During his State of the Union Address on January 19, President Clinton announced new funding for an expanded threat reduction initiative in Russia. In its Fiscal Year 2000 budget, the Administration requested over $1 billion, a one-year, 40% increase in funding, for these programs. Over the next five years the United States will spend about $4.5 billion on threat reduction activities, an increase over the $3.1 billion spent during the last seven years.

Unfortunately this new funding commitment still does not match the threat. Although there may be fewer nuclear missiles pointed at the United States today compared to 1991, the degradation in security of Russia’s nuclear weapon complex has increased the danger of theft of nuclear weapons or materials. The economic collapse in August 1998 also increased the chance that scientists from Russia’s weapon of mass destruction (WMD) industries will emigrate to countries seeking nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. As the FY2000 budget request describes, "current economic conditions [in Russia] increase the risk of proliferation because weapons scientists and technicians are unemployed or unpaid, and guards at facilities and borders are untrained and poorly equipped."  While some alarmism has always permeated the loose-nukes debate, few dispute the threat. There have been dozens of close calls over the past few years. Recent evidence indicates that the situation is worsening, though. For example, in November 1998 3,000 workers at Chelyabinsk-70, one of Russia’s nuclear weapon design institutes, held a one-day protest over unpaid wages and deteriorating living conditions. And in September 1998 several soldiers from the 12 Main Directorate, the elite division charged with guarding Russia’s nuclear weapons facilities, killed a guard, took hostages, and tried to hijack an airplane at the nuclear test site at Novaya Zemlya.

Threat Reduction Assistance

To combat this threat the United States allocates money annually to several key non-proliferation programs. Administered by the Departments of Defense, Energy and State, these  programs have successfully assisted Russia and other former Sovie states by destroying portions of their nuclear weapons stockpile, increasing security and instituting better accounting practices at nuclear weapon and material facilities, and employing former nuclear and WMD scientists in civilian projects.

The Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, the largest of these initiatives, is run by the Department of Defense and has cost nearly $2.5 billion over the last seven years. This amount, slightly more than the cost of one B-2 bomber, funded the deactivation of 4838 nuclear warheads (3300 from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, making all three nuclear-weapon free), and the elimination of 387 nuclear ballistic missiles, 343 ballistic missile silos, 136 nuclear submarine launch tubes, and 49 long-range nuclear bombers, in the former Soviet Union. The Materials Protection, Control and Accounting (MPC&A) program run by the Department of Energy (DOE) aims to secure and keep track of the 715 tons of nuclear material not currently used in nuclear weapons, enough to build approximately 40,000 bombs. Through this program security improvements have begun at all 50 sites in the former Soviet Union known to contain nuclear material; the price tag for these activities to date is only $383 million.

Three other threat reduction programs are focused specifically on the brain drain problem. The International Science and Technology Center (ISTC), founded in Moscow in 1992, has employed, on a temporary basis, 20,000 scientists and technicians formerly engaged in weapons-related work. The Department of State administers the ISTC, but it is also a multinational effort, and 60% of its funding comes from other nations, including Japan and the European Union. Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (IPP), started in 1994 and run by the Department of Energy, has similarly employed 4,000 scientists in projects that are meant to eventually achieve commercial success. The newest program, the Nuclear Cities Initiative (NCI), was conceived in 1998 and is also run by DOE. This program intends to bring high-technology business to employ former weapons scientists in Russia’s ten closed nuclear cities: Energy officials hope that this program will eventually create 35-50,000 jobs in these cities.

An Imperfect Band-Aid…

The implementation of these programs has not been trouble-free, however. A recent audit of IPP and NCI by the General Accounting Office (GAO) revealed several critical problems, the worst related to allocation of funding. GAO noted that DOE spent only 37% of IPP funds in the former Soviet Union, while the U.S. national labs received 63% of these funds for their oversight role. GAO recommended, and DOE concurred, that the cost of the national labs needs to be re-examined "with a view towards maximizing the amount of program funds going to the institutes [in the former Soviet Union]." The CTR program suffers from a similar siphoning of funds: of the $612 million the CTR program had spent on Russia by 1996, only $233 million actually went to Russian contractors and institutes.

These programs are also grossly underfunded relative to the massive amount of work left to do in Russia. DOE officials note, for example, that under current budget planning their work in the ten nuclear cities, where the largest number of scientists work and the majority of nuclear material is stored, will take several more years to complete. And, while the ISTC and IPP have employed some 25,000 former weapons scientists and technicians on civilian projects, these jobs are temporary, not full-time. As many as 50,000 other scientists in the nuclear cities face imminent unemployment. A recent report released by the Committee on Nuclear Policy, a group of non-governmental nuclear experts, recommended that current funding levels for these programs be tripled, noting that "the United States is spending far too little to address these dangers."Help is needed at the most basic level.  Troops are leaving their posts to scavenge for food. Guards do not make their rounds for lack of warm clothing and boots. Power outages make the electronic surveillance equipment installed by U.S. contractors useless. In September 1998, U.S. visitors to Moscow’s Kurchatov Institute (the first facility to receive U.S. security upgrades) saw 100 kilograms of weapons-usable uranium unguarded — the institute could not afford to pay for guards. There has also been a significant, documented increase in violent crime and theft among Russian troops.

…Covering a Growing Threat

The political and financial crisis resulting from the August 1998 economic meltdown has only exacerbated these program shortfalls. Some congressional critics pointed to the GAO report as evidence that these programs are mismanaged and do not work. But the Department of Energy concurred with nearly all of the reports’ recommendations, and these programs remain the best method to prevent the spread of Russian WMD. As Representative Ellen Tauscher noted after a recent trip to Russia, "GAOs report should be used to improve this program that is vital to our national security, not as an excuse to obstruct it because of a political agenda."

In December 1998 the Chief of the Russian Federal Security Service in the Chelyabinsk region – home to facilities for plutonium production, nuclear weapon design, and weapon assembly and dismantlement – reported that employees of one of the facilities had been stopped just as they were about to steal 18.5 kg of weapons-usable nuclear material. U.S. programs have been attempting to prevent this type of activity for several years now, but have not been given enough funding and sustained political attention to complete the job. The Chelyabinsk event should serve as a chilling reminder of the seriousness of the threat of loose nukes, loose material, and loose scientists.


Toby Dalton is a Project Associate and Denis Dragovic a researcher with the Nonproliferation Program.