1997 Congressional Hearings
Special Weapons
Nuclear, Chemical, Biological and Missile

Monterey Institute of International Studies


William C. Potter

Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Monterey Institute of International Studies
425 Van Buren Street
Monterey, CA 93940

Testimony prepared for the hearing on

"Proliferation: Russian Case Studies"
held by the-Senate Governmental Affairs Subcommittee
on International Security, Proliferation, and Federal Service, June 5, 1997

Center for Nonproliferation Studies
425 Van Buren Street, Monterey, CA 93940 USA
Telephone: (408)647-4154 FAX: (408)647-3519
E-Mail: [email protected] WWW Homepage: http://cns.miis.edu

The Post-Soviet Nuclear Proliferation Challenge


William C. Potter

Nature of the Problem

The main technical barrier to nuclear weapons proliferation, both for state actors and subnational terrorist organizations, has been the difficulty of obtaining weapons-usable fissile material. There is little doubt that this barrier has been eroded as a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the increased vulnerability to diversion of the successor states' vast inventory of nuclear weapons and inadequately safeguarded stocks of highly-enriched uranium (HEW) and plutonium.

The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program has made a major difference in containing many proliferation risks in the region. Other serious dangers, however, remain and are deeply rooted in the difficult economic, political, and social conditions of the post-Soviet states. As such, they are unlikely to be resolved until progress is made in stabilizing the economy and restoring public trust in governmental institutions, law, and social justice. These changes will not occur quickly, and the United States will thus continue to face a variety of nuclear threats from the former Soviet Union for the foreseeable future.

Given severe time constraints, rather than enumerate the many remaining proliferation challenges, I will focus on several that are less obvious and have received inadequate attention. I will then propose specific steps the U.S. government should take to mitigate these risks.

Don't Assume that the Problem Outside of Russia Has Been Solved

In November 1994 it was widely assumed that with the successful conclusion of Project Sapphire, the United States had removed the last substantial quantity of HEU from Kazakstan. That now is known not to be the case. Rather, in late 1995, Kazakstan notified the International Atomic Energy Agency that 205 kilograms of HEU remained at its Semipalatinsk nuclear research site. Although the weapons-usable portion of that batch of material finally was removed to Russia in Fall 1996, the unanticipated discovery of a cache of hundreds of kilograms of weapons-usable material is a useful reminder that we probably can expect to find further undeclared quantities of HEU in the non-Russian successor states. Likely locations include Georgia, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Ukraine, and Latvia -- all of which have (or had) research reactors fueled with HEU.

Anticipate Future Cases of Illicit Nuclear Trafficking

The West has been extremely lucky regarding nuclear leakage from the former Soviet Union. Despite frequent sensationalist headlines to the contrary, it appears to have avoided an influx of militarily significant nuclear goods from the ex-USSR. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, one can identify only four confirmed cases in which more than minuscule quantities of HEU or plutonium have been exported from the former Soviet Union, and another three cases in which HEU or plutonium were diverted from Russian nuclear facilities, but were seized prior to export. At least four additional cases of diversion and/or export are 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. (See Appendices One and Two for a summary of the important characteristics of these cases).

Perhaps most striking about this set of proliferation-significant cases is the preponderance of seizures involving definite or possible fresh fuel for naval propulsion reactors. Most of the suppliers of material in these cases appear to have been "insiders," working at nuclear research institutes or naval bases, or having previously worked at such facilities. None of the seizures to date provide any evidence of having a nuclear weapon's origin.

One must be careful, however, about drawing conclusions from this small body of confirmed diversion and/or export cases. First, one legitimately may ask, "How confident should we be that proliferation-significant exports of NIS origin material have simply escaped detection? Given the underdeveloped state of export controls in the former Soviet Union outside of Russia and the virtual absence of any barriers to movement of sensitive goods and material between Russia and the other CIS states, it is entirely possible, although not proven, that significant amounts of nuclear material and technology already may have exited Russia via a number of southern routes (e.g., through the Caucasus or Central Asia).

In addition, while there is no hard evidence that nuclear proliferants have illegally provided HEU or plutonium from the ex-USSR, there is indisputable evidence that would-be proliferants have been able to acquire key missile system components of Russian origin. The UN Special Commission on Iraq, for example, has documents which indicate that strategic gyroscopes from dismantled Russian SLBMs have been shipped to Iraq. Similar concerns exist regarding Ukrainian-lraqi missile contacts and contracts. Also disturbing is the continuing, largely unregulated trade by the post Soviet states in nuclear-related dual-use materials such as zirconium and beryllium. These activities and an environment of nuclear material plenty but nuclear worker poverty, caution against attaching too much importance to the apparent lull in reported seizures of proliferation-significant material in Europe.

Take Measures to Reduce the Threat of Nuclear Terrorism

To date, little U.S. nonproliferation assistance to the former Soviet Union has been directed specifically to mitigating terrorist threats at NIS nuclear facilities. These threats pertain not only to the seizure of nuclear material (or even larger and less secure stocks of chemical weapons agents), but also to attacks on or sabotage of civilian nuclear power plants and spent fuel storage sites.

These are not hypothetical threats. In 1992, for example, an employee of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in Lithuania planted a virus in the plant's computer systems that could have led to a major accident. The same plant in late 1994 received two bomb threats, one of which involved organized crime and led to the shutdown of the facility. More recently, a disenchanted employee of the Severodvinsk submarine facility whose salary had not been paid threatened to blow up a shop containing two nuclear reactors.(1)

Although the Russians, in response to the Chechen conflict, have taken some steps to heighten security at civilian nuclear power plants, most civilian nuclear facilities are deficient in such basic defensive elements as intact perimeter fences, more than token armed guards, vehicle barriers, surveillance cameras, metal detectors at entrances, and control cages. Unfortunately, these gaps in perimeter defense are compounded by an approach to the terrorist threat that is fixated on Chechens. As the assistant director of one major Russian nuclear research center told me not long ago, there is little concern about perimeter defense against terrorists since "Chechens look different than us" and would be recognized before they could get close to the site. Even if they were recognized, it is problematic if much force could be marshaled quickly at the scene. Indeed, heavy firepower is more visible at most banks, nightclubs, and fur stores in the former Soviet Union than at many nuclear facilities.

If security of fissile material is suspect at nuclear facilities in the fommer Soviet Union, it is even more vulnerable in transport. This problem results from the generic difficulty of safeguarding nuclear material (and warheads) in transit, compounded by the frequency with which fissile material is moved between facilities in Russia, the lack of sufficient dedicated nuclear transport vehicles, and less than clear lines of organizational responsibility for protecting material in transit. At one major nuclear facility near Moscow, for example, all transportation of HEU to other facilities is accomplished with a single truck -- one that would appear to be an inviting target for a terrorist or criminal group. Safeguarding transport of fissile material within many large nuclear complexes in Russia also is a serious problem given the frequency with which significant amounts of material is moved daily, often on uncovered or unescorted handcarts.

Discourage State-Sanctioned Exports

As troubling for nonproliferation efforts as nuclear smuggling are indications that in recent years Russia and other post-Soviet states have pursued imprudent, state-sanctioned exports of nuclear technology, equipment, and nuclear related dual-use commodities.

In Russia, a tendency to emphasize profits over nonproliferation is evident in contracts to provide nuclear assistance to Iran, in agreements to assist the development of China's nuclear program (including provision of reactors and a uranium enrichment plant), and in plans to build two 1000 MWe VVER-type reactors at Koodankulam in southern India. The Indian deal, if implemented, is particularly serious as it would be at odds with Russia's pledge to insist upon full-scope safeguards (i.e., international safeguards on all facilities) as a condition of nuclear export.

High-level political commitment to export controls also has been slow to materialize in Ukraine and the Baltic states, which only recently began to develop meaningful export control procedures and expertise. There have been a number of cases involving these states, for example, in which sensitive dual-use nuclear items were exported either in violation of established export control procedures or due to the absence of such regulations. Unfortunately, from the standpoint of nonproliferation, improving export controls remains a low priority issue for most of the post-Soviet states.

Enhance the Security of Sub-Strategic Nuclear Weapons

It typically is assumed in the West that, notwithstanding shortcomings in the civilian nuclear sector, physical security is high in the military domain. Although security at military facilities probably remains much higher than at most civilian sites, the situation is not good and is apt to deteriorate further before it gets better. Most vulnerable to theft are older sub-strategic nuclear weapons that are relatively small in size and lack "permissive action links" (PALs) to protect unauthorized use.

The security of sub-strategic nuclear weapons in Russia today is compromised by the lack of adequate storage facilities to handle the influx of warheads and by the continuing turmoil, economic hardship, and general malaise within the armed forces. Sub-strategic nuclear warheads are particularly vulnerable to theft by disgruntled past or present Russian Special Operations (Spetsnaz) soldiers, who are trained to use atomic demolition weapons and may have special knowledge of and even access to nuclear weapon storage depots. Tactical nuclear weapons for aircraft pose special risks since they are not kept at central storage sites.

The problem of sub-strategic nuclear weapons in Russia is magnified by Russia's growing reliance on nuclear arms as its conventional forces deteriorate. This dependency is reflected in Russia's abandonment in 1993 of its no-first use policy, and in the open discussion among prominent Russian military and defense industry figures of the need to develop a new generation of nuclear munitions for tactical and battlefield use. Some advocates of tactical nuclear weapons go so far as to contemplate Russian abrogation of the 1987 INF Treaty. The dangers in this shift of emphasis are compounded because of Moscow's reliance on a "launch-on-warning" nuclear strategy and by the deterioration of Russia's early warning system.

What Is to Be Done?

There is no shortage of good recommendations about what needs to be done to address these urgent proliferation problems, and a number of these suggestions actually have been adopted as U.S. policy. Let me suggest several additional steps that might be taken (2):

1. Purchase all HEU from Non-Russian Successor States
The United States should seek to reduce the quantity of fissile material which must be protected and the number of sites where fissile material is stored. As part of a program of consolidation and elimination, the U.S. should undertake to negotiate the purchase of all HEU known to reside at research facilities in the non-Russian successor states. Given the relatively small, but nevertheless significant, quantities of weapons-usable material at sites in Belarus, Georgia, Kazakstan, Latvia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan, a uranium "buy-up" approach to the non-Russian republics represents a low cost, high return nonproliferation strategy.

To the extent that HEU actually is being used by research facilities (as is the case at the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Uzbekistan), the United States also should provide the small amount of money needed to convert the research reactor to run on low-enriched uranium. Plans for suchconversion already have been drawn up by Russian engineers and could be implemented at some sites in three-four months at about $1 million per reactor. Parenthetically, the principal obstacle to the HEU purchase plan is the difficulty of gaining interagency agreement in the United States. This difficulty is a product of the interagency battles that were waged during the ultimately successful operation of"Project Sapphire."

2. Expand CTR Cooperation in the Area of Reactor Security
Nuclear power plants in the Soviet Union were not designed to confront current terrorist threats which could lead to catastrophic accidents with global consequences. More attention should be given under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program to enhance reactor security as part of the larger effort to strengthen the national nuclear safeguards system. At a minimum, current MPC&A efforts need to be coordinated with work to upgrade the safety and security of the four dozen nuclear power reactors currently operating in five post-Soviet states.

3. Negotiate Constraints on Sub-Strategic Nuclear Weapons
Nuclear weapons of a non-strategic variety have not figured prominently in the arms control and disarmament agenda since the Bush and Gorbachev initiatives in the fall of 1991. Yet it is precisely this category of nuclear weapons that poses the greatest risk in terms of vulnerability to theft and early and/or unauthorized use.(3) A number of steps need to be taken, including the codification in a legally binding treaty of the 1991 Bush-Gorbachev declarations on the withdrawal of sub-strategic weapons.(4)

4. Focus on Sustainability
I believe it is vital to U.S. national security to continue to support the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. It is now time, however, to confront the problem of sustainability and the issue of facilitating the transfer of responsibility for MPC&A activities from the United States to the NIS, and especially Russia.

A step in the right direction is the recently established MPC&A training center in Obninsk, Russia, which will reinforce indigenous MPC&A efforts by educating a new generation of specialists who will serve as both practitioners and instructors. Much more, however, must be done to create incentives in the post-Soviet states to foster indigenous safeguards efforts and to sustain those activities once they have begun.

An influx of money alone will not solve the problem. A sustained educational effort is required to change attitudes and to instill a new nonproliferation and safeguards philosophy or culture. This is a task for which nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are particularly well suited to perform. Let me conclude, therefore, by calling for much closer cooperation between the U.S. government and NGOs in the provision of such educational assistance and in the pursuit of mutual nonproliferation objectives.




Date of Diversion: May-September 1992
Date of Seizure: October 9, 1992
Amount: 1.538 kg of HEU in the form of UO2
Description of Material: HEU (90% enrichment level)
Point of Origin: Luch Scientific Production Association, Podolsk
Point of Seizure: Podolsk, Russia

Date of Diversion: July 29, 1993
Date of Seizure: August 1993
Amount: 1.8 kg of enriched uranium
Description of Material: HEU (approximately 36% enrichment level)
Point of Origin: Andreeva Guba Fuel Storage Area, Russia
Point of Seizure: Andreeva Guba

Date of Diversion: November 27, 1993
Date of Seizure: June 1994
Amount: 4.5 kg enriched uranium
Description of Material: HEU (approximately 20% enrichment level)
Point of Origin: Fuel Storage Area 3-30, Sevmorput Shipyard near Murmansk
Point of Seizure: Polyarny (near Murmansk, Russia)

Date of Diversion: ?
Date of Seizure: May 10, 1994
Amount: 5.6 grams Pu-239
Description of Material: 99.78 pure Pu-239
Point of Origin: ?
Point of Seizure: Baden-Wuertemberg (Tengen), Germany

Date of Diversion: ?
Date of Seizure: June 13, 1994
Amount: 800 milligrams
Description of Material: HEU (enriched to 87.7 %)
Point of Origin: ?
Point of Seizure: Landshut, Germany

Date of Diversion: ?
Date of Seizure: August 10, 1994
Amount: 560 grams of mixed-oxide of plutonium and uranium
(363 grams of Pu-239)
Description of Material: Mixed-Oxide (MOX) fuel
Point of Origin: Institute of Physics and Power Engineering, Obuinsk (?)
Point of Seizure: Munich, Germany

Date of Diversion: ?
Date of Seizure: December 14, 1994
Amount: 2.72 kg of HEU in the form of UO2
Description of Material: HEU enriched to 87.7% U-235
Point of Origin: Obninsk (?)
Point of Seizure: Prague, Czech Republic



Date of Diversion: 1992
Date of Seizure: May 1993
Amount: Approximately 150 grams of HEU implanted in beryllium
Description of Material: HEU
Point of Origin: Institute of Physics and Power Engineering, Obninsk
Point of Seizure: Vilnius, Lithuania

Date of Diversion: March 1994
Date of Seizure: June 1994
Amount: 3.05 kg of HEU
Description of Material: HEU (approximately 90%-U-235) in the form of UO2
Point of Origin: Electrostal
Point of Seizure: St. Petersburg, Russia

Date of Diversion:
Date of Seizure: January 1995
Amount: Less than 1 kg of HEU
Description of Material: HEU enriched to 87.7%U-235 in the form of UO2
Point of Origin: Obninsk (?)
Point of Seizure: Prague, Czech Republic

Date of Diversion:
Date of Seizure: March 1995
Amount: 6 kg of HEU enriched to about 20% U-235
Description of Material: HEU (20% enrichment level)
Point of Origin: ?
Point of Seizure: Kiev, Ukraine

1. For a more detailed discussion of these and other terrorist incidents in the former Soviet Union, see Oleg Bukharin, "Upgrading Security of Nuclear Power Plants in the Newly Independent States," The Nonproliferation Review (Winter 1997), pp. 28-39.

2. An extended list of policy recommendations is provided in two recent publications: John M. Shields and William C. Potter, eds., Dismantling the Cold War: U.S. and NIS Perspectives onthe Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), especially pp. 385-405; and Proliferation Concerns: Assessing U.S. Efforts to Help Contain Nuclear and Other Dangerous Materials and Technologies in the Former Soviet Union (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1997).

3. On this point, see Bruce Blair, "Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Military Researchand Development, U.S. House of Representatives Committee on National Security," March 13, 1997.

4. These steps are elaborated on by the author in "Unsafe At Any Size," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (May/June 1997), pp. 25-27 and 61.