- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2003

Efforts to secure rusting, insecure Soviet-era radioactive material got a boost recently, when Congress fully funded the administration’s request for the Nunn-Lugar non-proliferation program. The House had intended to cut $29 million from the administration’s funding request, but the Senate prevailed, securing the full $451 million.

When this figure is combined with Department of Energy’s global non-proliferation initiatives and modest spending by the State Department, the United States will contribute a total of about $10 billion over ten years to the Global Partnership, which has a $20 billion non-proliferation fund. Washington has contributed about $1 billion annually to non-proliferation efforts in the past, but funding was only committed in short-term increments. America’s 10-year commitment will allow experts to form long-term plans. Other G-8 countries have pledged to match the United States’ 10-year funding, with Russia committing $2 billion.

This is welcome news. Still, non-proliferation experts describe a worrisome global scenario for nuclear security. Although constructive steps are being taken to secure reactors and weapons sites with fissile material, the program’s success relies to some degree on good luck.

According to the Strengthening the Global Partnership report, which was compiled by 21 research institutes in 16 European, Asian and North American countries, only 17 percent of Russia’s 600 tons of nuclear material and 10 percent of its 20,000 warheads are in facilities which have had comprehensive security upgrades.

The situation in former Soviet states outside of Russia is even more worrisome. Research reactors in Uzbekistan, Ukraine and Belarus are considered very insecure. Terrorists would have to successfully raid multiple sites to get the necessary 25 pounds of highly enriched uranium to make a suitcase bomb. But less is needed for a dirty bomb, which would combine conventional explosives with uranium. The effectiveness of a dirty bomb would depend on a wide range of factors, including weather. But the psychological impact of such an attack would be intense, and the necessary clean-up would likely be very expensive.

Also worrisome is how easily transportable uranium is. Fuel rods thrown in the back of a pick-up truck would pose no real danger to its transporters. And though some border posts in the former Soviet Union have nuclear detection devices, there are numerous potential exit routes for smugglers. In Abkhazia, a breakaway province of Georgia which has been in effect run by separatists since 1993, up to 2 pounds of highly enriched uranium from an abandoned facility has disappeared without a trace.

The outlook on global non-proliferation efforts is mixed. The United States, along with partners such as Norway, has made concerted efforts. These efforts are racing against cagey enemies who appear to have opportunities for considerable mischief, if not mass destruction.

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