Russia’s Nuclear Weapons Proliferation Poses Threat to Americans

A proactive and intelligence-based nuclear security policy is needed

June 14, 2006

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WASHINGTON – Given America’s focus on the Iranian nuclear program and the ongoing dispute with North Korea, the threat of nuclear terrorism remains a major U.S. concern. According to a study released today from the Cato Institute, the danger posed by Russia’s inadequately secured stocks of nuclear weapons and fissile material should also be considered a major national security issue for the United States.

In “Reappraising Nuclear Security Strategy,” Rensselaer Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and author of Smuggling Armageddon: The Nuclear Black Market in the Former Soviet Union and Europe, claims that current non-proliferation efforts are not enough. The various cooperative U.S.-Russian programs aimed at securing nuclear materials, weapons and design intelligence can be circumvented by determined adversaries, including terrorists, and there’s some reporting that this has happened.

“There are no easy ways to close the nuclear proliferation window,” writes Lee. “A proactive and intelligence-based nuclear security policy, one that complements existing programs while enabling authorities to do a better job of targeting and preventing proliferation damage, is needed to counter this threat.” He adds that even if implemented, such programs require a high level of interest and cooperation by Russian authorities, and these efforts might still be undermined by regional conflict, domestic political instability or major geopolitical changes. Accordingly, a comprehensive nuclear security strategy must focus more attention and resources on the demand side of the proliferation equation.

More money is not necessarily the answer, the author explains. Securing fissile material at the source should be the most immediate priority, offering greater promise of success than preventing cross-border trafficking of such material or clandestine transfers of nuclear weapons expertise.

Lee concludes that the United States cannot conduct nonproliferation work effectively in a vacuum, without reference to adversaries’ WMD programs and procurement aims. Collaboration with Russian and other former Soviet security organizations needs to be strengthened.

“Ideally, a nuclear security policy should also embrace the concept of demand-reduction — influencing the motivations of adversary states and sub-national groups to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons capability,” Lee says.

Policy Analysis Paper no. 571