Dr. Siegfried Hecker spoke September 7 at a roundtable co-sponsored by the Carnegie Non-Proliferation Project and the Monterey Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Below are excerpts from Dr. Hecker's article in Nonproliferation Review, "Thoughts About an Integrated Strategy for Nuclear Cooperation with Russia," Summer 2001.

The Soviet Union developed an enormous nuclear complex at the expense of immense human and financial sacrifice. Over 50 years, the Soviet and Russian governments built many tens of thousand nuclear weapons, most with many times the destructive power of the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is estimated that approximately 20,000 warheads (strategic, tactical, or reserves) still exist in Russia today at dozens of deployment locations with over 100 storage bunkers at over 60 weapons storage sites.

The Soviet Union created huge amounts of weapons-usable materials: more than 1,000 metric tons (MT) of HEU and between 125 and 200 MT of weapons-grade plutonium (the actual amounts are still kept secret). These materials are scattered at more than 50 sites in several hundred buildings under the control of several agencies and many institutions.

It built a large network of huge nuclear production facilities: uranium enrichment at Sverdlovsk-44, Krasnoyarsk-45, Tomsk-7, and Angarsk; plutonium production at Chelyabinsk-65 (Mayak), Tomsk-7, and Krasnoyarsk-26; and serial production of weapons (assembly and disassembly) at Avangard (Sarov), Sverdlovsk-45, Penza-19, and Zlatoust-36. The complex also contained numerous non-nuclear weapons component plants.[13]

The Soviet Union also developed an extensive network of intellectual assets: three nuclear weapons laboratories (VNIIEF/Arzamas-16 in Sarov, VNIITF/Chelya-binsk-70 in Snezhinsk, and VNIIA in Moscow); dozens of specialized defense institutes throughout the Soviet Union; and several dedicated universities. There were two very large nuclear test sites, Semipalatinsk (now in the independent country of Kazakhstan) and Novaya Zemlya (an island above the Arctic Circle). In addition, Russia conducted over 120 peaceful nuclear explosions scattered throughout the territories of the Soviet Union. The Ministry of Medium Machine Building, the predecessor agency to the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom), oversaw an enormous infrastructure that was capable of supplying everything the "closed cities" of its complex required, from city administration to heavy construction. Including civilian research and nuclear power activities, the complex employed nearly one million people. It was sometimes called a "state within a state."

Ten years ago, the nuclear weapons, materials, and know-how in this enormous complex posed an immediate threat to the rest of the world because of the imminent chaos that was to result from the breakup of the Soviet Union. Today, I see the following hierarchy of risks, listed in order of decreasing concern and priority:

  • Avoiding a nuclear exchange remains the highest priority, because it threatens the very existence of the United States. Although the probability of a Russian nuclear launch aimed at the United States is very low, it must be avoided at any cost.
  • Theft or diversion of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials by criminals, terrorists, subnational groups, or states of concern represent an immediate and major threat to U.S. territory and its citizens or assets overseas.
  • Aggressive nuclear exports by Russia of both technology and know-how represent a serious proliferation threat.
  • Leakage of nuclear weapons know-how from the highly sophisticated Russian nuclear complex poses great risk if that knowledge gets in the wrong hands.
  • Huge amounts of weapons-usable material and the size of the Russian nuclear weapons complex pose a long-term threat to a more stable security regime.
  • Nuclear accidents or environmental disasters in Russia will upset world economic stability and undermine public support for nuclear power.

Although the breakup of the Soviet Union has dramatically reduced the probability of a nuclear exchange, we must remain ever vigilant against the possibility of accidental or unauthorized launches. In the longer term, it will be important to develop a new strategy for strategic stability. The end of the Cold War and the U.S. move toward a national missile defense (NMD) clearly challenge the traditional strategies. A new strategy for strategic stability will evolve slowly and only after the role of traditional arms control, nuclear force structure balance, second-rank nuclear powers, and proliferation issues are reexamined.

To find out more about the meeting with Dr. Hecker, click here.

To read the entire article in Non-Proliferation Review, click here.