By muscling the START II arms pact through the Russian legislature, newly-elected Russian President Vladimir Putin showed his support for U.S.-Russian cooperation on nuclear security and opened the door to a Clinton-Putin summit now scheduled for early June. President Clinton should use this opportunity to seek agreement on bold new steps to prevent theft of nuclear bomb material.

The hard part of making a nuclear bomb is getting hold of the needed plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU). The entire global structure for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is built around controlling these materials and their means of production. But in the former Soviet Union, these materials are being stolen: already, there have been several documented cases of theft of real weapons-usable material.

As recently as 1998, a group of conspirators working at one of Russia's largest nuclear weapons facilities attempted to steal 18.5 kilograms of weapons-usable material -- potentially enough for a nuclear bomb. The Soviet nuclear security system was designed for a single state with a closed society, closed borders, and well-paid nuclear workers. Now this system must deal with multiple states with open societies, open borders, unpaid nuclear workers, and rampant crime and corruption -- a situation the system was simply never designed to address. As a result, hundreds tons of nuclear materials are at risk of diversion.

Cooperative U.S.-Russian efforts to address this urgent threat to international security are making significant headway. At a funding level of roughly $500 million -- less than a quarter of one percent of the defense budget -- threat reduction programs represent some of the most cost-effective investments in U.S. security to be found anywhere in the federal budget, and deserve strong support. But the current pace of progress simply does not match the scope and urgency of the threat. After six years of effort, security for less than one-sixth of the material in the former Soviet Union has been fully upgraded, and less than one-tenth of the Russian HEU stockpile has been blended to forms that cannot be used in weapons.

With President Putin still forming his government's policies, now is the time to put dramatic new steps on the table. Putin seems ready. He has emphasized the critical threats that terrorism and nuclear proliferation pose to Russian security, and called for new steps to eliminate "excess" nuclear weapons and improve the safety of Russia's nuclear complex.

A comprehensive plan for addressing this security hazard is urgently needed, focused on six key steps:

(1) Radically accelerate security and accounting improvements, upgrading security for all the plutonium and HEU in the former Soviet Union within a few years.

(2) Pay Russia to blend down all of its excess HEU within a few years, permanently eliminating an enormous security hazard.

(3) Finance the program to dispose of Russia's huge excess plutonium stockpile.

(4) Increase support for Russia's efforts to shrink its nuclear weapons complex and re-employ the excess weapons experts -- in return for Russian agreement to measurable reductions in the complex's threat to the United States.

(5) Finance the dismantlement of thousands of Russian warheads, with monitoring to confirm the dismantlement is taking place without revealing classified information -- and with substantial U.S. dismantlement as well, under identical monitoring measures.

(6) Create new revenue streams for nuclear security programs, through projects such as commercial spent fuel storage, a "debt-for-security swap," additional HEU purchases, and relaxing trade restraints on Russia's legitimate nuclear exports, with a portion of the proceeds targeted for auditable financing of nuclear security efforts.

Such a comprehensive strategy would cost the United States roughly $1.5 billion a year for several years -- a small price to pay for a dramatic reduction in the security threat to the United States. While Congress has been skeptical of some Clinton administration proposals in this area, there is strong support in Congress for a well-thought-out, carefully coordinated, and comprehensive plan of action to deal with this security threat, tailored to ensure that the funds are used for the intended purposes and not siphoned off by corruption. To succeed -- and to gain support on Capitol Hill -- such a comprehensive effort needs to be led by a full-time senior official with direct access to the President.

President Clinton should seek a summit agreement with President Putin to pursue such a bold new nuclear security agenda, committing to Putin that he will work with Congress and his successor to make sure the United States holds up its end of the bargain. The cost of action now is tiny by comparison to the costs and risks of failing to seize this opportunity.

Matthew Bunn, a former White House adviser on nuclear proliferation, is Assistant Director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of , from which this article is adapted.