'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
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Sunday, January 25, 2015
US-Russian rift threatens security of nuclear material
One of the greatest boons brought to the world by the end of the Cold War was the agreement been the US and the countries of the former Soviet Union to cooperate in securing the USSR’s vast nuclear arsenal.
Under the 1991 Cooperative Threat Reduction agreement, better known as the Nunn-Lugar programme (after the two senators who persuaded Congress to pay for it) 900 intercontinental ballistic missiles were destroyed, and over 7600 warheads were deactivated. Some 250 tons of bomb-grade fissile material, scattered across the disintegrating superpower, was locked up and put under guard, so it could not be stolen and sold to the highest bidder. Tens of thousands of former Soviet nuclear weapons scientists and technicians were found jobs and salaries to help reduce the incentives to offer their expertise to rogue states and terrorists.
All in all, a pretty big deal, whose benefits will only be fully appreciated in their absence.
The spirit of cooperation that underpinned the programme has crumbled over recent years. Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia has increasingly bristled at the premise that it was unable to ensure the security of its own arsenal and fretted about Americans using the programme to spy on its nuclear secrets. In 2012, Moscow announced it would not extend Nunn-Lugar, but a replacement US-Russian bilateral nuclear security deal was cobbled together in its place a year later.
That deal, under the framework of the Multilateral Nuclear Environment Programme in Russia (MNEPR), was more limited. The US would not longer take part in the dismantling of weapons but would continue to assist safeguarding stocks of fissile plutonium and uranium.
Now, even that has fallen apart. In December, Congress voted to cut funding, in part because the Ukraine war, although unspent money in the programme could still have been used. A few days later however, as the Boston Globe reported, Russian officials broke the news to their American counterparts in a hotel overlooking Red Square that they were cutting off almost all cooperation.
As a result, no US-funded security work will be done at any Russian nuclear weapons sites nor will there be any joint security upgrades at any Russian facility where substantial amounts of weapons-usable nuclear material are stored.
Speaking by phone from the US, former Senator Sam Nunn, half of the Nunn-Lugar partnership that started the programme, said “the world is a less safe place because of this”.
There has been a race between cooperation and catastrophe, when you look at the possibility of catastrophic acts of terrorism. Cooperation has been running rapidly over the past twenty years, but this is a real setback...The Russians says they are going to spend resources to secure their materials and we have to hope they will. They have the expertise to do it, but they are under heavy economic pressure.
Matthew Bunn, a Harvard University professor and one of the world’s leading experts on the issue, said: “Nuclear security is dramatically better than it was in the 1990’s. The question now is how much those improvements will be sustained. Will there sufficient protection against insiders? Because all thefts up to now have been by insiders, not 20 guys coming in from the outside with guns blazing.”
Of the new US-Russian rift, Bunn said:
It makes the world a more dangerous place. It will make it more likely there will be nuclear security incidents in the world’s biggest nuclear stockpile.