BEFORE THE DELUGE? ASSESSING THE THREAT OF NUCLEAR LEAKAGE FROM THE POST-SOVIET STATES.
William C. Potter
(Director of the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies at the Monterey
Institute of International Studies)
"Arms Control Today"
The West no longer can rely on luck to prevent nuclear leakage from the
states of the former Soviet Union (FSU). By mid-1995, the number of confirmed
cases of significant nuclear smuggling had grown to at least four. The size of
the seizures also has increased to kilogram quantities of weapon-usable
material. Additional quantities of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium
have been diverted from Russian nuclear facilities, but were seized prior to
Clearly, we have now moved beyond the realm of hypothetical threats of
nuclear leakage, and denying the problem is counterproductive. But a nuclear
deluge is not inevitable and can be averted with short and longer-term
Many of the important characteristics of each of the significant cases of
diversion or smuggling of HEU and plutonium that originated in the FSU are
summarized in the table on p. 10. What follows are brief summaries that
highlight the patterns of behavior of suppliers, smugglers and endusers in
PODOLSK, RUSSIA: 1992
The first confirmed case involving the diversion of HEU or plutonium from
nuclear facilities in the FSU occurred at the Luch Scientific Production
Association in Podolsk, a town about 40 kilometers southwest of Moscow.
Between late May and early September 1992, Leonid Smirnov, a chemical
engineer and long-time employee of the plant, stole approximately one-an-a-half
kilograms of weapons-grade HEU. He accumulated this quantity gradually by
taking material out of the plant in the form of uranium dioxide (UO2) powder in
50-70 gram-size glass jars on 20 to 25 occasions and storing it on his
Smirnov had no accomplices and was apparently motivated by an article he
read in Komsomolskaya Pravda about the fortune to be made selling HEU. He was
apprehended at the Podolsk railroad terminal on October 9, 1992, along with
most of the HEU concealed in three lead cylinders. Smirnov had planned to
travel to Moscow to sell nuclear material, and while he initially confessed to
having in mind a specific customer from the Caucasus, the official
investigation concluded that no concrete buyer had been contacted.
Smirnov was convicted under Articles 223.2 and 223.3 of the 1988 Penal
Code for stealing and storing radioactive material and could have received up
to 10 years of imprisonment. Instead, on March 11, 1993, he was sentenced to
three years probation and released from prison.
ANDREEVA GUBA, RUSSIA: 1993
One of the earliest confirmed thefts of HEU occurred in late July 1993 at
a storage facility of the Northern Fleet naval base at Andreeva Guba, 40
kilometers from the Norwegian border. Two naval servicemen were arrested in the
case and accused of stealing 1.8 kilograms of HEU from two fuel assemblies. The
material, which was recovered, was enriched to approximately 30 percent
uranium-235 (U-235) and used as fuel for third-generation naval reactors. The
men said they were operating under instructions from two naval officers--both
of whom continue to deny involvement in the theft. The case is expected to go
to trial this fall, with at least four people likely to be charged. Additional
suspects associated with a Murmansk-St. Petersburg criminal ring are still
SEVMORPUT SHIPYARD, RUSSIA
On November 27, 1993, Captain Alexei Tikhomirov and Oleg Baranov slipped through and uprotected gate and into the Sevmorput (Rosta) shipyard near Mirmansk--one of the Russian navy's main storage facilities for nuclear fuel. Tikhimirov, a retired naval officer whose brother Dmitry was working at the shipyard, climbed through one of many holes in the fence surrounding Fuel Storage 3-30 and sawed through a padlock on the back door and pried open the door with a metal pole he found next to the building. Inside, he located the containers of fresh submarine fuel, broke off parts of three assemblies from a VM-4-AM reactor core, stuffed the material containing 4.5 kilograms of uranium (enriched to approximately 20 percent U-235) into a bag, and retraced his steps.
The theft was soon discovered because the perpetrators carelessly left
open the back door of the storage building. But the culprits were not
apprehended, and the material was not recovered from Baranov's garage in the
town of Polyarny until six months later when Dmitry Tikhomirov told a fellow
officer about the theft and asked for help in selling the stolen merchandise.
Apparently, despite months of careful planning to steal the material, the men
had not figured out a way to dispose of it.
In early 1994, the three defendants, all active duty or retired naval
officers with no prior criminal records, went to trial. Two received
three-and-a-half year prison sentences; the third was freed. According to the
military prosecutor investigating the case, at the time of the theft, "potatoes
were guarded better than naval fuel," even though most of the fuel was highly
enriched and some of it was weapons-grade.(1) The first and last time the
contents of most of the fuel canisters were checked, the prosecutor says, was
at the fuel fabrication plant. Because of the inadequate material control and
accountancy, he contends, the diversion "could have been concealed for 10 years
or longer" if the open back door had not attracted the guard's
TENGEN, GERMANY: 1994
The first known smuggling case involving more than minuscule quantities of
HEU or plutonium occurred May 10, 1994, when German police in Tengen,
Baden-Wuerttemberg, inadvertently discovered a vial containing 5.6 grams of
nearly pure plutonium-239 (pu-239) in the garage of Adolf Jaekle. At the time,
Jaekle was under investigation for counterfeiting.
Although the origin of the super-grade material has not been determined
definiteively, there are indications it was produced for non-weapon purposes at
the Soviet nuclear weapons laboratory Arzamas-16 (recently renamed Kremlev).
According to the prevailing theory at the U.S. Department of Energy, the vial
of Pu-239 was part of a total inventory of no more than several kilograms of
very pure plutonium used as a "standards sample" to measure fission
cross-sections and the energy levels of nulcei. Energy officials hypothesize
that samples similar to the amount seized in Tengen may have been distributed
by Arzamas-16 to dozens of nuclear research laboratories in the FSU, as well as
in Eastern Europe.
At present, many important questions about the Tengen case remain
unresolved, especially the plutonium supply route and the intended end-user, if
any. But the case is significant--if for no other reason than that it was not a
police "sting" operation.
LANDSHUT, GERMANY: 1994
In August 1994, Bavarian authorities reported that in Landshut on June 13,
1994, they had seized 800 milligrams of HEU enriched to 87.7 percent U-235. On
August 8, they arrested a German real estate dealer as the central figure in a
group accused of illegal commerce in, and possession of, nuclear material. Also
arrested as part of a sting operation were five men from Slovakia and Czech
Republic. Based on spectrometric analyses of the HEU and its enrichment level,
authorities at the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM), the organization
responsible for applying safeguards to all civilian nuclear facilities within
the European Union, believe the material most likely was produced for naval
reactor or research reactor fuel, not weapons. Although only a small quantity
of HEU was seized, the case is potentially significant because the material is
identical to a much larger amount seized in Prague six months later.
MUNICH, GERMANY: 1994
The last of the significant German smuggling cases occurred August 10,
1994, when the Bavarian Landeskriminalant (LKA) seized a suitcase being
unloaded from Lufthansa Airline Flight 3369 from Moscow at Munich's Franz Jozef
Strauss Airport. It contained a plastic bag with several hundred grams of
lithium-6 (used to make tritium) and a metal container holding 560 grams of
mixed oxides of uranium and plutonium. The result of a sting operation, this
was by far the largest seizure of weapon-usable material (363 grams of Pu-239)
recovered in the West. Authorities arrested Justiniano Torres Benitez, a
Columbian national, and Spaniards Julio Oroz and Javier Bengoechea Arratibel at
Initially, German authorities asserted that the plutonium seized in Munich
was produced in Russia for use in weapons. Russian officials not only denied
those charges, but maintained the material did not originate in Russia. In
Moscow's view--or at least that of the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy
(MINATOM)--the entire operation was staged to embarrass the Russian nuclear
industry and undercut its international competitiveness. Some MINATOM spokesman
went so far as to accuse German intelligence agents of planting the plutonium
on the plane.
German authorities now concede they knew in advance that the plutonium
would be on the flight from Moscow, but justify their failure to notify Russian
officials by saying they were concerned about links between Russian criminal
groups and security personnel.
Western authorities are now convinced this plutonium, like that recovered
in Tengen and Landshut, was not produced for weapons. Although strong
circumstantial evidence suggests the plutonium is of Soviet origin, as Mark
Hibbs points out, the absence of a catalog of "signatures" from Soviet fissile
material production facilities makes it impossible to conclude on technical
grounds that the plutonium--possibly from a batch of experimental reactor
fuel--comes from a Russian reactor fuel depot instead of one in Kazakhstan,
Ukraine or Eastern Europe.(3)
The Luftansa case was significant in demonstrating that sizeable
quantities of weapon-usable material could be procured. However, in this
instance the demand appears to have been artificially created by German
intelligence and security service officials. This possible violation of German
law by the German foreign intelligence agency (BND) and its head, Bernd
Schmidbauer, came under investigation in April 1995, by the Parliamentary
Control Commission. Reportedly, millions of dollars were made available to the
smugglers as a bank credit to purchase the material. The BND and the LKA also
are accused of offering their undercover operative a bonus of 300,000 Deutchmarks
($215,000) if he succeeded in obtaining plutonium from a smuggler.
Largely because of the way the parties were enticed to commit the crime
and the absence of evidence demonstrating the involvement of any buyer other
than the BND or LKA, in July 1995 the Munich District Court gave light
sentences to the three confessed smugglers.
Although they might have gotten up to 10 years under the Federal Weapons
of War Control Act, the harshest sentence was four years and 10 months, given
to Benitez. Arratibel received three years and nine months, and Oroz received
PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC: 1994
On December 14, 1994, Prague police, acting on an anonymous telephone tip,
seized 2.72 kilograms of HEU from the back seat of a car parked on a busy
street in the Czech capital. The HEU, contained in two cylindrical metal
canisters and enriched to 87.7 percent U-235, was in the form of UO2
Police arrested the car's owner, Jaroslav Vagner, from the Czech Republic,
and his two car companions from Belarus and Ukraine. All three had backgrounds
in the nuclear industry. Vagner worked for several years at the Nuclear
Research Institute at Rez and at nuclear power stations at Dukovany and
Temelin, reportedly leaving Temelin over poor wages. Czech police say the
others also were "nuclear workers" who had come to the Czech Republic in the
past year. Media reports in March 1995 indicate that Czech police have arrested
two more people, one allegedly a Prague police officer.
The material--the largest quantity of weapon-usable nuclear contraband
found outside of Russia to date--appears to be identical to the 800 milligrams
of HEU recovered in Landshut in June 1994. As in the Landshut case, there is no
consensus as to origin. Czech officials first claimed the material was
irradiated in a reactor, separated in a reprocessing plant and then
re-enriched. Some analysts think the material may be a "cocktail" consisting of
uranium from several sources--perhaps designed intentionally to mask the
production site(s). Others think the material has been reprocessed from spent
RBMK fuel or is a blend of reprocessed uranium and other stock. All experts
agree, however, that the material did not originate from weapon stocks and was
more likely produced to fuel naval or research reactors. Consistent with this
interpretation, Czech police think the HEU they seized may have been provided
by criminals who supply stolen submarine or icebreaker fuel from Russia's
Additional Cases of Concern
The seizures of nuclear material in Podolsk, Andreeva Guba,
Polyarny, Tengen, Landshut, Munich and Prague have been singled out as
proliferation-significant because, unlike other reported cases of attempted
nuclear smuggling, they involved more than minuscule quantities of HEU or
plutonium and without question occurred and are not mere rumor. At least three
more cases are also likely to be of proliferation concern, but do not as clearly
meet the standard of unambiguous evidence with respect to either independent
sources to corroborate the diversion, or the size or enrichment level of the
material. The three cases involve the seizure of a large cache of beryllium,
including a far smaller quantity of a beryllium and HEU alloy, in the basement
of a bank in Vilnius, Lithuania, in May 1993; the reported recovery in St.
Petersburg, Russia, in June 1994 of 3.05 kilograms of weapon-usable HEU in the
form of uranium dioxide powder, allegedly stolen from a nuclear facility (most
likely Electrostal) near Moscow in March 1994: and, the seizure of six
kilograms of enriched uranium (probably 20 percent U-235) in March 1995 in
The St. Petersburg case is potentially the most serious of the three in
terms of reported quantity and enrichment level. However, after initial
Russian press accounts, there has been no new information on the case or news
of any criminal investigation or trial (if any took place). Nonetheless, a
number of U.S. government agencies believe the theft occured. FBI Director
Louis Freeh included it in a list of possible nuclear thefts in his May 1994
congressional testimony. There is also speculation that the material is part
of the same HEU stockpile from which the Landshut and Prague material were
The Vilnius case, discussed in more detail below, is intriquing mainly
because of the possible complicity of government authorities. At issue in the
March 1995 Kiev seizure is the level of enrichment of the six kilograms of
uranium. Although the U.S. Energy Department is inclined to categorize the
fuel as low-enriched of the six kilograms of uranium for power reactors--based
upon the cylindrical shape of the pellets in which it is contained--analysis of
the material by the Kiev Institute for Nuclear Research indicates an enrichment
level of 20 percent, consistent with much naval reactor fuel.
In examining various areas of nuclear proliferation, attention also should
be given to the largely unnoticed but flourishing trade in nuclear-related,
dual-use materials and technologies. These are 65 items such as beryllium,
zirconium and hafnium that have civilian and nuclear weapon uses and
are subject to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) export guidelines. Russia,
Kazakhstan and Ukraine are major producers of dual-use nuclear goods, and the
Baltic states have served as principal transhippers, especially of rare-earth
The seizure by U. S. Customs agents of over seven tons of
Ukrainian-produced zirconium in June is the most celebrated case.
Patterns of Behavior
Analysis of confirmed cases of HEU and plutonium theft or diversions
reveals some interesting, if not statistically significant, patterns. For
example, it is apparent that although the number of proliferation-significant
instances remains small, the quantity of nuclear material offered for sale has
increased. Most material recovered to date has been enriched uranium, usually
in the form of uranium dioxide powder. The preponderance of seizures involving
definite or possible fresh fuel for propulsion reactors also is striking. The
other cases involved nuclear material similar to that found in many of the more
than 50 sites in the FSU at which HEU and plutonium are present. Although a
number of these facilities in Russia are engaged in civilian and
military-related nuclear activities, none of the seizures to date provides
evidence of having come from nuclear weapons.
Based upon available information, it is difficult to generalize about the
initial procurers of proliferation-significant nuclear material. Most reliable
information is limited to those parties who were unsuccessful in selling the
material. Nonetheless, we know that many suppliers were "insiders" who had
worked or were then working at nuclear research institutes or naval bases.
Most of the perpetrators apparently did not have customers in hand (other than
perhaps German intelligence authorities) at the time of the diversions.
Rather, evidence suggests that the thieves--especially those who were
apprehended--generally were ill-informed novices in the business of nuclear
trafficking who were disaffected with their economic lot and looking to make a
quick profit. This applies even more clearly to traffickers in nuclear
material of no proliferation significance, some of whom perished through
careless handling of their radioactive contraband.
Many analysts think an "end-user market" exists for weapon-usable nuclear
material. The most likely end-users--those who would actually use the
material, not resell it for a profit--are perceived to be rogue states with
nuclear-weapon ambitions. However, a review of cases in which HEU and
plutonium actually have been diverted does not provide reliable evidence that
end-users have been active in the illicit Russian nuclear marketplace to
One legitimate question worth examining is "How confident should we be
that proliferation-significant smuggling of nulcear material from the FSU has
simply excaped detection?" It is known, for example, that after the collapse
of the Soviet Union, Iran bacame particularly interested in Kazakhstan's
nuclear-related assets, including those at the Ulba Metallurgy Plant in
Ust-Kamenogorsk. Concern about this prompted Kazakhstan and the United States
to cooperate in "Project Sapphire" to airlift 600 kilograms of HEU from the
Ulba plant to the United States in November 1994.
Some media reports also suggest that prior to his arrest, Jaekle might
have had discussions with represenatives of a nuclear weapons aspirant. But
this nuclear supply chain thesis is not yet borne out by the available date.
There are, however, indications that some states may be seeking to exploit
imprudent state-sanctioned nuclear exports from Russia to meet their nuclear
New and Old Nuclear Threats
In contrast to 1994, most evidence for 1995 indicates a pause in
the acceleration of proliferation-significant diversions, but it also suggests
the existence of conditions conducive to an exponential rise in the rate of
nuclear leakage from the FSU. These factors include enormous inventories of
weapon-usable materials, underdeveloped safeguards, inadequate export controls,
a rise in political instability and corruption and a corresponding decline in
the perception of national (as opposed to individual and organizational)
interests. The material shortages so commonplace in the Soviet Union did not
apply to nuclear weapons or weapon-usable material. Russia's nuclear material
inventory--distributed over more than 50 sites --is estimated to consist of
1,100 to 1,300 tons of HEU and 165 tons of separated, weapon-usable
The bulk of Soviet nuclear assets are concentrated in Russia, but
proliferation-significant quantities of weapons-grade material are in Belarus,
Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Although there are unlikely to be any more hidden
caches the size of that discovered -- and removed -- from Ust-Kamenogorsk, it
would not be surprising to see the declared nuclear material inventories in a
number of the post-Soviet states increase as International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA) inspections take place. Indicative of this phenomenon was the five-fold increase in weapons-grade uranium reported to the IAEA this year at
Ukraine's Khar'kiv Physical-Technical Institute (up from 15 to 75 kilograms of
HEU enriched to 90 percent U-235), and the IAEA's discovery during its February
1995 visit to Sevastopol of a previously undeclared research reactor at the
Navy Academy of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.
International safeguards are designed to deter national governments
from diverting nuclear material from peaceful to military purposes and to
detect diversion if it occurs. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, all of
the non-Russian successor states have acceded to the NPT as non-nuclear weapon
states and many (Armenia, Belarus, Estonia, Zazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania,
Ukraine and Uzbekistan) have concluded safeguards agreements with the
Although safeguards agreements are currently only in effect for Armenia,
Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine, there is no longer much worry that any Soviet
successor states will attempt to divert nuclear material for indigenous weapon
Of far greater concerns is the prospect that post-Soviet states with
nuclear assets will be unable to meet reasonable standards for safeguards
directed against non-state actors. These safeguards emphasize physical
security, material control and accounting (MPC&A) and refer to the measures
undertaken by national governments "to detect, deter, prevent or respond to the
unauthorized possession or use of significant quantities of nuclear materials
through theft or diversion and sabotage of nuclear facilities."
Conventional wisdom has it that the Soviet nuclear fuel cycle was secure
from penetration by outsiders because of the country's authoritarian political
system, pervasive network of internal security and the close integration of its
civilian and military components. The vulnerability of the most sensitive
nuclear facilities--uranium enrichment and conversion plants and plutonium
reprocessing and storage facilities--also was reduced by their location in
relatively remote and stable regions.
Physical protection probably remains better today at Russian uranium
enrichment and plutonium production sites than at research institutes, fuel
storage facilities for propulsion reactors and non-standard fuel cycle
facilities. But an underdeveloped physical protection culture, along with
declining resources for workers in the nuclear sector, combine to undermine the
security of all Russian nuclear installations. This is apparent even at those
sites where large quantities of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium are
present. Although security against external threats generally is high, until
recently little attention has been given to the threat of diversion by
insiders. The threat is a function of both inadequate physical
security and the remnants of the Soviet approach to material control, which
emphasized centrally-planned production targets and personal responsibility,
rather than facility-specific inventory accounting. Especially prone to
neglect in terms of measurement and reporting, and a point of diversion
vulnerability now recognized by MINATOM, were fissile material waste streams
and scraps that did not count toward the production quota. This
less-than-systematic approach to material accounting may help to explain the
extraordinary recovery by members of the Project Sapphire team of more HEU than
Kazakhstan thought was in its Ulba plant inventory.
Progress now is being made to provide Western assistance to upgrade
MPC&A at key Russian nuclear facilities, but a tremendous gap remains
between the magnitude of the national safeguards problem and efforts so far
directed toward its resolution. Among those nuclear sites identified by the
United States as most in need of safeguards improvements are fuel cycle
facilities at Tomsk-7 (Seversk), the Mayak Chemical Combine, Krasnoyarsk-26
(Zelenogorsk), Sverdlovsk-44 (Novouralsk), the Electrostal Machine Building
Plant and the Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrate Plant. Other research centers
targeted for priority MPC&A assistance are the Kurchatov Institute
(Moscow); the Institute of Physics and Power Engineering (Obninsk); the
Scientific Research Institute for Atomic Reactors (Dmitrovgrad); and the Luch
Scientific Production Association (Podolsk).
Although security at military facilities probably remains much higher than
at civilian nuclear sites, the situation may be less sanguine than previously
recognized. According to one recent report, "many nuclear warheads are now
being stored in facilities constructed for the storage of conventional
munitions under less than adequate physical security." These warheads may be
particularly vulnerable to theft by disgruntled former or active duty Russian
Special Operations (Spetsnaz) troops who are trained to use atomic demolition
weapons and who may have knowledge of, and access to, nuclear weapons storage
On occasion, MINATOM officials have acknowleged that interim storage
facilities from dimantled weapons are "not very safe" and "are not adequately
guarded." Warhead security during transportation also is a source of official
concern, as is the lack of trained personnel and modern safeguards equipment.
Russian officials privately have confided that security is particularly suspect
at warhead disassembly facilities in Zarechny (formerly Penza-19), Trekhgorny
(formerly Zlatoust-36) and Lesnoy (formerly Sverdlovsk-45), as well as at
certain weapons component facilities at Kremlev (formerly Arzamas-16).
Although there are not yet any confirmed cases of warhead diversion from these
or other sites, Russian scientists familiar with the case have told this author
there is at least one instance in which a fissile material component from a
warhead may have been lost and then recovered.
In another alarming case, inspectors from the Russian Defense Ministry
reportedly discovered a temporarily deserted SS-25 nuclear missile battery.
Its crew had left the site for several hours to find food. While it is hoped
such stories are apocryphal, the general state of disarray and economical
malaise in the Russian military and nuclear weapons complex argues against
dismissing them out of hand.
The risk of nuclear terrorism was minimal in the Soviet Union, due
partly to the pervasiveness of internal security measures. Although still low,
the probability of non-state actors resorting to nuclear violence has risen
with the fracturing of the Soviet state, ethnic upheaval and the location of
nuclear assets proximate to regions experiencing organized violence. The
probability is likely to increase if political turbulence in the FSU grows,
economic chaos ensues, ethnic violence escalates and central authority and
control diminish. Nuclear terrorism subsumes a variety of threats. The one
most often discussed in the Western press involves the seizure of nuclear
weapons by a renegade military movement. This possibility was reduced, but not
eliminated, by the transfer of all tactical nuclear weapons to Russian
territory. Tactical nuclear weapons are apt to be preferred by terrorists
because they are relatively small and because the older ones do not have
"permissive action links" (PALS) to protect their unauthorized use.
A second potential terrorist threat is the possible use of conventional
weapons against a civilian nuclear power facility. Although the probability of
success is not high, Russian officials take seriously the possibility of
terrorist attacks by Chechen commandos against nuclear power installations.
Some nuclear power facilities, for example, reportedly are now guarded by rapid
reaction troops as well as police units. Armenian authorities are also alert to the
potential terrorist risk that is posed by the scheduled restart later this year
of the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, which was shut down in 1989.
Implementing planned physical protection upgrades at nuclear sites in
Russia and other Soviet successor states will go a long way toward reducing the
danger of nuclear terrorism in the region. However, the vast stocks of
weapon-usable material in Russia and the difficulty at the present time of
distinguishing between "material unaccounted for" and stolen material, enhances
the credibility of extortionist threats by terrorists--even if they are
unfounded. Illustrative of this dilemma was the decision by Lithuanian
authorities in November 1994 to shut down temporarily the Ignalina Nuclear
Power Plant in response to a terrorist threat by local organized crime figures.
The threat had to be treated as credible, especially because two years earlier
an employee at Ignalina sabotaged the plant's computer system by introducing
There is broad agreement among analysts that crime is mushrooming in
the FSU, and while they may differ on what constitutes "organized crime," most
discern rampant organized criminal activity. But there is little agreement
--and even less reliable information--on the extent of organized criminal
activity (or interest) in nuclear material trafficking. To date, most evidence
linking organized criminal groups to nuclear material smuggling is anecdotal
and not well documented. U.S. officials thus continue to maintain there is no
solid evidence that organized criminal groups--as distinct from individuals
with possible ties to organized crime--have been directly engaged in the theft
or trafficking of sensitive nuclear materials. This assessment is consistent
with a careful analysis of the open source literature on nuclear smuggling, but
a definitive study has yet to be written.
Less reassuring, however, are indications that a blurred line separates
legal and illicit nuclear trade and criminal and state-sanctioned activites in
the FSU. The ambiguous divide is illustrated by the May 1993 Vilnius case
where authorities discovered 27 boxes in the basement of the Innovation Bank
that contained approximately four tons of beryllium pieces, some of them
mechanically implanted with HEU. Only the presence of a small amount of
U-235--probably no more than 150 grams--allowed authorities to seize the cache,
because Lithuania had no laws or regulations governing possession or commerce
in dual-use nuclear-related material.
A team of U.S. reporters that investigated the case conclude the material
probably originated at the Institute of Physics and Power Engineering at
Obninsk and was shipped to Vilnius by a firm from Sverdlovsk. Officials from
Sverdlovsk region were also reportedly involved in the deal. Although Russia
does have regulations governing the export of beryllium, and notwithstanding
the use of improperly documented export papers by the Russian shippers, Russian
authorities chose not to treat the transaction as an illegal export. As a
result, the beryllium--minus those pieces contaminated by HEU--has been
returned to the Innovation Bank, where it now sits as collateral for a loan
(presumably made to its Russian owners.)
Under such circumstances of under-developed law and governmental
acquiescence in questionable nuclear commerce, it is difficult to say what
constitutes organized criminal nuclear activity. But it is possible to think
of a number of reasons why organized criminal groups might rationally decide to
shy away from nuclear smuggling. As Renselaer Lee has noted, "few other
activities seem as likely to arouse the interest of Western security service
and to generate international pressure for a Russian government crackdown on
the organized crime sector." And, as Lee points out, unlike narcotics, no mass
market for sensitive nuclear materials exists, buyers may be hard to locate,
and special precautions must be taken in handling the contraband. These are
persuasive disincentives. They may not always prevail, however, especialy
among criminal groups willing to take high risks for short-term profits rather
than developing long-term extortion relationships. Some research shows that in
the revolutionary economic and social conditions of post-Soviet Russia criminal
groups appear less inclined than their Western counterparts to seek "long-term
relationships that allow both organized crime groups and businesses to
prosper." It also should be anticipated that organized crime will gravitate
toward nuclear smuggling if weapon-usable material is, first of all,
accessible in quantity and if, secondly, real end-users become active in the
nuclear marketplace. Regrettably, the sting operations of 1994 have
confirmed the first of these two conditions, and in so doing also may
unintentionally stimulate end-user activity.
Export Controls and Problems
Most nuclear material and related technology and equipment that
leaves the FSU is exported through official channels. Foreign access to nuclear
supplies from the successor states, therefore, depends on both national export
policy and the effectiveness of each state's export controls.
As the inheritor of the well-developed Soviet export control structure ,
the Russian system from the outset possessed considerable technical know-how. As
a result, most of the formal changes introduced since 1992 have involved
efforts to reorganize the existing bureacracy and to make the prior system more
compatible with the rise of non-governmental exporters and more market-based
One of the major organizational innovations was the creation in April 1992
of an intergovernmental Russian Federation Export Control Commission, which was
set up to coordinate state export control policy in pursuit of Russia's
non-proliferation objectives. In practice, however, export decisions involving
nuclear material and technology increasingly have been taken by MINATOM and the
Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations, with little input by the Foreign
Affairs Ministry or the Export Control Commission. This fact, together with the
difficult economic and political constraints under which the Russian export
control system functions, helps to explain a number of recent, imprudent
Russian nuclear export initiatives. These include contracts to provide nuclear
assistance to Iran (involving completion of the Bushehr nuclear plant and
training for Iranian nuclear scientists); to assist the development of China's
nuclear program, including the provision of reactors and a uranium enrichment
plant; and to build two 1,000-mega-watt (electric) VVER-type reactors at
Koodangulan in India.
The Indian deal, if implemented, is especially serious because it would
appear to be at odds with Russia's pledge to insist upon full-scope
international safeguards as a condition of nuclear export. These
state-sanctioned nuclear initiatives, which subordiante non-proliferation
objectives to those of economic gain, also send the wrong signals to private
nuclear entrepreneurs within Russia and to other Soviet successor states.
Unlike Russia, the other post-Soviet governments inherited little in the
way of export control structures or expertise. Although there has been some
progress in developing new export control procedures in Belarus, Kazakhstan and
expecially Ukraine, there is no apparent high-level political commitment to
stringent export controls in these states. There are recent instances, for
example, in which Ukraine has approved dual-use nuclear exports that were not
consistent with its own established export control procedures.
The effectiveness of Russia's export controls also is undermined by the
absence of effective customs controls between Russian and the other post-Soviet
republics. This factor, combined with underdeveloped export controls outside of
Russia and a lack of equipment for monitoring illicit nuclear trade means that
sensitive defense goods--including nuclear material and technology--can pass
readily from Russia or Ukraine to other post-Soviet states, and from there to
countries of major proliferation concern. If anything, this problem of the
'weakest link" will increase if recent agreements to establish customs unions,
and unregulated trade between Belarus and Russia and Russia and Kazakhstan, are
Many Western analysts and officials maintain that the seizures of HEU and
plutonium last year were the first wave of the long-anticipated flood of
nuclear contraband. This forecast has not yet been borne out in 1995, although
the potential for a sharp rise in nuclear leakage persists. A coordianted plan
of short- and longer-term corrective measures should be vigorously pursued to
reduce the chances that these dire predictions become true.
The first area for improvement involves U.S.-Russian cooperation. U.S.
denuclearization assistance through the government-to-governemnt Cooperative
Threat Reduction (CTR) program and the lab-to-lab effort have contributed
significantly to safeguarding Russia's nuclear assets, especially in the past
nine months. The potential impact of U.S. assistance, however, has been
diminshed by the asymmetry in the donor-recipient relationship and by perceived
differences in the program objectives of the donor and recipient states.
Officials in the FSU, particularly, have resented the CTR legislative
requirements for stringent audits and the purchase of U.S. equipment.
To minimize these impediments and expedite improvements in national
safeguards, the United States and Russia must move from a donor-recipient
relationahip to true cooperation, with both sides working together to promote
non-proliferation objectives at home and abroad. As Graham Allison and his
colleagues at Harvard point out, this means forging a bilateral "shared sense
of mission" and introducing a greater degree of reciprocity in MPC&A
activities--even when the problems of safeguards may not be perfectly
Institutional resistance in both countries is a serious obstacle to greater
collaboration. The U.S. Navy, for example, has been unenthusiastic about
Russian proposals to extend MPC&A cooperation to naval fuel because of the
reciprocal access and transparency such an arrangement might entail. MONATOM
understandably is wary of assistance that might discredit its past operations
and undermine its present dominance in the nuclear sector. U.S. offers of
financial assistance for inventory accounting and material control thus may be
resisted, even if such assistance might serve other institutional objectives.
An effective joint program to secure Russian nuclear stocks must therefore
include appropriate incentives that will ensure MINATOM's cooperation.
Probably the most financially lucrative incentive is the timely
implementation of the 1992 U.S. agreement to purchase 500 tons of surplus
Russian weapons-grade HEU (blended down to low-enriched uranium) for $12
billion. The United States should seek to accelerate the HEU deal, which has
moved very slowly until recently, and to purchase additional weapon-usable
fissile material from dismantled weapons and non-weapons stocks. It may be
possible, for example, to purchase up to 100 tons of surplus Russian
weapons-grade plutonium for fabrication into reactor fuel at the nearly
completed Siemens plant at Hanau, Germany. A portion of the payments could be
earmarked for MPC&A improvements and to assist in the conversion away from
plutonium activities of Russia's three "plutonium cities"--Tomsk-7,
Krasnoyarsk-26, and Chelyabinsk-65.
The second area for improvement involves expansion of the safeguards
effort. The Energy Department has an extremely ambitious program which, if
implemented on schedule, should go a long way toward stanching the illicit flow
of sensitive nuclear materials from states of the former Soviet Union. Under
current plans, by the end of 1996 the United States hopes to to provide the
resources to: upgrade significantly MPC&A upgrades at a wide range of
additional Russian sites, including a cross-section of those within the MINATOM
weapons complex and at civilian and naval propulsion reactors; facilitate the
development of a national nuclear material accounting system; foster the growth
of an effective national regulatory program in Russia; and facilitate a
sustainable indigenous Russian MPC&A program. (The fledgling Russian
nuclear regulatory body, Gosatomnadzor (GAN), suffered a major defeat on
July 25 when Yeltsin declined to sign a new Atomic Energy Act passed by the Duma, which codfied
GAN's MPC&A oversight responsibilities in both the military and civilian
sectors. On June 26 Yeltsin signed a new decree stripping both GAN of some of
its regulatory authority in the military domain.) (16)
These all are vital steps that deserve the highest level of political
support in both countries. The estimated cost of approximately $70 million to
implement the program through fiscal year 1996 is a modest amount to pay for
improved physical protection and material control.
However, not all safeguards problems are amenable to "technical fixes."
Probably most difficult to correct, but also significant for the long-term
security of Russia's nuclear assets, is what may best be called an
"underdeveloped physical protection culture" among the staff and custodians of
the post-Soviet nuclear industry. In part, this tendency to undervalue physical
protection rules and regulations is the product of the Soviet political and
economic system, which bred such work and management practices as the avoidance
of individual initiative and responsibility and the neglect of employee safety.
These habits persist, even though many Russian nuclear industry officials
acknowledge that plant security and material control improvements must be made.
Changing attitudes and instilling a new philosophy cannot be done easily or
quickly. Nor will an influx of money alone solve the problem. A sustained
educational effort is required. The plan proposed by Moscow and agreed to by
Washington to create a training center in Obinsk to reinforce indigenous
MPC&A efforts by educating a new generation of specialists who will serve
as practitioners and instructors is a step in the right direction.
Programs, Policies and Solutions
Most nuclear security problems are inextricably linked to the region's
troubled economic, political and social conditions. As such, they are unlikely
to be completely resolved without substantial progress toward stabilizing the
economy and renewing public trust in government institutions and law. This is
not likely to occur soon, and the United States will thus continue to face at
least some threat of nuclear leakage from the former Soviet Union for the
The precise nature of the threat will be determined by a combination of
factors, including the pace of corrective actions, national decisions about the
disposotion of excess fissile material from weapons and the demand by end-users
for weapons material.
The United States should not exaggerate its ability to influence the course
of these developments, but it can make a difference--and should endeavor to do
so. Part of its long-term strategy to contain fissile material proliferation
should be to seek to create a safeguards regime that extends to [all] nuclear
weapon-usable material in the nuclear-weapon states.(17) In 1994, the United
States took a step in this direction when it voluntarily took one ton of
plutonium and 10 tons of HEU out of its active weapons inventory and agreed to
place the material under IAEA safeguards. In March 1995, President Bill Clinton
announced that the United States had "permanently withdrawn" another 200 tons
of fissile material from its nuclear stockpile.
It will not be easy to persuade Russia to participate in such a
comprehensive multilateral regime, given MINATOM's current opposition to an
IAEA presence at its military facilities. Some decision makers in the U.S.
government can also be expected to resist. It may, therefore, be preferable, at
least initially, to pursue an expanded safeguards regime with Russia on a
bilateral research and development basis. As Tom Cochran of the National
Resources Defense Council has stressed, the primary focus of the initiative
should not be to compel the parties to make a political commitment to adopt
comprehensive bilateral or multilateral safeguards, but rather to engage them
in a fully reciprocal research, development and demonstration program.
This approach not only embraces the principle of truly joint U.S.-Russian
cooperation to achieve non-proliferation objectives, but it has the added
virtue of redirecting U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons scientists and
laboratories to work in non-weapon areas.
The presidential summit scheduled for next spring in Moscow would be an
excellent occasion to launch a new joint U.S.-Russian initiative in the field
of nuclear safeguards. It has already been announced that the meeting, which
was proposed by President Boris Yeltsin, will focus on nuclear safety and
security. What better forum to demonstrate to the non-nuclear-weapon states
that the two nuclear superpowers also take seriously their fissile material
1. Russia's eight nuclear-powered icebreakers, for example, use uranium
enriched to 90 percent, as do some other naval reactors. For amplification on
this point, see Oleg Bukharin and William Potter, "Potatoes were guarded
better," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June 1995., pp.
2. Interview with Mikhail Kulik in Yaderniy Kontrol, January,
1995, pp.12-13. Kulik also was a chief investigator in the Andreeva Guba
3. Mark Hibbs, "U.S. Agencies Lacking Data on Source of Seized Plutonium,"
Nucleaonics Week, May 25, 1995, p.17.
4. Hibbs, "Which Fissile Fingerprint?" Bulletin of the Atomic
Scientists, May/June, 1995, p.10.
5. Phil Williams and Paul Woessner, "Nuclear Material Trafficking: An
Interim Assessment," Ridgeway Viewpoints, Working Paper No. 95-1, 1995,
6. Thomas B. Cochran, Robert S. Norris and Oleg A. Bukharin, Making the
Russian Bomb: From Stalin to Yeltsin, Boulder, Co: Westview Press, 1995,
7. U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, Nuclear Proliferation and
Safeguards, Vol. 1, New YOrk, Praeger, 1977, p. 194.
8. Interview with a Project Sapphire member (June 1995). Graham Allison et
al. report that the United States recovered 104 percent of the declared
inventory. See Graham Allison. Owen Cote, Jr., Richard Falkenrath and Steven
Miller, "Avoiding Nuclear anarchy," CSIA Discussion Ppaer 95-08, Kennedy School
of Government, Harvard University, July 1995, p. 23.
9. Thomas B. Cochran, "Testimony before the Military Application of Nuclear
Energy Panel of the House Armed Services Committee," April 19, 1994,
10. Alexei Lebedev, in "Russian Weapons Plutonium Storage Termed Unsafe by
Minatom Official," Nucleonics Week, April 28, 1994, p.1.
11. Allison et al., p.6.
12. VATESI, the Lithuanian Nuclear Power Safety Inspectorate, says the
cache consisted of 3, 860 kilograms of pure beryllium and 140 kilograms of
beryllium-uranium alloy containing 150 grams of uranium enriched to
approximately 50 percent. This is corroborated by other sources and appears
more reliable than the two-kilogram quantity of U-235 cited by U.S. officials
in a letter to Tom Cochran, November 23, 1994.
13. Personal communication with reporters, August 17, 1995.
14. Rensselaer W. Lee, III, "The Organized Crime Morass in the Former
Soviet Union," Demokratizatsiya, Summer 1994, p.400.
15. Louise Shelley, "Post-Soviet Organized Crime," Demokratizatsiya,
Summer 1994, p. 343.
16. Rossiyskaya Gazeta, August 2, 1995, p.4.
17. For amplification, see Thomas B. Cochran and Christopher Paine, "U.S.
Assistance to Improve Physical Security and Accounting of Fissile Materials in
Russia." Paper presented to the Panel on U.S.-Russian Cooperation to Control
and Account for Fissile Material, President's Commission for Advisor's on
Science and Technology, Washington, D.C., January 27, 1995.
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