BETTY ANN BOWSER: When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the newly independent republics had the largest arsenal of nuclear warheads, enriched uranium, and plutonium in the world. Today, ten years after the end of Cold War, that is still the case: At least 1,500 metric tons of uranium and plutonium that could be used to make nuclear weapons remain scattered at locations all over the former Soviet Union, and much of it is unsecured. Experts worry what would happen if it fell into the wrong hands.
ROSE GOTTEMOELLER, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: We're concerned, for example, that a small nuclear warhead, even smaller than the Hiroshima bomb, could take out lower Manhattan completely, cause much more devastation than the devastation of the Twin Towers.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Rose Gottemoeller was the Clinton administration's top non-proliferation official at the Department of Energy. Now, she's a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment.
ROSE GOTTEMOELLER: Frankly, I think it's more likely, is the possibility of a radiological attack, that somebody would get a hold of either a warhead or some material and just break it apart over a geographic area, and that would cause a great deal of contamination-- not immediate deaths from blast effects, but perhaps longer-term contamination and deaths from nuclear materials.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Last year Gottemoeller visited a plutonium reprocessing plant in Russia.
ROSE GOTTEMOELLER: They didn't have any bars on its windows, just had a big wooden door with a huge key, like a medieval-size key, that they turned to open the door, and when you walked in there, basically down in the floor there were hundreds of buckets of plutonium. When I went into the facility one day, one of the, one of the technicians pulled one of them out of the floor and handed it to me and said, "feel it-- it feels warm. It's full of plutonium."
So it's the kind of situation where, if somebody was an insider, particularly, who needed some extra money, maybe hadn't been paid for a while, we were very concerned and had been very concerned that those buckets of plutonium could go missing.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Kenneth Luongo, who preceded Gottemoeller in the same job in the Clinton Administration, has also been a frequent visitor to Russian nuclear facilities.
KENNETH LUONGO, Russian American Nuclear Security Advisory Council: I've seen highly enriched uranium in a tube that would fit in a briefcase inside the equivalent of a gym locker with two strings and a wax seal.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Is that enough to make a bomb?
KENNETH LUONGO: It's enough to do serious damage, just sitting there behind a huge vault door that had a lock that could be opened with a skeleton key.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Attempts have been made to increase security. In the early '90s, Congress funded a Department of Energy program to help the Russians make it harder for their nuclear materials to get into the hands of terrorists.
Examples of what's been done can be seen in these DOE photographs: Removing an old wooden door at one Russian facility and replacing it with a steel secured door; at another, cutting the grass, paving over mud, and installing a heavy steel gate.
The Bush Administration's newly sworn-in DOE official in charge of the program, Linton Brooks, describes what else has been done.
LINTON BROOKS, Department of Energy, Nuclear Security Official: Secondly, we work with the Russians to try and consolidate the materials so there are fewer places to take highly enriched uranium which is weapons-usable, and blend it down into a form that's not. Third, in another part of our organization we are working with the Russians to actually eliminate plutonium.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But former Senator Sam Nunn, who co-sponsored legislation that created the DOE Program, says it's not enough.
SAM NUNN, Nuclear Threat Initiative: There's very little protection for about 60 percent of the weapons material in Russia. That doesn't mean there's no protection; it means there's very poor protection, and not the kind of security standards that we would even think about tolerating here.
We have helped them on about 40 percent of those vulnerable materials-- that's the good news; the bad news is that at the rate we're going, if we don't accelerate it, it's going to take us 20, 25 years at the rate we're going now to have the Russian weapons material under the proper kind of safeguard.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Nunn and other non- proliferation advocates are concerned about reports in the past few days from the International Atomic Energy Agency that indicate there have been 175 cases of trafficking in nuclear material in the past few years, and some evidence that suggests bin Laden's al-Qaida network has tried to buy nuclear materials.
SAM NUNN: Based on all the reports, we've seen that if they do have the ability to kill a major number, a massive number of people, they'll do it, and it seems to me that that should tell us, if they get control of nuclear weapons or nuclear materials from which they could make either an explosive nuclear device or a radiological device, that they would not hesitate to use it against America or against other people in the world.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: When he ran for office, President Bush said securing the nuclear material would be a priority.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The next President must press for an accurate inventory of all this material. And we must do more. I will ask the Congress to increase substantially our insistence to dismantle as many of Russia's weapons as possible as quickly as possible.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But one of the things the new Bush Administration cut in its budget was the $100 million allocated for the DOE program. Then last week Congress restored $70 million of that.
LINTON BROOKS: This program is not a charity program. This program is in the direct personal interest of the safety of every American. This is national security at its finest, where we prevent problems from happening, and so I don't think there's any dispute about the importance of this program in the administration.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Critics still complain that no money from the emergency homeland security appropriation was set aside, and more resources are needed.
ROSE GOTTEMOELLER: Well, frankly, I wish that both governments were taking it a little more seriously than they have. I haven't noticed in either Washington or Moscow a particular intensification of efforts since September 11. Clearly everybody's got other fish to fry. There are lots of active military issues to resolve. We're fighting a war.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: There is one thing both sides do agree on: They hope the program to secure Russian nuclear material will be on the agenda when Presidents Bush and Putin meet next week.