Interviews

DR. THOMAS COCHRAN

DR. THOMAS COCHRAN is the Director of the Nuclear Program of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He initiated of a series of joint nuclear weapons verification projects with the Soviet Academy of Sciences and he has served as a consultant to many government and non-government agencies on energy, non-proliferation, and nuclear reactor matters. He was the co-chairman of an international task force convened to offer recommendations to the Moscow Nuclear Safety Summit in April, 1996.

This interview was conducted in 1996.


Q: Tell me why you're concerned about the leakage or the possible leakage of nuclear material from the former Soviet Union.

MR. COCHRAN: Plutonium and highly enriched uraniums are the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons, and it only takes a few kilograms of either to make a nuclear weapon. And the information needed to design a crude device is publicly available, and so the only thing that stands between us and another nuclear explosion, essentially, is the availability of these small quantities of nuclear weapons usable materials.

Q: And once someone, a country, let's say, has fissile materials, they've skipped a lot of steps in developing nuclear weapons?

MR. COCHRAN: If you can steal this material, you buy yourself, in effect, five to ten years, or three--well, maybe not five. In the United States' case, with a Manhattan Project budget, they obtained these materials in a matter of two or three years. But for most countries, it would take several years to get these materials, if they had to produce them themselves.

Everyone should be worried about it because once these materials are stolen and diverted out of Russia, they can be manufactured into nuclear weapons anywhere--in the Middle East, in the Far East, in the United States, and anyone can then become a target, a terrorist target, or a target by a rogue state. The scenario that concerns me the most is not the Unabomber and his little house up in the mountains, making an atomic bomb.

But it's that someone would divert this material, sell it to an Iran, an Iraq, or Libya, North Korea, and the weapon would be manufactured by one of these rogue states, and then could be transported by terrorist groups.

Q: You've been many times to the former Soviet Union, Russia, to nuclear facilities there. Is it possible to describe the size of what you view as the problem?

MR. COCHRAN: Russia made more nuclear weapons and more nuclear weapons material than the United States. The peak stockpile of U.S. nuclear weapons was something like 32,000 in 1967. We believe Russia made around 45,000 nuclear weapons. We made a 100 tons of plutonium. They made 200 tons of plutonium.

They made about twice as much highly enriched uranium. They have more facilities where their plutonium was made; more enrichment plants. So they have more places where this material can be stolen from. And the facilities don't have adequate physical security, they don't have adequate material accounting.

And so the risk of diversion from a Russian facility is much, much higher than it is in the United States for example.

Q: So the claim that--that most of the people who've been caught have been amateurs doesn't make you sleep any better at night?

MR. COCHRAN: It means we're very lucky. It doesn't mean anything more than that.

Q: Was there ever a moment, in your opinion, when it might have been possible for the U.S. to help bottle up this problem?

MR. COCHRAN: I think we could have done more, earlier. Right after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990, late 1991, the Russian senior officials in the Ministry of Atomic Energy, senior officials in the Foreign Ministry, were very receptive to doing a whole number of things that would have permitted the United States to assist them in better control over their material.

We could, for example, have implemented at that time a data exchange where we would swap the amounts and locations of all our nuclear weapons-usable materials, and weapons, and thereby gotten access to the same information on the Russian side. We could have then followed that up with a program to tag and seal and bottle up these materials.

But the U.S. Government didn't take advantage of that opportunity. They waited too long. The program that was in place by the Department of Defense to address this issue simply didn't work for a couple of years, and no one in the White House sort of took charge and did anything about that.

Q: So you think there was a real window of opportunity?

MR. COCHRAN: I think there was, and it was--I think it was incompetence in several bureaucracies in the United States, including the National Security Council and the Department of Defense.

In the last years of the Bush administration, and the first years of the Clinton administration, there was no interest in having Russians mucking around in our weapons facilities. And as a consequence, there were elements in the White House and in the Department of Defense that just didn't want a data exchange.

Finally, the Clinton administration understood the issue and got on board, and developed, in 1994, a workable program. But we lost three years.

There are conservative elements in both countries that would not like to see the other country mucking around in their nuclear weapons and weapons facilities. For example, in Russia, there would be some elements in the government who see the Army and military falling on very hard economic times. They can't pay the Army. They can't get the equipment, and so forth.

And the nuclear weapons are seen as the weapons of last resort, as the crown jewels, and they simply don't want Americans having any access, in any way, to these materials or facilities. And they would see any access as just additional spying by the Americans and making the American threat even worse than it is now.

Q: And I've been struck, over and over, by how serious the problem and how concerned the scientists at the institutes are, and how frustrated, they are at the bureaucracy, at the political problems that prevent them from taking any more steps than they can.

MR. COCHRAN: The Congress wrote into that legislation, that wherever possible, the money needs to go to American contractors. Well, you can imagine the frustration on the part of the Russians, that first, they hear that we're going to spend 100s of millions of dollars aiding the Russian programs, and then they discover all that money goes to U.S. contractors, and they essentially get a few parts, and a lot of travel, but not any real aid to their own programs.

Q: You mentioned earlier the lab-to-lab program. What is your view of it now? It's had some successes?

MR. COCHRAN: I think it's had some successes and it will continue to have some successes, and it continues to be supported by the administration and the Congress in terms of its funding. There are two big limitations.

One is access to the more sensitive facilities in Russia, and as long as that access is denied, the U.S. experts, in effect have to rely on their Russian counterparts to translate what they are proposing to other sites, and without the Americans going and visiting the sites and seeing what the special problems are, and so forth.

There's another problem in that there are just a limited number of experts, even in the U.S., on protection of weapons-usable fissile material. And so it's hard to expand this program rapidly, because you just don't have the manpower on either side.

Q: Even if you had all the money you wanted.

MR. COCHRAN: Even if you had all the money.

Q: Another Russian defense, is that they're being unfairly singled out, that the U.S. cannot account for its nuclear materials stockpile, that there are shortfalls in our count of plutonium. Are the Russians right? Do they have a point with that?

MR. COCHRAN: Let's take plutonium, for example. We made 100 tons of plutonium. We can't account for a ton of it. Not--not a ton. We cannot account for 2.7 tons of it. You know, 2 to 3 percent of the material is somewhere. But probably bookkeeping--a combination of bookkeeping errors, and then waste, and so forth. In that sense, we have the same problem that they have.

But over a decade ago, the U.S. implemented a computerized system of tracking material that was never implemented in Russia. And so even on the accounting front, whereas we have our own problems in accounting for material, we nevertheless have a better system of tracking it today than the Russians do, and it would be helpful if some of the technology involved in our accounting system is transferred to Russia, so that they could better account for their own material.

And finally, we would all be better off if we had a program of trading this information and both countries accounting for both countries' materials. So there's some oversight and some checks, and as--as we know from the American experience, we'd be better off if this were all done publicly. So that people outside of government can provide even additional checks on where there are weaknesses or failures in the system.

Q: What do you think are the chances of this exchange of information, public oversight, et cetera?

MR. COCHRAN: I think it will happen eventually, but I don't think you can predict whether it'll happen next year, or in five years. You have to wait until there are like-minded people in both the United States Government and the Russian government.

Q: And what happens in the five years between now and then?

MR. COCHRAN: Well, I think we're going to have to cross our fingers. I mean, it's a simple matter of luck that there hasn't been detected, to date, a diversion of a large quantity of nuclear weapons-usable material from Russia. Some may have been diverted that we don't know about.

But if there hasn't been, it's been sheer luck, because the physical security is not there, and the incentives to divert the material are there, and there's a huge amount of material that's available to be stolen.

Q: Of the protections that we are helping to install, is there anything that would prevent a corrupt boss or a corrupt supervisor, or three corrupt people inside an institute?

MR. COCHRAN: This equipment primarily provides protection against sort of the single insider acting on his own to divert material. A lower level employee.

It doesn't provide real protection, or adequate protection, I should say against a collusion of individuals involving a member of the guard force or senior manager in the plant. And that's something one should be concerned about, because there have been cases of diversion not involving nuclear weapons material but other materials that are used in weapons from the same institutes, where senior management officials were involved in the diversion.

And those individuals can defeat the types of equipment that we're providing to the Russians.

And in fact, ultimately, you know, no system is foolproof, because when you think about it, whatever system you put in there, a collusion of individuals can analyze that system and figure out how to beat it, and just do the extra that's required to beat it.

And so it's difficult, under any circumstances, but in the Russian case it's--it's exceedingly difficult because the equipment we're providing just doesn't go far enough.

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