Efforts by Washington and Moscow to prevent Russian nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists remain slowed by bureaucratic red tape and a lack of urgency, according to a new report released yesterday by a research group affiliated with Harvard University.
In fiscal year 2004, U.S.-funded work to secure and account for Russian material that could be used in nuclear weapons was completed for only 4 percent of it, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which was founded by Ted Turner and former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and is sponsored by Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. That raised the total secured to 26 percent, the group said.
Despite some heightened security procedures, many Russian nuclear research sites still frequently have doors propped open for convenience, intrusion sensors turned off because of false alarms and guards patrolling with unloaded weapons, the report said.
"On-the-ground progress in securing, consolidating and eliminating nuclear stockpiles in the last year remained slow, when compared to the urgency of the threat," according to the report. "Action from the highest levels [of the U.S. and Russian governments] is needed because difficult bureaucratic and political impediments persist."
Many terrorism experts say al Qaeda and other terrorist groups have focused for years on lightly secured nuclear facilities in Russia and other states in the former Soviet Union as potential sources for equipment and material needed to assemble an atomic weapon. The commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks recommended that U.S. officials undertake a "maximum effort" to place Russian nuclear equipment off-limits to terrorists.
The threat initiative study noted that considerable progress is being made in Russia. Starting with President Vladimir Putin, many Russian leaders now see the extraordinary danger posed by inadequately secured nuclear materials and weapons, it said.
But serious problems persist, according to the report. In March, the commander of Interior Ministry troops for Moscow said that seven key facilities there had functioning security equipment, while 39 had "serious shortcomings." He added that half the perimeters of these restricted sites lacked fences, the report said.
It also said that Russian security agencies must redouble security at nuclear sites in light of the ferocity of some recent terrorist attacks in Russia, such as the assault on a school in Beslan that killed at least 330 people, many of them children. The 32 Chechen attackers had obtained their weapons in an earlier attack on an Interior Ministry arms depot that involved 200 assailants dressed in military uniforms. A few months later, 47 men seized control of a nonnuclear military site north of Moscow filled with secret documents before troops expelled them.
The report also cited the case of a Russian businessman who in 2003 offered $750,000 to employees at a top Russian nuclear arms laboratory in exchange for stolen weapons-grade plutonium intended for a foreign buyer.
"We have no basis for confidence that there are people in the Russian [nuclear] system who wouldn't be tempted by $750,000," said Matthew Bunn, co-author of the report.
The study released yesterday was the latest of the group's examinations of global efforts to keep nuclear weapons and materials out of the hands of terrorists and criminal groups. The initiative recently cited official U.S. government data to show that Russian nuclear security upgrades in the two years before the Sept. 11 attacks were about the same as in the two years afterward.
The report noted several encouraging developments in global nuclear security, including U.N. action that would legally obligate nations to account for atomic stockpiles; stepped-up attention to the effort by the U.S. Energy Department; and a summit in Slovakia in February where President Bush and Putin agreed to extend cooperation on this front.
The Bush administration is proposing to spend $982 million to secure nuclear materials around the world, a 22 percent increase over the previous year's budget.
"The good news is that we are making progress," said Nunn, the threat initiative's co-chairman. "The bad news is that we're doing too little and moving much too slowly. . . . The job of securing dangerous materials in Russia itself is about one-half done."