Russia’s Leaking Nukes

One Point Safe: A True Story

by Andrew Cockburn, by Leslie Cockburn
Anchor, 288 pp., $23.95

The Peacemaker

a film directed by Mimi Leder

In September, General Alexander Lebed, the defeated presidential candidate who was briefly the head of Russia’s Security Council, said in a television interview that more than a hundred suitcase-sized nuclear bombs were missing from Russian military inventories. Earlier, in May, he had told an American congressional delegation that the Soviet Union had produced 132 portable nuclear weapons and that 84 were missing. The statement he made on television was immediately denied by Russian military authorities. Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev assured the public that Russia’s nuclear arsenal was under firm control. General Igor Volynkin, who heads the department in the Defense Ministry responsible for nuclear security, denied that nuclear “suitcase bombs” of the sort described by General Lebed exist in Russia.

Volynkin not only denied the charge but also contradicted Alexei Yablokov, the highly respected scientist who for a time was President Yeltsin’s adviser on environmental matters, who had stated that he knew people who had worked on such bombs for use not only by the military but by the KGB. Volynkin’s attempt to reassure the public infuriated Yablokov, who threatened to reveal embarrassing details unless more attention was given to the issue of nuclear weapons security. Apparently to head off further disclosures, Kremlin officials were reported to have invited Yablokov in early November to work with the Russian Defense Council to draft rules stipulating how “compact nuclear weapons” should be accounted for, secured, and destroyed—a move that implicitly contradicted the categorical assurances from the Ministry of Defense that such weapons did not exist.

The exchange over the allegedly missing portable bombs revives the suspicion, raised by previous incidents, that the Russian government does not know how many nuclear weapons it has and therefore cannot know for sure that none are missing.

Whatever the truth may be in the argument over “suitcase bombs,” the danger of “nuclear leakage”—a phrase that covers both the theft and unexplained disappearance of nuclear weapons and fissile material—is not dependent on the size of Russian weapons. A nuclear device does not have to be small enough and light enough for one person to carry if it is to be usable by terrorists or rogue states. Furthermore, leakage of fissile materials can be almost as dangerous as diversion of the weapons themselves. Even if we accept official assurances that nuclear weapons are adequately protected, we would have no basis for assuming that stocks of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium receive comparable protection.

The dangers of nuclear leakage from Russia is the theme of Andrew and Leslie Cockburn’s One Point Safe—the title derives from nuclear weapons terminology for a device which, in case of an accident, would have less than a one-in-a-million probability of exploding with a force greater than that produced by four pounds of TNT. The authors describe the current dangers, through interviews with mid-level US officials who have dealt with them (and some who still do). They include air force weapons technicians turned detective, scientists …

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