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loose nukes fears: anecdotes of the current crisis
Matthew Bunn, December 5, 1998

  • On Sept. 20, a Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) sergeant at the Mayak facility, where over 30 tons of separated weapons-usable civilian plutonium is stored, shot two of his MVD comrades and wounded another before escaping with an assault rifle and ammunition. The incident reportedly led President Yeltsin to order a review of nuclear security at the site.[1]

  • In September, a U.S. team visiting the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow was shown a building containing 100 kilograms of highly enriched uranium -- potentially enough for several nuclear bombs -- that was totally unguarded, because the Institute could not afford the $200-a-month salary for a guard.[2]

  • At some nuclear facilities, MVD guards have left their posts to forage for food. Others have been reluctant to patrol facility perimeters because they did not have winter uniforms to keep them warm on patrol. At some facilities, recently installed security equipment is not being used because there is no money to maintain it; at others, guards who had not been paid in months were expected to man unheated posts in sub-freezing conditions.[3] At some facilities, entire security systems -- alarms, surveillance cameras, portal monitors, etc. -- have been shut down because the facilities' electricity was cut off for non-payment of bills.[4] At other facilities, guards have intentionally turned off alarm systems, or even cut their cables, because they were annoyed by frequent false alarms.[5]

  • In early September, Minister of Atomic Energy Evgeniy Adamov told nuclear workers protesting months of unpaid wages that the government owed the ministry over $170 million and had not provided a single ruble in two months.[6] Some 47,000 unpaid nuclear workers joined in protests at various locations around the country, over what the nuclear workers' trade union said was over $400 million in back wages to workers in the nuclear sector.[7]

  • In August, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev issued an order to all military officers to "look for additional sources [of sustenance for the winter] and assume personal control." The Defense Ministry announced that trips would be organized for all soldiers and officers to take to the fields to harvest mushrooms, berries, and other sources of food for the winter. In the Far East region of Khabarovsk, the territorial administration has reportedly stopped providing bread to Far East military units, due to non-payment of debts.[8]

  • On October 9, General Igor Volynkin, commander of the 12th Main Directorate of the Ministry of Defense, in charge of security for nuclear weapons, told a press conference that Russia was fully capable of protecting its nuclear weapons, but acknowledged that the directorate's troops had not been given any higher priority in receiving pay than other troops, that they had received the paychecks due them only through July, and that the directorate was helping officers to get vegetables and potatoes for the winter in lieu of cash.[9]

  • On Sept. 5, five soldiers from the 12th Main Directorate at Novaya Zemlya -- Russia's only nuclear weapons test site -- killed a guard at the facility, took another guard hostage and tried to hijack an aircraft. After seizing more hostages, they were disarmed by other Ministry of Defense forces and Federal Security Service commandos.[10]

  • On Sept. 11, a 19-year-old sailor went on a rampage in Murmansk, killing seven people with a chisel and an AK-47 assault rifle aboard an Akula-class nuclear-attack submarine. He then barricaded himself for 20 hours in the torpedo bay and threatened to blow up the submarine, with its nuclear reactor. Finally, he reportedly committed suicide. Russian officials insisted there were no nuclear weapons on board at the time.[11]

  • On October 12, Sergei Ushakov, a spokesman for Russia's Chief Military Prosecutor's Office, reported that some 20 servicemen serving in the Strategic Rocket Forces were discharged during 1997-1998 after being diagnosed with psychiatric disorders, and that some of these were responsible for guarding nuclear arsenals. The office issued a report indicating the Strategic Rocket Forces, of all the services in Russia's military, had the most rapid increase in its crime rate, 25 percent higher in 1997 than in 1996.[12]

  • In late October, a Strategic Rocket Forces officer at a base for the Topol-M ICBMs -- the most modern weapons in the Russian strategic force -- was quoted on Russian television as saying that he had received his pay only through July, despite promises that back wages would be paid in October.[13]

  • In early October, Russian customs reportedly intercepted 5 "Hip C" assault transport helicopters with weapons pods, apparently stolen by military officers, bound for North Korea. The helicopters, valued at $300,000 each, were reportedly being sold for $20,000 apiece.[14]

  • On September 3, Russian radio reported that the mayor of Krasnoyarsk-45, one of Russia's closed "nuclear cities," where enough HEU for hundreds or thousands of bombs is located, had written to Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Lebed and Atomic Energy Minister Evgeniy Adamov warning that unless urgent action was taken, a social explosion in the city was unavoidable, as a cutoff in payments from the Atomic Ministry's bank meant that public sector workers had not been paid at all in August, and even basic medical supplies could not be purchased.[15]

  • In September, at the closed Siberian nuclear city of Krasnoyarsk-26, home to enough plutonium for hundreds or thousands of nuclear bombs, the heat was shut off for weeks, because lack of money delayed shipments of fuel to the reactor that heats the city, and workers staged a protest over unpaid wages at the plutonium processing facility. Shortly before this incident, the facility director wrote to Ministry of Atomic Energy headquarters in Moscow, warning that "wage payments are three months behind schedule...The social tension in the shops and factories has reached the critical level, and its consequences are unpredictable."[16]

  • On November 19, 3,000 workers staged a one-day strike over unpaid wages at Chelyabinsk-70, one of Russia's premier nuclear weapons design laboratories, complaining of "constant undernourishment, insufficient medical service, inability to buy clothing and footwear for children or to pay for their education."

    [1]"Yeltsin Orders Nuclear Security Probe," Bill Gertz, The Washington Times, October 21, 1998.

    [2] "Where Nuclear Peril Lies Waiting," Elisabeth Rindskopf, Chicago Tribune, October 12, 1998.

    [3] "Prospects for U.S.-Russian Cooperation for Nonproliferation in the Post-Cold War Era," William C. Potter, presentation to the Defense and Security Committee of the North Atlantic Assembly, 44th Annual Session, Edinburgh, November 10-13, 1998.

    [4] "Preventing the Proliferation of Russian Nuclear Materials: Limits of the Current Approach," Todd E. Perry, paper prepared for the Annual Meeting of the International Security Studies Section (ISSS), International Studies Association (ISA), Monterey, California, November 8, 1998.

    [5] "Nuclear Weapons Threat Lurks in Russia: Poorly Paid Guards Are a Security Concern," Barbara Slavin, USA Today, November 24, 1998; "Russian Nuclear Security Called Lax: Easy Access to Fuel, Failure to Pay Wages Alarm U.S. Experts," David Hoffman, The Washington Post, November 27, 1998.

    [6] "Russia's Nuclear Force Sinks With the Ruble: Economic Crisis Erodes Strategic Arsenal," David Hoffman, The Washington Post, September 18, 1998.

    [7] "Nuclear Center Staffers to Join Nation-Wide Protest," Itar-Tass, September 11, 1998, and "Fund Arrears Imperil Russia's Nuclear Sites," Kevin O'Flynn, The Moscow Times, September 8, 1998.

    [8] "Russian Army Sells Arms to Pay for Food: Global Intelligence Update Red Alert," GlobalBeat October 9, 1998.

    [9] "Russia is capable to ensure its security, general," Mikhail Shevtsov, ITAR-TASS, October 9, 1998. According to Russian officials a statement in October that troops have only received pay for July means that they are receiving paychecks with some regularity, but that the paychecks they received recently only bring them up to what they were supposed to have been paid by July; it does not necessarily mean that they have received no pay at all since July.

    [10] "Yeltsin Orders Nuclear Security Probe," op. cit.; see also "Underlying Reason: Crime in the Russian Army Has Rolled up to Nuclear Munitions Units, But the Ministry of Defense Believes Russia Is Capable of Controlling Weapons of Mass Destruction Without Foreign Intervention," Vladimir Georgiev, Moscow Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 11-17, 1998 No.34, p. 1, translated in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Central Eurasia, September 23, 1998.

    [11] Ibid. See also "Nuclear Fears Resurface After Seizure of Russia Sub," Richard Paddock, Los Angeles Times, October 5, 1998.

    [12] "Problems in Military Blamed on Incompetent Recruiting," RFE/RL, October 16, 1998.

    [13] "Stretched Russian Army Faces Stark Choice," Reuters, October 28, 1998.

    [14] Interfax, October 7, 1998, cited in "Russian Army Sells Arms to Pay for Food: Global Intelligence Update Red Alert," GlobalBeat October 9, 1998.

    [15] Radio Russia, Moscow, in Russian, 0400 Greenwich Mean Time, September 3, 1998, translated in "Bank Default Threatens Social Explosion in Krasnoyarsk," British Broadcasting Corporation, September 4, 1998.

    [16] "Special Report: The Hidden City: Hard Times at Russia's Once-Pampered Nuclear Centers," Michael R. Gordon, The New York Times, November 18, 1998.

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