FOREIGN EDITORIAL: The new nuclear threat
The agreement signed last week by George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin is a worthwhile step to reduce nuclear arsenals and strengthen the U.S.-Russian friendship. Anything that cuts nuclear stockpiles on each side by two-thirds is bound to enhance peace and stability. But the fading of the Cold War threat of an all-out nuclear exchange has coincided with the emergence of a new and less controllable threat: nuclear terrorism. And that danger needs more attention in both capitals.
Since Sept. 11, there has been a great deal of discussion about the possibility that Al Qaeda or other violent fanatics might someday acquire radioactive explosives. Theft of nuclear materials would require them to build bombs themselves--a formidable but not impossible task. A more plausible scenario for them is to buy or steal an existing bomb from a nuclear power. Russia, with its vast arsenal and meager resources for security, could be their best bet.
Critics worry that the new arms deal may diminish the risk of a nuclear exchange only by increasing the threat of nuclear terrorism. Under the terms of the treaty, many of the warheads being removed from service won’t be destroyed but put in storage in case they should someday be needed.
The fear is that the Russian government might maintain looser security at storage sites than at missile silos. The problem could be averted by requiring the dismantling of all the warheads slated to be cut, but the Bush administration declined that option.
A bigger problem lies with Russia’s small tactical nukes, built for “battlefield” use during the Cold War. The New York Times reports that the number of these weapons is estimated at anywhere from 4,000 to 30,000, and there has been less than strict accounting of them.
“They’ll tell you they’ve never lost a weapon,” says Kenneth Luongo of the private Russian-American Nuclear Security Advisory Council. “The fact is, they don’t know. And when you’re talking about warhead counting, you don’t want to miss even one.” One, smuggled into the United States and detonated in an American city, is all it would take to level everything within a 2-mile diameter, killing tens or hundreds of thousands of people.
But the magnitude of the peril still exceeds the efforts to avert it. A recent report by the Project for Managing the Atom at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs says that though the U.S. and Russia have taken some significant steps, far more remains to be done.
Even preliminary security upgrades haven’t been made for 40 percent of Russia’s weapons-grade nuclear material. Less than one-seventh of its highly-enriched uranium has been destroyed. In spite of all the work that is needed, the Bush administration proposes to spend just $1 billion next year to safeguard Moscow’s nukes.
That is just a third of the amount recommended by a bipartisan blue-ribbon panel before the Sept. 11 attacks.
The recommended amount, notes the Project on Managing the Atom, “would still amount to less than 1 percent of annual U.S. defense spending--yet it would be sufficient to radically reduce one of the most urgent and catastrophic threats to U.S. security.” Two or three billion dollars to avert nuclear terrorism is no guarantee of success. But it could be the best money the U.S. government ever spent. —Chicago Tribune