Reprinted with permission from Los Angeles Times, November 12, 2001.
Nuclear weapons in the hands of Osama bin Laden. A suitcase bomb detonating in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge. A radiological bomb spewing plutonium over the White House, creating a keep-out zone in central Washington to last for thousands of years. Suddenly, the press is full of scenarios like these, and people are worried.
The United States has committed funds to responding to these threats, such as training crack nuclear emergency search teams and deploying good nuclear sensor systems. But funding for one critical priority is missing: We must stem the nuclear flow at its source.
The meetings this week between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin provide an excellent opportunity for the two to talk about bolstering nuclear threat reduction efforts. Nearly a decade ago, we began working with Russia and other countries in the region to build better fences around nuclear facilities and to train workers to be reliable custodians of nuclear assets. These programs are our first line of defense against a nuclear terror attack.
And yet these programs have not seen a penny of increased spending since the Sept. 11 attack.
Why is this, when the country is sick with worry that the next attack will be a nuclear one? It seems that ambivalence in the White House may be keeping new funds from flowing in this direction. The Bush administration has complained that the Russians shouldn't let us foot the bill for programs that ought to be their top priority as well.
This issue has peaked over the shutdown of Russia's three plutonium production reactors. Originally built to pump out plutonium for the Soviet bomb program, the reactors now provide heat and electicity to the cities of Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk. In the process, they continue to produce 11/2 tons of weapons-grade plutonium every year, enough for about 375 new bombs. For this reason, shutdown of the reactors has been a top priority.
The Bush administration, however, has not been enthusiastic about the shutdown plan, which involves replacing the three plutonium reactors with fossil-fuel plants. "We don't build enough energy plants in this country," I heard one administration official say, "why should we build them in Russia?"
The Bush team has a point. The Russian Federation is no longer in such desperate straits as it was a decade ago. Indeed, while the U.S. economy has ceased growing, the Russian economy is perking along at an annual growth rate of 5%. Russia should therefore, the administration reasons, be in a position to shoulder more of the responsibility for nonproliferation priorities--such as the shutdown of the plutonium reactors that the U.S. finds difficult to fund.
We should not take this argument too far because the size of the Russian economy is still minuscule compared with that of ours.
As one Russian colleague commented when he heard about the $40-billion post-Sept. 11 supplemental funding, "That's nearly double the entire Russian defense budget for this year."
Nevertheless, we could take special action to help the Russians finance such programs.
One good idea is the so-called debt-for-security swaps that have been proposed. Under this concept, we would forgive Soviet-era debt in exchange for Russia putting rubles into nonproliferation programs. These swaps would have to be carefully structured, with firm agreement on what projects and when.
But we need more dollars going into these programs too. We cannot afford to cut the budget and shunt nuclear threat reduction programs to the back burner. We need to take urgent steps to further counter theft at Russian facilities.
Every time we go into a Russian nuclear site, we immediately survey it to decide what quick fixes are needed to upgrade security. Is there a splintered old door that needs to be replaced? Do windows need to be bricked up or equipped with bars?
If we began next April, the start of the summer construction period, within nine months we could complete quick fixes on all of the facilities in the Russian weapons complex that we so far haven't touched. The Russians would have to give us access to the sites, and the U.S. government would have to quickly get all the planning and paperwork in place. But it could be done and would give a huge boost to the nuclear security of both the United States and Russian Federation.
Bush and Putin should focus on this cooperation as a critical part of our fight against terrorism. The next attack on the United States or the next attack on Russia could be nuclear.