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: Loose nukes, the nuclear weapons in the old Soviet Union. A House committee today considered the question of what happened to them. Kwame Holman begins our look.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
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A FRONTLINE Web site on Loose Nukes.
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KWAME HOLMAN: When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, a massive nuclear arsenal was broken into pieces. Suddenly, newly independent republics, such as Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, were in possession of some 30,000 nuclear warheads and the scientific and industrial complexes to produce more. Other new nations, such as Georgia, Latvia, and Uzbekistan, found themselves operating full-scale civilian nuclear reactor programs.
Through arms control agreements and other treaties the warheads have been removed from Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, and are being reduced drastically in Russia. However, as economic disarray hits the former Soviet republic, the infrastructure that safeguards the weapons suffered. Scientific facilities and the scientists, engineers, and the military personnel who run them were left with little government support.
The U.S. attempts to stabilize the situation.
In 1991, the U.S. adopted an initiative proposed by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar. It was designed to assist the former Soviet Republics in destroying nuclear and chemical weapons and to ensure weapons and material did not reach other countries. One of the more notable results of the program occurred in January 1996 when then Secretary of Defense William Perry was invited to the Ukraine to witness the destruction of a missile silo. In all, the Pentagon has spent more than $1 billion implementing the Nunn-Lugar anti-weapons program.
Recently, however, there have been reports former Soviet scientists may be helping countries such as Libya, Iran, and Iraq build their own nuclear arsenals. And at many enriched uranium storage sites inside the former republics, security reportedly has grown lax. From inside the U.S. government and elsewhere there have been repeated warnings, though little hard proof, that some weapons material from the former Soviet Union may be unaccounted for. There also is concern that small nuclear devices known as suitcase bombs developed prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union also are missing.
Alexander Lebed outlines a nightmare scenario.
ALEXANDER LEBED: (speaking through interpreter) But, frankly speaking, I'm not so much concerned with those nuclear devices, themselves. For purely technical reasons they are losing their capacity very fast.
KWAME HOLMAN: The potential danger posed by what insiders call "loose nukes" was taken up today by a House national security subcommittee. The key witness was Alexander Lebed, former national security adviser to Russian President Yeltsin.
ALEXANDER LEBED: (speaking through interpreter) Since ‘96, I've been trying to resolve another issue. And there are no guarantees against a possibility that say a rich dictator would buy somewhere, say in Africa, three square miles of land and disguised as a farm there will be a laboratory built who will gather together those, you know, often unique experts, would pay them handsomely, and gratefully they would do what they can do. And the world will face a problem of nuclear terrorism and nuclear blackmail.
Then there would be a show nuclear explosion of one device that would level to the ground a large village somewhere, and then they can call Moscow, New York, Tokyo, and demand any money. You know, there is a common principle, a general principle, that nuclear charges can be dismantled by those who assembled them. Well, these should be precisely the people who should service those charges. They should organize storage of the nuclear waste from those devices. These people must be gathered. Jobs must be given to these people. These people should be paid for loyalty--only then can we sleep calmly. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.