Policy Analysis No. 571

Reappraising Nuclear Security Strategy

By Rensselaer Lee
June 14, 2006

Executive Summary

The danger posed by Russia’s inadequately secured stocks of nuclear weapons and fissile material is a major national security concern for the United States. Various cooperative U.S.- Russian programs aimed at securing nuclear material, weapons, and design intelligence have been mounted since the 1990s, but clever and determined adversaries may be able to circumvent or defeat the defenses that the United States and its partners are attempting to put in place. U.S. programs are by their nature reactive: they have long time horizons; they focus preeminently on the supply side of the problem; and they face serious technological limitations. Russia’s imperfect commitment to nonproliferation also undermines the effectiveness of U.S. nonproliferation efforts.

There are no easy ways to close the nuclear proliferation window. 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. Various measures to strengthen nuclear security policy could include the use of “vulnerability profiles” of each Russian facility that handles weapons-usable nuclear materials and better collaboration with Russian and other former Soviet security organizations. A comprehensive nuclear security strategy must also focus more attention and resources on the demand side of the proliferation equation. The United States cannot conduct nonproliferation work effectively without reference to adversaries’ programs for weapons of mass destruction and procurement aims. Ideally, U.S. policy should embrace the concept of demand reduction—influencing the motivations of adversary states and subnational groups so as to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons capability.

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Rensselaer Lee is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and president of Global Advisory Services in McLean, Virginia. He is the author of Smuggling Armageddon: The Nuclear Black Market in the Former Soviet Union and Europe (St. Martin’s, 1998).