Nuclear Striptease. What Threat Is Posed By `Leakage' of National Defense Secrets?

Moscow Sovetskaya Rossiya, 1 Mar 97 p 2

by Academician V. Kotlov of the International Environmental Academy and V. Yerastov, chief of the Nuclear Materials Safety Department at an Atomic Energy Ministry department

On Soviet Army Day, now renamed "Defenders of the Fatherland Day," Russian Defense Minister Igor Rodionov, styling himself "minister of a disintegrating Army and a dying Navy," declared that, if the situation does not change, Russia "could find itself without an army in a few years" and NATO could try to take control of Russia's nuclear arsenal.... This desperately frank statement prompted Western radio to resume discussion of Rodionov's threatened dismissal. As a [Radio] Liberty commentator remarked, "if Rodionov fails to draw the right conclusions he could conceivably be replaced by someone who, like Pavel Grachev, will only report successes. But whereas Grachev's optimism led to the rout of the federal forces in Chechnya, the optimism of Rodionov's possible successor could end in the loss of control over the strategic nuclear forces." Meanwhile, nuclear weapons are known to be both a global means of restraining international military conflicts and, most unfortunately, a means of blackmail and terrorism that is potentially dangerous for all mankind.

Another problem associated with nuclear weapons has become dangerously acute in today's "democratic" Russia. This problem is explained today for Sovetskaya Rossiya readers by experts from the Atomic Energy Ministry. The vast amount of work carried out over the past 50 years to create nuclear weapons has cost hundreds of billions of dollars and involved millions of people, and it should not result in harm to future generations. The end of the Cold War triggered the process of cutting enterprises and staff numbers in both the military and civilian areas of nuclear science and technology.

Russia is carrying out large-scale conversion of its nuclear industry and retraining of personnel. The following figures illustrate the size of the task: The Russian Federation has 34,000 nuclear and radiation-hazardous facilities, 29 nuclear power units, 113 scientific research reactors and critical and subcritical assemblies containing nuclear materials, 21 enterprises involved in the fuel-power cycle, 245 nuclear submarines, of which 120 have been decommissioned, containing 170 nuclear reactors with undischarged fuel, 12 nuclear surface vessels, thousands of tonnes of spent nuclear fuel, and 3 billion curies of temporarily buried radioactive waste. All this is in the hands of various departments, where conditions are difficult because of conversion.

Over the past 50 years nuclear-related work in Russia has been monopolized by the state and kept rigorously secret. Russian nuclear centers were known about and accessible to a limited number of experts who were not permitted to leave the country. Russian nuclear centers have now "opened up." Some enterprises have been floated, but secret information has remained concentrated, which (given the unfavorable economic situation at nuclear centers) represents a certain danger.

Before "perestroyka," open information on the technology and production of nuclear weapons components was based on Western countries' publications and classified accounts of our own experience. In the past, open publications in Russia had to overcome an obstacle in the form of control by Glavlit [the Main Administration for Safeguarding State Secrets in the Press], the KGB, publishers, and government departments. Today nobody would vouch for the reliability of this control. During the glasnost period a host of articles on nuclear matters and nuclear weapons and their components appeared in Russia, and this process is continuing.

The "Nikitin [Aleksandr Nikitin, who divulged Russian Naval Nuclear Data to Bellona Environmental Grouping] affair" -- which Sovetskaya Rossiya described as "overt spying based on publications in the press" -- demonstrates how nuclear secrets really are disclosed in the press. The technology is simple. First, some northern publisher publishes top secret information on nuclear armaments and the technical characteristics of nuclear submarines; then this information is confirmed by a qualified expert on nuclear armaments carried by submarines. Nuclear secrets are disclosed, but nobody is guilty!

Yearning for freedom of speech, Russian scientists and CIS- country experts from former secret nuclear centers, scientific establishments, and design bureaus are showering the pages of the mass-circulation press with previously unknown information on the details of their achievement. And no thought is given to the possibly unpredictable adverse consequences that could ensue. A sort of "public nuclear striptease" is taking place. Nobody is even paying it any attention! The Americans, by contrast, are enjoying the spectacle, gleefully pandering to the various publications and taking advantage of Russian scientists' difficult circumstances. At small expense they sign contracts for the transfer and publication of research documents, reports, and technologies. This work does not get classified, and there is nothing to stop the information being widely circulated. We can understand why scientists and experts previously forbidden to leave Russia are doing this, since there is nobody in the industry to hand their experience on to, and when enterprises are closed or converted valuable knowledge will be lost. Both newspapers and journals are now glad to publish materials on nuclear matters. By assembling all the pieces of the pyramid of publications, you can discover a lot, if not everything, about the production of nuclear weapons and primary, intermediate, and final technologies! Can we tolerate such a -- to put it mildly -- careless (but actually criminal) attitude to our future?

In the prevailing circumstances we shall evidently not be able to retain our experts either. Information will disappear into thin air, like the famous "12 chairs" [reference to Ilf and Petrov's novel, "The 12 Chairs"]. And the experts do not need to go abroad, so it does not matter if they are not permitted to do so. Measures must be taken to avoid irreparable damage. The measures that could be taken are numerous. But now that documents, facilities, and people are no longer secret, the peaceful and safe use of nuclear power requires revision. We need to tighten responsibility for declassifying, transferring, storing, using, and trading information about nuclear energy. By trying to get Russia to reveal its nuclear secrets now, the Americans will create many problems in the future for both themselves and the world community!

The practicalities of creating and handling nuclear weapons are regulated in Russia by several thousand still- classified state all- Union standards, all-Union standards, and other normative documents. Appeals are being made for such documents to be declassified when they are 30 years old. There is no substance to the claim that in the past there was a free-for-all in the country caused by the lack of laws on the use of nuclear energy. The standards applying to nuclear and radiation safety, which were confirmed by experimental research and theoretical calculations, had, and still have, the force of law, and in their scale and scope they are hundreds of times more extensive than the currently adopted Law on the Use of Nuclear Energy. For example, effective measures were taken to reduce the likelihood of accidents with nuclear weapons. Beginning in 1957, 42 nuclear tests were conducted just to confirm the safety of nuclear charges, as reported in 1996. It would be logical if measures to prevent the dissemination of nuclear weapons- related information were reliably enforced today too. People close to the Russian Government are contributing to the disclosure of secrets and demanding that Russia perform a nuclear striptease. Mr. A.V. Yablokov, former aide to the Russian Federation president (and then chairman of the Russian Security Council Environmental Safety Commission), has repeatedly called for national secrets to be disclosed. In the October 1996 issue of the Yadernyy Kontrol journal he defends Nikitin, claiming that we need to know "how, where, and from what" a nuclear submarine is made in order to plan environmental action in the event of a possible disaster, and that such information is essential to Bellona, a "bona fide environmental organization." Yet Nikitin is not a technically illiterate environmentalist but a nuclear expert, who has spent most of his life working with secret submarine-related documents, understands everything perfectly, and, masquerading as a simpleton, confirms secrets which (as he well knows) will not be declassified until the nuclear submarines reach the end of their lives (20-30 years from now).

A.V. Yablokov maintains that "national security interests demand openness." In general terms, this claim is false.

When Russia was developing nuclear weapons the United States already held the "secret" of the atom bomb. Yet the Russians rigorously controlled their facilities. Why was information on nuclear weapons classified in Russia? There were many reasons: to conceal a possible leak of information from foreign countries' laboratories, to outstrip the enemy, to prevent the leakage of information to other countries, and longer-term considerations. The Russian Atomic Energy Ministry, as the Defense Ministry's supplier and the developer and producer of all Russia's nuclear charges and munitions, is responsible for dismantling, recycling, and storing them. Such tasks have always been, and will remain, environmentally dangerous. So, should everything be revealed? But Mr. Yablokov cites Russian law and "legally" demands that it should be. Clearly there is a loophole in the law which should be closed. Information on the following matters must remain secret: nuclear weapons, methods of bringing nuclear charges to a critical and hypercritical state, methods of initiating neutron sources, and much else. The interests of national and international security demand caution.

The international community of nuclear states should play a greater role in reducing the probability of the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Something is already being done. The first meetings and consultations between Russia, the United States, and the EU on the illegal trade in nuclear materials have taken place: One was held in 1995 in the United States in Livermore, another in January 1996 in Karlsruhe, Germany, and a third in December 1996 in Obninsk, Russia. But declarations must be followed by action and a recognition that disaster is looming.

Scientists and experts are alarmed. The meetings achieved a consensus on the need to create an international data base on nuclear materials producers in order to identify existing and new products and track down the producers of nuclear output. The development of technologies and the production of equipment for this purpose could provide work for many people who are currently unemployed at Russian nuclear centers. But that is not enough. The time has come for nuclear countries' special services to combine forces to monitor nonproliferation.

At every stage of their movement, nuclear materials have always been subjected to both documentary and instrument monitoring. The procedure for monitoring and taking stock of nuclear materials has been based on principles of trust. This principle must gradually be abandoned. It can be confidently maintained that the Atomic Energy Ministry's monitoring of facilities is for the moment working effectively. Monitoring by means of spectrometry is accessible to only a limited number of enterprises. The difficulties of instrument monitoring are technical complexity, the need for highly qualified personnel, and the cost of the apparatus. Quantitative monitoring is no less complex. All other forms of monitoring are indirect and liable to error, indicating the presence of something, but not revealing what.

Whereas in the past total confidence was placed in the monitoring of facilities, the new conditions require that monitoring principles be changed so as to exclude individual access to nuclear materials by all service personnel, as has been done at the Physics and Power Engineering Institute, the Kurchatov Institute, and a number of other Russian facilities.

The process of inventorying nuclear materials, as a form of monitoring nonproliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear technologies, is very complex, especially when the materials are contained in waste, because the presence of radioactive impurities complicates stocktaking and monitoring. Special monitoring takes place when nuclear materials are transported. During legal transportation both the inspector and the person accompanying the load have to rely entirely on the accompanying documentation. It is only permissible to open containers and identify their contents precisely in laboratory conditions. The whole country has only tens of such laboratories, but hundreds of customs points. So an appropriately camouflaged load of radioactive material will pass through all stages of transportation without even arousing suspicion. The monitoring services try to keep well away from such loads, instinctively protecting themselves from radiation by means of time and distance. We must devise a system of protecting nuclear materials from theft or loss that is reliable and incorporates numerous security barriers. This can and must be done now.

The supply of nuclear materials and technologies is generated primarily by the nuclear powers themselves, which escape monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA]. Of the hundreds of nuclear facilities in each country, the IAEA monitors only tens, mainly nuclear power stations, which do not represent the main danger for proliferation of nuclear weapons. In today's capitalist world, official nuclear output can be replicated by underground output. There are examples to substantiate this.

It is indeed surprising that the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo group did not get as far as producing nuclear charges. There is good reason for the pained reaction of the press and of the public to cases of the careless storage and use of nuclear materials. Discussion of the illegal trade in nuclear materials is well founded. Today there is no national or international legislation on responsibility for the security of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials. There will, of course, be talk of bans and a monopoly. Such proposals would seem to conflict with concepts of freedom of speech and enterprise. We propose sacrificing certain freedoms for the sake of our common security. People do not need all the freedoms they have. Those who planned bacteriological warfare would probably also say that information about it should not be publicly accessible. Society should guard certain things in order to avoid destroying itself in the future! The accumulated knowledge and ideas on the use of nuclear energy should be stored and protected, just like weapons!