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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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