim Lehrer discusses efforts to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
JIM LEHRER: Three views of all of this now: Indiana Republican Senator Richard Lugar did co-author the U.S. program for dealing with nuclear weapons and material in Russia in the newly independent states; Robert Bell is special assistant to the President for national security at the National Security Council; Jessica Stern formerly served on the National Security Council staff as director for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian Affairs.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
March 19, 1998
A background report on the dangers of "loose nukes".
January 6, 1998
Lawrence McDonnell of ITN reports on who controls Russia's nuclear weapons.
January 6, 1998
President Clinton announces a new strategy to deter nuclear war.
December 4, 1997
Two retired generals call for an immediate reduction of nuclear arms.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of Europe and Russia and military issues.
A FRONTLINE Web site on Loose Nukes.
Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers
Nuclear Control Institute
How dangerous is the situation?
Sen. Lugar, first, do you share Mr. Lebed's concern about finding work for former Soviet nuclear scientists?
SEN. RICHARD LUGAR, (R) Indiana: Yes, I do. And from the beginning of the Nunn-Lugar debate, the scientists were at the forefront of our consideration. There have been two programs developed in the State Department and the Department of Energy. One of these, an international program, employs as many as 21,000 Russian scientists. One of the problems here is we frankly do not know how many scientists in the former Soviet Union were involved in nuclear activity. People in the closed cities where a lot of this activity went on are well known, but 21,000 is an impressive figure. Well, in addition to that, we're trying to work with Russians to sort of marry their talents with the United States industries. This is a tougher sell. And, in fact, the Congress has frequently raised eyebrows as to how the source of commercial activities might proceed, but they're absolutely vital, and I thought Gen. Lebed's testimony today was compelling.
JIM LEHRER: You mean, the Congress objects to the idea of these Russian scientists coming over here and working for American companies?
SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: Well, people are more likely to work in Russia.
JIM LEHRER: For American companies.
SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: Exactly. All the Nunn-Lugar funds are controlled by American companies. I think we want to make that point because the congressional audit three or four times a year is very severe on this point.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Bell, what is the evidence thus far that the kind of horror scenario that Mr. Lebed laid out today--in other words that these nuclear scientists could be hired by some rogue dictator and do what he said--is there any evidence of any of that going on right now?
ROBERT BELL, National Security Council: I don't think there's substantial, credible evidence, Jim, that scientists in large numbers are emigrating from Russia to go to work for dictators in rogue states. Of course, we have been working very closely with Russia to make sure that Russian enterprises, themselves, and in many cases are cash starved, don't contract with foreign companies to help in areas of proliferation concern, and we're going to continue to work with Russians to make sure that they observe their own non-proliferation export controls in that regard.
Creating "Nuclear Cities" in Russia.
JIM LEHRER: Are you confident that the combination of the United States and Russia are on top of this thing, in other words, the recruitment problem that Mr. Lebed laid out today?
ROBERT BELL: I think we've worked very effectively with the Russians and particularly with the Congress, with Sen. Lugar and Sen. Nunn on this part of the Nunn-Lugar program. There are over 25,000 Russian scientists now engaged in almost a thousand different projects at a cost of about $500 million to keep them directly employed. Now, beyond that, we're planning new initiatives. In fact, at the recently completed conference between Vice President Gore and their prime minister, Mr. Chernomyrdin, we launched a new initiative to help their so-called nuclear cities do the same kinds of things we're doing in the cities where our nuclear laboratories are.
JIM LEHRER: What's a nuclear city?
ROBERT BELL: Well, R&I-16 is one example in Russia, which is similar in purpose to one of our nuclear labs like Los Alamos or Lawrence Livermore. And just as the Department of Energy's been very successful in helping those laboratories take on dual purposes and concentrate a good deal of their work on non-military research & development, so we will do this now, concentrating on nuclear cities in Russia to try to get more of their scientists engaged in this way. On other point, Jim, of course, and that's beyond that. If you can help Russia's economy improve generally and keep them on the course to free markets through our own assistance programs, the IMF, you're going to help keep scientists--
JIM LEHRER: More people.
ROBERT BELL: --engaged in Russia.
JIM LEHRER: Ms. Stern, how do you read the scientist problem?
JESSICA STERN, Former NSC Staff: Well, I think there's no question the programs that we have underway in Russia are doing a tremendous amount of good. And some of them are very, very exciting. For example, there are Russian scientists working at Harvard Medical School to develop the diphtheria vaccine. There's a program where U.S. and Russian scientists are working together to uneradiate milk from the Chernobyl disaster. But, in the end, there really isn't a whole lot we can do. Unfortunately, Min Adam has recently reported that workers are being paid on average 150 a month. Salaries are on average a month behind, and eventually someone may give in to temptation, and this is a very serious problem.
JIM LEHRER: So you think Lebed is on to something, right?
JESSICA STERN: Well, I am concerned. I am concerned.
The suitcase bomb.
JIM LEHRER: Senator, the other question--another issue that was raised to Mr. Lebed, and he had raised it earlier, in earlier comments, and that's the suitcase bombs. Give us some background. How many are there? How many are unaccounted for? Where do you think they are? And what should we worry about?
SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: General Lebed raised this question with Congressman Weldon last year, and it resulted in a flurry of activity trying to determine just that, but, Jim, there is no way of knowing exactly what these devices are, how many there are, and how many are unaccounted for. And I thought it was interesting that General Lebed today did not make allegations specifically about the accountability. Now, our programs--that is the Nunn-Lugar and the Department of Energy programs--really come down to trying to work with over 70 laboratories and facilities to get accountability. This is extremely important for the Russians and for us, that we know where it is and how much, and we're even working on computer systems to try and get a listing of where it all is, so that General Lebed, as well as ourselves, might have some idea how to answer your question.
JIM LEHRER: Ms. Stern, where do you think these--do you, first of all, believe that there are 100--what Mr. Lebed said a year ago was that there were 100 that were missing and then 48 were found, and there's been silence ever since. How do you--what's your reading of that?
JESSICA STERN: Well, in fact, there hasn't been silence. Gen. Lebed has told a variety of stories; first, that 100 were perhaps missing. Later, he said that perhaps none were missing. Later, he seemed to be confused about the difference between atomic demolition munitions and artillery shells. And now he claims that perhaps, even if they're missing, they don't pose a threat. So it's really very, very hard to know what to think, but the very fact that we don't know what to think is the symptom of this problem. It is a very serious issue, the lack of security, both for warheads and materials.
JIM LEHRER: Suitcase bomb, is it literally the size of a suitcase?
JESSICA STERN: Yes, it could be.
JIM LEHRER: And it is--what were they developed for? Do we know? In other words, why did the Soviets develop these suitcase bombs?
JESSICA STERN: Well, at one point General Lebed said that they were sometimes used--there was an underwater version and a ground version; they could be used for blowing up a bridge, or possibly on the battlefield.
JIM LEHRER: But they were--were they used by--I read something that the KGB was even supposedly supposed to have some of these for what purposes?
JESSICA STERN: Well, I don't know the details, and the stories that have come out of Russia have changed over and over again, and unless the Russian government is forthcoming and tells us exactly what they were for, it's impossible for me to know.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Bell, why won't they tell us?
ROBERT BELL: Well, their government has been quite clear in denying that any of these former devices are missing, but I thinkó
JIM LEHRER: Do you believe that?
ROBERT BELL: We do not have evidence that any of them are missing. And the fact that Mr. Lebed himself is now backing off that story I think tends to give some credence to what their government's been saying. But I sort of think the nuclear suitcase issue has been the functional equivalent of the asteroid story. I mean, it's something that captures public attention; it's a nightmare scenario.
JIM LEHRER: In other words, you mean people like me can understand a suitcase bomb.
Defining protection in the post-Cold War world.
ROBERT BELL: Well, Jim, I didn't say that. A larger issue has been not warheads per se, where we think they do have good accountability and certainly very strong controls. The concern, more broadly, has been with fissile material, highly enriched uranium, plutonium that was spread through many parts of the former Soviet Union. Now, there there's a good news story. There were 53 separate locations in the former Soviet Union where highly enriched uranium or plutonium was produced or stored. As of January, January this year, the Department of Energy now has programs of cooperation with all 53. These are programs for material protection, accountability, and control. And by the end of this year, we will have completed our protective upgrade programs at over half of those sites. We have about $800 million we're going to spend between now and the next five years to make sure that all fifty-three are upgraded to those levels of protection.
JIM LEHRER: Now, define protection in this context.
ROBERT BELL: Protection is a combination of things: better fences, sensors, locks, seals, ways to make sure that terrorists cannot get in and that people that are working in there cannot just walk off with the material and sell it.
JIM LEHRER: Ms. Stern, what do you think about the level of protection right now?
JESSICA STERN: The Department of Energy has made incredible strides in assisting, working together with the Russian government and Russian scientists at these facilities to upgrade security. It's astonishing. If you go and visit those facilities, it's very exciting to talk to the scientists to see how thrilled they are about the progress that they've made working together with Department of Energy scientists. At the same time if a director of a facility decides that he wants to steal nuclear material, or if a corrupt government official decides that she wants to get in the business of selling nuclear material, no technology is going to prevent that. So there's really only so much that we can do. And we need to do more and expedite it. This, I think, is extremely important, but it is not enough.
JIM LEHRER: Senator, do you agree, not enough has yet been done on the protection issue?
SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: Of course, I agree. I wish that we had been able to accelerate the accounting process a lot more. It's one of these situations in which you have arguments as to whether ten or fifteen laboratories ought to be attacked almost on an annual basis when each one of them may have some dangers. But I see a lot of progress with the Department of Energy. I see a lot of possibilities for this year. The Russians are prepared to work with us on dismantling the warheads from SS-18's that have 10 warheads apiece.
JIM LEHRER: Those are missiles, right?
SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: That's right. And with the typhoon submarines, sort of very important breakthrough in terms of destruction of those weapons. In other words, it's up to the Congress how much we can do, but about $400 million has been appropriated regularly now for the last seven years, and I'm very hopeful that there will be strong support for the program this year.
What is the risk?
JIM LEHRER: Well, Senator generally, on the question that most Americans care about as just an overview, are these what remains of the nuclear weapons systems and nuclear capabilities, et cetera, that still exist after the end of the Cold War on the Soviet side and the independent state side: are they--is the United States at risk in any way because of this, as we sit here now?
SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: Yes, of course, we are at risk. The arms control treaties have achieved a great deal, but we have not yet seen signature by the Russians on the START II Treaty that would bring us down roughly to 3500 warheads apiece. The 6000 level is where we're stuck, although the programs we've been talking about tonight may dip below that simply because the Russians, themselves, know it's every expensive to maintain these weapons. The dilemma is not that they are aimed at us, but that the security around the weapons, the maintenance of them, these are dangerous prospects with people as we've already described today who are often are underpaid or not paid at all in a country in which the central government may not have the control that we have become accustomed in our country. So all these dictate very prudent, timely, and I would hope accelerated action.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Bell, how would you assess the risk to the United States from what's left over there?
ROBERT BELL: I agree with Senator Lugar in terms of a deliberate missile strike or an unauthorized or accidental missile strike tonight or tomorrow. It's inconceivable. In fact, while we sit here right now the commander in chief of the Russian strategic rocket forces is being shown around the United States by the commander-in-chief of our strategic forces. And tomorrow he's going to be in Cheyenne Mountain looking at all of our warning systems. So we're in an extraordinary degree of partnership with the Russians at that level. The danger and the risk is in the area of fissile material and the need to complete the task of getting that all under control and the know-how, the brains of the people that know how to do this, making sure they remain productively employed in Russia.
JIM LEHRER: And your risk assessment?
JESSICA STERN: I would agree with Senator Lugar. I think this is--we're much more threatened right now by Russia's weakness ironically than by its strength, and the first order of business is to expedite that program to secure the nuclear materials and also to expedite the program to assist Russia in securing its warheads, particularly in transit.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Ms. Stern, gentlemen, thank you.