"A dangerous step backwards"

Why has President Bush cut funding to combat nuclear proliferation in Russia, and will Congress be able to bring it back?

Published May 16, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, it's been hard to keep tight watch over all 7,000 warheads and all 650 tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium still spread out across Russia. Talented Russian weapons scientists live in a seriously depressed economy, uncertain if they'll receive another paycheck or be able to feed their families.

For years there's been a broad bipartisan consensus that the combined problems of "loose nukes" -- weapons and materials that aren't adequately secured -- and the "brain drain" of Russian scientists -- some of whom are being lured by governments like Iran and Iraq to make those nations nuclear powers -- pose the greatest threat to national security that the U.S. faces.

That's why there's now bipartisan alarm at President Bush's decision to cut $100 million from highly successful federal programs that keep tabs on Russia's nuclear weapons and material and prevent those materials from falling into the hands of hostile states and terrorists.

The cuts are part of the administration's 2001 budget, which was approved by Congress last Thursday. Many in the security field are particularly distressed by the cuts to the Department of Energy's Nuclear Nonproliferation Office, which oversees a variety of programs dealing with both the "loose nukes" and the "brain drain" problems, in Russia especially.

These programs have traditionally received widespread bipartisan support -- so much so that in the past, Congress has allocated more than the agency has requested. Now it will face cuts of more than $60 million to its programs in Russia alone, just as those in the field say those programs are most needed and gaining momentum.

Cuts to these programs come at the same time that Bush is trying to sell allies on a multibillion-dollar missile defense system to combat nuclear ballistic missile attacks. On Monday the administration reaffirmed that it would construct a missile defense, despite a chilly response from Russia. Russian officials complain that such a system would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the hallmark agreement of arms control, and have threatened to stop reducing their own nuclear stockpile if the U.S. pursues such a plan.

Furthermore, intelligence reports indicate that the most likely form of nuclear attack the U.S. could face would not involve ballistic missiles, but would likely come under the radar of such a defense system.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the Budget Committee chairman and key founder of the Department of Energy's nonproliferation programs, is expected to fight to restore the cuts. "The whole idea of cutting programs before policy reviews are completed is of great concern," Domenici said in a public statement last Friday.

The New Mexico senator says he is "very hopeful" that such a review will show that increasing funding for the programs is "not only appropriate, but urgently needed." At a conference of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management in Washington on Wednesday, Domenici will call for restoring at least some of the cuts.

But it won't be an easy task. Nonproliferation programs will have to vie for part of the same pie that will be split among all of the Department of Energy's programs -- cleanup of nuclear sites within the U.S., scientific research at the national laboratories -- not to mention efforts to deal with the nation's energy crisis. No matter how grave the national security issues involved may be, the issue arises at a time when the most pressing energy concerns facing the public are high gas prices and the West Coast electricity outages.

In a country where poverty makes entrepreneurship a necessity, those with access to Russia's more than 100 nuclear sites face constant temptation. Nowhere is that temptation greater than in Russia's 10 closed nuclear cities. Built in secret during the Cold War, not officially on the map, they produced nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Now cities like Sarov, Lesnoy and Ozersk are virtual ghost towns. Those who could leave did leave, mostly during the early '90s. But a few remain there -- specialists who used to be pampered by the Soviet government and given free housing, but who now find it difficult to find any work at all. The average monthly wage is less than $100 in most of these cities, and in some it is less than $50.

In 1998, workers at the Sarov nuclear lab were charged with selling nuclear documents to Iraq and Afghanistan. That same year, the Russian Federal Security Service caught staff members at a nuclear weapons plant in Chelyabinsk trying to steal 18.5 kilograms of weapons-usable nuclear material, about enough to make a bomb. According to Russian authorities, there are at least 100 suitcase-sized bombs currently missing from storage

While she served on the National Security Council from 1993-1996, Jane Wales saw some potentially terrifying lapses in security that were caught and stopped by authorities. "There was one case where a janitor who hadn't been paid in a long time, who didn't know what kind of future there was for his family, took highly enriched uranium and put it in a mitt and took it home and put it in his refrigerator. Then it occurred to him that he didn't have any notion of how one sells highly enriched uranium on the market. You can't exactly take out a classified ad. So finally, after struggling with his situation, he chose to return it and admit that he had done this."

And while the end of the Cold War convinced many Americans the Russian nuclear threat had been vanquished, "in many respects the nuclear danger has gone up, not down, since the end of the Cold War," Wales says. "We have lost the tight Soviet controls over their nuclear arsenal and over the expertise that supports it."

In just 10 years, the anti-proliferation programs have helped lead Russia to agree to close one of its four nuclear weapons assembly facilities (the U.S. has only one). And hundreds of tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium have been processed down so that they can't be used for nuclear weapons. One DOE program even recycles that uranium for use in American nuclear power plants, and has so far blended down 110 metric tons of the stuff as of last December -- the equivalent of 4,400 nuclear devices.

"This may be the single smartest investment in our security that we could be making," says Wales, who is currently the president and CEO of the World Affairs Council of Northern California.

A top-level government report issued last year agreed. The Secretary of Energy Advisory Board task force on Russia programs, chaired by former White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler and former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, praised the Russia programs, saying they had shown impressive results so far.

But the bipartisan task force said the programs were moving too slowly because their funding was inadequate, and urged a $30 billion increase in funding for the programs -- in other words, it urged that the funding be quintupled. In that report, Baker called the proliferation dangers in Russia "the most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States today."

Now, instead of increases, the programs face cuts. The International Materials Protection Control & Accounting Program (IMPC&A), which puts in place security measures at Russia's more than 100 nuclear sites, now faces reductions of nearly $40 million. The Nuclear Cities Initiative, which works to combat "brain drain" by creating civilian jobs for nuclear workers in the closed nuclear cities, was cut by $20 million. The Initiative for Proliferation Prevention faces cuts of only $2 million, but the cuts will affect Russian programs most severely, hindering the project's efforts to couple displaced weapons scientists with private companies doing research in their region.

So far the Department of Energy has been tight-lipped about the impact of the cuts. Sarah Lennon, a spokesperson for the DOE's Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, would not discuss the budget issues except to say "None of our programs are being cut entirely. There has been a reduction in funding for some of the programs, but none of them are being phased out."

But anti-proliferation advocates say the cuts will have ripple effects, touching even nongovernmental programs that work on the same goals. The Nuclear Threat Initiative is a nonprofit organization founded by Nunn and Lugar, with a $250 million grant from CNN media mogul Ted Turner. Laura Holgate, the vice president of Russian nuclear programs at NTI, says, "These cuts are very concerning." She views the cuts as doubly severe considering that "this was the year when a lot of these programs were scheduled for some very major increases."

Holgate, who worked closely with the programs a few years ago when she was the director of the DOE's plutonium disposition program, says that the IMPC&A program in particular had been transitioning from "a Band-Aid approach of quick fixes for glaring problems" -- such as bricking up glass windows into nuclear vaults and putting fences around facilities -- to a much more systematic approach to help the Russians improve their security. It also aims "to really change their mindset to recognize the importance of the insider threat, which didn't used to be a problem in the Soviet Union. That takes a lot of effort and time and training. That process will be significantly slowed if these cuts persist."

The Bush budget slightly increases Defense Department nonproliferation programs, which were created by the Cooperative Threat Reduction Act, sponsored by Sens. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., in 1991. But the DOE programs work closely with the Nunn-Lugar efforts, and both Nunn and Lugar have opposed the cuts, which Nunn called "a dangerous step backward."

Ironically, the cuts come at a time when missile defense is on the front page of newspapers across the globe, and there is much talk about the threat of nuclear attack from "rogue" states such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea, and from terrorist organizations. But none of these rogue states or terrorist groups have ballistic missiles capable of reaching the continental U.S. The biggest threat to the U.S., experts say, may be a bomb made of black-market nuclear material, smuggled over the border in a briefcase, or hidden in freight headed straight for a major port city.

"I think that threat is very plausible," says Holgate. "Even if it doesn't work quite as it's designed to, [a nuclear weapon] can still make a lot of mess and bring a lot of terror and public panic, and create an environmental nightmare. The same goes for nuclear material, you can either make a real mess with it or, in the hands of a knowledgeable and talented proliferator, they may be able to transform weapons material directly into a bomb."

"The first thing you do to protect against the threat is the same," says Holgate, "whether you're worried about Iran or about Osama bin Laden, you have to protect the material where it is and make sure it stays put. So you don't really have to address the demand side as quickly if you're taking care of the supply side effectively."

Restoring cuts to the DOE's programs now depends on two things: the National Security Council's review of those programs, still underway, and the final stage of the budget process. In the next couple of weeks, appropriations money will be divvied up and budget priorities will be set into law. And Domenici, who also chairs the appropriations subcommittee on energy, is firmly committed to restoring the programs' funding, according to a spokesperson for his office.

Holgate says she is hopeful that the budget can be adjusted. "There is consensus that there is a big problem out there," noting that bipartisan effort created both the DOE programs and her own organization. "There is a very obvious common ground that all sides of the question come to, and say, 'Whatever you think about missile defense down the road, or whatever you think about the future of Russia -- wherever the partisanship differences occur -- the bottom line is that this material should be protected, you don't want the scientists going to places that they shouldn't be, and you don't want these facilities to continue to operate with their excessive capability."

Even if funds are restored later this year, Domenici expressed fear that programs could lose critical staff. "We are sending an unfortunate message to our own program workers, to say nothing of the Russians with whom we are cooperating."

Wales says she witnessed an impressive level of cooperation on the part of the Russians while working for the NSC. "What stood out for me in this experience was the fact that folks who hadn't been paid in a long time, who really felt at risk and who had the opportunity to benefit, either by selling their knowledge or potentially by diverting materials, chose not to. By and large the people working at these sites were patriots first, who did not want to be part of spreading proliferation, and they chose to do the honorable thing.

"But you can't rely on that forever," she cautions. Scientists who are finding it hard to make a living "would find it quite easy to be employed if they were willing to turn their backs on their own country and on the international community. That's a huge temptation for people, no matter how honorable, over a sustained period of time."

By Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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