Thursday, February 24, 2005

President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed yesterday to step up cooperation in securing weapons and material to prevent nuclear terrorism.

A joint statement issued after the summit in Bratislava, Slovakia, said the increased cooperation is targeted at countering “one of the gravest threats the two countries face, nuclear terrorism.”

The move followed the release of a U.S. intelligence report to Congress that concludes that Russia is having problems protecting its weapons facilities and nuclear energy plants from “insiders” and terrorists.

The new cooperation will include improving emergency responses to a nuclear or radiological incident, sharing nuclear security management practices, and boosting the “security culture” in both nations.

The two sides also agreed to develop low-enriched uranium for use in U.S. and Russian reactors being built in third countries that now use high-enriched uranium. Low-enriched uranium is more difficult to use in making nuclear arms.

Additionally, the two sides pledged to set up a U.S.-Russian Senior Interagency Group on nuclear security, headed by Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman and Russian atomic energy agency Director Alexander Rumyantsev.

The intelligence report states that “we assess that undetected smuggling has occurred and we are concerned about the total amount of material that could have been diverted over the last 13 years.”

A senior Bush administration official in Slovakia told reporters that the nuclear cooperation pact is aimed at controlling weapons and material and to make sure “these materials never fall into the hands of terrorists.”

The directors of the CIA and FBI told Congress last week they are worried that terrorists will use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons in a major attack in the future. Other intelligence officials have said they believe Chechen terrorists pose the greatest risk of obtaining nuclear weapons on Russia’s black market.

Moscow has 4,000 strategic nuclear warheads and bombs, most of them kept in storage facilities. Russia also has thousands of tactical nuclear weapons. Russian officials have said all nuclear arms are secure but the intelligence report says Moscow may not be able to sustain recent U.S.-supplied security upgrades because of the costs.

While Russian weapons security is improving, “risks remain, however, and we continue to be concerned about vulnerabilities to an insider who attempts unauthorized actions as well as potential terrorist attacks,” the report says.

The unauthorized launch of a Russian nuclear weapon was judged “highly unlikely” by U.S. intelligence. However, “our concerns about possible circumvention of the [weapons security control] system would rise if central political authority broke down,” the report says.

The report by the National Intelligence Council, an analysis branch under CIA Director Porter J. Goss, discloses for the first time that terrorists conducted surveillance of Russian nuclear facilities and transportation routes. It says terrorists “have targeted Russian nuclear storage sites.”

In 2002, Russian authorities on two occasions stopped “terrorist efforts to reconnoiter nuclear weapon storage sites,” the report states.

“In addition, two Chechen sabotage and reconnaissance groups reportedly showed a suspicious amount of interest in the transportation of nuclear munitions,” it says. “The groups were spotted at several major railroad stations in the Moscow region, apparently interested in a special train used for transporting nuclear ‘bombs.’”

Regarding the loss of material, the report says covert nuclear smuggling had taken place. “We find it highly unlikely that Russian authorities would have been able to recover all the stolen material.”

In 1998, 18.5 kilograms of radioactive material was stolen from Chelyabinsk, a closed nuclear facility. A Russian official at the time said the loss was “quite sufficient material to produce an atomic bomb.”

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