- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 25, 2002

The events of September 11 sent an urgent wake up call that the United States should take very seriously the continuing efforts by terrorist groups to acquire nuclear weapons. Fortunately, Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican, has heard that call and introduced a bill that could help prevent a nuclear September 11.

The State Department currently lists more than a dozen rogue states and terrorist organizations, including Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda, that are actively seeking nuclear weapons.

Russia's vast and undersecured stockpiles of excess fissile materials represent the most likely potential source of terrorist nuclear capability. According to U.S. intelligence agencies, Russian criminal groups are already supplying al Qaeda with components for nuclear weapons. All that's missing is the nuclear material itself.

In the days following the September 11 attacks, Russia's Federal Security Service reportedly thwarted an attempt by one of these criminal groups to sell stolen or diverted nuclear weapon-grade material to an unidentified buyer.

For several years, Russia has been hinting that it would be interested in selling these same nuclear materials to the United States for peaceful uses. Unfortunately, these hints have usually fallen on deaf ears.

Now, thanks to Mr. Domenici's leadership, we stand at the threshold of just such an agreement, and the timing could not be more critical.

Russia's Cold War-era nuclear stockpiles, which include 700 to 800 tons of highly enriched uranium and 150 to 200 tons of weapon-grade plutonium, pose a growing risk because of serious gaps in Moscow's nuclear security. Many of these scattered stockpiles are stored in makeshift warehouses, protected only by $5 combination locks or the equivalent. Small amounts of these materials have already been confiscated by European law enforcement officials from sellers looking for buyers.

It would take only 15 to 20 pounds of this uranium, or an even smaller amount of plutonium, to arm a device capable of leveling downtown Washington or lower Manhattan. Iraq and the terrorist group Islamic Jihad have each reportedly offered Russian workers enormous sums of money for enough nuclear material to produce a single weapon.

The blueprints and non-nuclear components necessary to build crude but highly effective nuclear weapons are readily available. The only component prohibitively difficult to develop or acquire is the nuclear material.

There is no reliable way of keeping a nuclear weapon or contraband from being smuggled into U.S. territory if it ever does fall into the wrong hands. Fortunately, Moscow appears willing to sell these same materials to the United States, or to a U.S.-led group of international investors, for just a few thousand dollars per pound.

Mr. Domenici has introduced a bill that establishes a framework for how such a transaction might take place. Under the bill's provisions, the U.S. government would guarantee loans to Russia in increments of $20 million, up to $1 billion at any one time, accepting Moscow's fissile materials as collateral. For each $20 million loan, Russia would place 1 metric ton of uranium and 1 metric ton of plutonium under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards at a secure facility in Russia that is mutually acceptable to both Russia and the IAEA.

As part of the deal, Russia would guarantee that the fissile materials placed under IAEA safeguards would remain there indefinitely, meaning until they are used as nuclear fuel or otherwise permanently disposed. This entire process could be completed within just a few years.

The opportunity has never been greater to resolve the tremendous risk to U.S. and international security posed by Russia's enormous stockpiles of undersecured nuclear materials.

Rep. Lois Capps, California Democrat, has introduced a companion bill in the House. Congress should move quickly to consider these two bills, make any necessary revisions and deliver legislation to the president as soon as possible for his signature.

The only problem is, the bill has been introduced in each chamber of Congress by a member of the minority party in that chamber. Consequently, the House version of the bill is tied up in the International Relations Committee, while the Senate version languishes in the Foreign Relations Committee.

One possible solution to breaking the current impasse would be for Mr. Domenici to call up his Republican colleagues in the House, remind them that H.R. 3290 is the House version of his bill and ask them to put it on the fast track. Correspondingly, Ms. Capps should call up her Democratic colleagues in the Senate, remind them that S.1277 is the Senate version of her bill and ask them to free it up as soon as possible.

Otherwise, the next "act of war" against the United States might very well turn out to be an act of nuclear war.

Brett Wagner is president of the California Center for Strategic Studies, a non-profit non-partisan policy think tank based in Santa Barbara, and executive director of the Swords Into Plowshares Project.

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