In a front-page story on April 21, 1998, The New York Times broke the news of Auburn Endeavor, a secret U.S.-British operation to airlift fissile material from a nuclear research facility in Tbilisi, Georgia. This operation seems to be another success for the U.S. Departments of Defense and Energy in preventing the transfer of nuclear weapons, material or technology to nuclear weapons aspirants.

Although the Department of Energy had upgraded the physical protection at the Institute of Physics in Tbilisi in 1996, political volatility in the region still threatened the safety of nuclear materials. Given the geographic proximity of Georgia to Iran, one of the most active seekers of nuclear weapons today, the protection of these materials is of paramount concern.

Of the 10 lbs. of nuclear materials at the institute, the 8.8 lbs. of highly enriched uranium (HEU) is most dangerous. It would take about 35 lbs. of HEU to construct a crude nuclear device. However, even with this small quantity of HEU, a state with a high technical ability could conceivably manufacture a nuclear weapon with a yield of 1 kiloton (equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT), depending on the degree to which the material is enriched. For most nuclear aspirants, the acquisition of weapons-grade nuclear material -- HEU or plutonium -- remains the largest technical barrier to building a nuclear weapon. For this reason, the protection of these materials remains the most effective means of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

Auburn Endeavor is similar in many respects to Operation Sapphire, under which the United States successfully removed 600 kilograms of HEU from the Ulba Metallurgy Plant in Kazakhstan in 1994. But, there are many other sites, located throughout the former Soviet Union (FSU), with tons of nuclear material that are vulnerable to attack, theft, or diversion. In this sense, the material recovered from Georgia represents the tip of the iceberg in terms of nuclear material needing protection.

Many of these sites, as well as the location and type of nuclear weapons in Russia, are detailed in a new study, Status Report on Nuclear Successor States of the Soviet Union, released last month by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Several sites in Russia, including the "nuclear cities" of Chelyabinsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Tomsk, as well as the nuclear weapons research and design facilities at Arzamas, each possess tons of plutonium and HEU. While the Department of Energy has conducted initial security activities at these sensitive sites, the majority of physical protection and control measures have yet to be implemented.

The report also describes the circumstances of seven known cases of nuclear smuggling from Russian nuclear facilities that involved significant quantities of fissile material. Many more cases of nuclear materials diversion from Russian facilities have been reported, but the lack of concrete evidence surrounding these cases has made their resolution impossible.

Sneak Attack
All these threat reduction activities are made possible by one of Congress’s most successful programs: the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici legislation. Begun in 1991 by Senators Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) and expanded in 1996 with Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), the program provided $465 million last year to lock up, move, and dismantle nuclear weapons and materials in the FSU.

This year, some members are threatening to siphon off these funds into one of Congress’s least successful initiatives: national missile defense. Frustrated by technical failures and cost overruns, these members want to pump up the already $4-billion-a-year missile defense programs. These two programs need not be positioned as alternatives, but as complimentary efforts, each standing on its own merits. The Senate strongly rebuffed efforts to cut Nunn-Lugar-Domenici last year, recognizing it as a vital element in our national security efforts. With thousands of weapons and tons of loosely guarded materials still urgent problems, this program deserves all the encouragement and expansion Congress can afford.

--Toby F. Dalton