|SPLITTING THE ATOM|
Nuclear Bombs, Non-Proliferation and Test Bans
November 18, 1996
The Nuclear Weapons
Other Forum Topics
Recent efforts to pass a nuclear test ban
What are the benefits of the nuclear test ban treaty to the U.S.?
How are countries making it difficult to obtain nuclear material?
What is the situation in the former Soviet Union?
What type of control of nuclear weapons is there in other countries?
Can the world's nuclear arsenal really be dismantled?
A question from Richard Greggs of Buffalo, NY
I remember reading a story about a car in Prague that was found containing enough Plutonium for several nuclear bombs. What is being done to insure that nuclear materials are not easily obtainable? How real is the risk of weapons grade nuclear fuel or components sold on a free-lance basis?
Kenneth Luongo responds:
During the past three years, the United States Department of Energy has undertaken cooperative programs with Russia, the Newly Independent States (NIS), and the Baltics to improve systems for the protection, control and accounting of nuclear materials. These programs were initiated to minimize ,the potential for loss or proliferation of weapons-grade nuclear materials. The overall strategy for cooperation includes three general categories: Facility upgrades, development of a safeguards culture, and development of national standards for safeguards and accounting. Efforts underway include physical security upgrades, improvements to material control and accounting systems, training, and development of regulatory documents and procedures. For example, improvements at multiple sites in Russia, the NIS and the Baltics include the installation of modern fences, sensors and access control systems.
When the systems for protecting nuclear material were established in the Soviet Union, they were considered adequate under the Communist system. However, the changing economic, social and political environment has created the need to enhance these systems. The governments that own these direct-use nuclear materials are aware of this issue and actively support the cooperative efforts to improve the situation.
Leonard Spector of the Carnegie Endowment responds:
The risk of leakage of weapon-grade nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union is of great concern. There have been a half-dozen incidents in which very small quantities of weapon-grade materials have been confiscated by authorities. One of these incidents occurred in Prague in December 1994 when officials discovered 2.72 kilograms (much less than needed for a bomb) of highly-enriched uranium.
Reports of smuggling incidents, however, have decreased dramatically in the last two years, and no cases involving weapon-grade materials have been detected in 1996. This could indicate that smugglers have not succeeded in finding buyers, but could also signify that smugglers are learning to evade detection more effectively.
The United States is leading an international effort to secure nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union, and in Russia, in particular. This effort, to which the United States has allocated more than $1 billion over the last few years, focuses on improving the technology of Russia's material accounting system (by establishing computerized data bases) and physical security measures (by erecting more barriers to accessing nuclear materials). Considerable progress has been achieved to date, but a significant amount of work remains to be done.
Don Gross of the ACDA responds:
There was a car found in Prague with high grade nuclear materials, but it was only 2.7 kilograms of high-enriched uranium, only about one-tenth of what would be necessary to make a single bomb.
There have been many other reports of attempts to smuggle nuclear materials, but the vast majority of these have turned out to be complete frauds or to involve non-fissile materials. No nuclear weapons or material from nuclear weapons have ever, to the best of our knowledge, been involved in smuggling or unauthorized transfer.
All states that handle nuclear materials are required to have systems of material protection, control and accounting (MPC&A) under the rules of the International Atomic Energy Agency. This is an international obligation that is also in the self-interest of the state itself, which wants to ensure that responsible authorities know how much material exists, where it is located, and that it is safe from theft or embezzelment.However, because of the social, political and economic problems that have plagued the states of the former Soviet Union in recent years, many have felt it worthwhile to offer aid to them to ensure their MPC&A systems are maintained at world standards. A number of countries have contributed aid, but the United States alone, has been the largest contributor. The U.S. Department of Energy alone spends about $100 million every year to help the former Soviet Union secure and keep track of its nuclear materials.
How real is the risk of weapons grade nuclear fuel or components sold on a free-lance basis? It is certainly not out of the question, but so far the evidence suggests that the likelihood of significant quantitites of fissile materials being sold in this way is very small. This will only remain true however, if states devote the necessary resources to maintaining their MPC&A systems at a very high standard of effectiveness.