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 who have been drawn into official working groups on nuclear smuggling and nuclear nonproliferation, military officers assigned to help their Russian counterparts protect the stocks of weaponry, and a Foreign Service officer at the US embassy in Moscow. These are people who normally work in obscurity below the senior levels of bureaucracies and often behind multiple vault doors, closed to all but those with highly restrictive security clearances.

The government employees the Cockburns talked to had real and disturbing stories to tell. They described how efforts to convince senior US officials to take the threat of nuclear leakage seriously often met with indifference and even hostility; how projects to safeguard nuclear weapons were sometimes sabotaged by bureaucratic infighting in Washington; how military exercises to test US defenses against nuclear terrorism revealed that we are in fact defenseless; how Russian officials often try to conceal the vulnerability of Russian storage depots. The US government has had some successes in its dealing with the Russians—it has improved the security of some Russian nuclear laboratories and removed 600 kilograms of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium from Kazakhstan. But according to the Cockburns, it has not yet given the threat of nuclear leakage the high priority and concerted day-to-day attention it requires.

Drawing on personal accounts of people who deal directly with weapons security, the Cockburns explain many relevant facts to readers not familiar with nuclear weapons technology, such as the ease with which a crude bomb can be constructed if a sufficient quantity of HEU or plutonium is available, and the way beryllium can be used to reduce the amount of fissile material required to make a weapon. They also explain how HEU and plutonium can be stolen from nuclear installations without exposing the thief to dangerous radiation.

Still, the prose in which the Cockburns describe their interviews is often overheated; the authors’ tendency to present incidents as just a step away from cataclysm sometimes smacks of hype. Fastidious readers will be annoyed by the occasional misspelling, artless repetitions, and other signs of hasty writing and careless editing. But these defects fade into insignificance when compared to the larger point the book makes, which is that the United States faces the most serious threat to its physical security since the cold war ended, while its government has not done what it should to diminish that threat. One should not allow the book’s weaknesses to obscure the truth it conveys.


The Peacemaker, a film inspired by One Point Safe, may claim to have the same concerns, but its faults are more serious since they undermine the credibility of its message. It centers on the theft, plotted by a Russian general, of a detached multiple warhead from a Russian ICBM, which the thieves try to mask by detonating one of the ten warheads to make it all seem an accident. Vigilant Americans detect the ruse and try to stop the remaining warheads from being transported in a Russian hospital truck from Siberia to the Caucasus. The truck is intercepted just before it crosses the Russian border, apparently bound for Iran, by an American colonel who retrieves eight of the warheads after shooting it out with the bad guys. The one warhead that has got away turns up in the backpack of a Bosnian Serb in midtown Manhattan, who is intent on obliterating the United Nations building for reasons which are never clear but seem to have something to do with the death of his wife and daughter from sniper fire in Sarajevo.

The Peacemaker contains so many howlers that no one with even a passing familiarity with reality can take the plot seriously. Of all the types of nuclear theft that might occur, that of an ICBM, the most heavily guarded item in the Russian inventory, has to be the least likely, even if we concede that a warhead in transit would be easier to steal than a missile in a silo. It would be technically impossible to detach a warhead in the way the film implies; and disguising a theft by detonating one warhead while the others are being hidden underground in a railroad tunnel would not fool a nuclear weapons specialist, of which Russia has many. Intercepting a truck rolling across the Urals on a narrow road—the only type available there—is still within the competence of even the disorganized and demoralized Russian security forces. The film presents one absurdity after another.

The dangers of nuclear theft are too real to be a fit subject for such fantasies. They require the most careful analysis, since, though the problems of nuclear leakage are obvious, their solution is neither clear nor simple. Providing security to nuclear weapons of all sizes is vitally important, but protecting fissile materials and weapons know-how is also essential and far more difficult.

Since only Russians can be responsible for their own nuclear installations, any effective strategy to protect the United States and its allies from nuclear terrorism must depend on the ability of the Russian authorities to tighten the security of weapon stocks, destroy weapons, and protect fissile material from theft. Even modest amounts in irresponsible hands could present insuperable problems for many countries, since the normal strategies of deterrence and military defense would not be effective against terrorists.


One Point Safe gives an accurate picture of the inadequate responses by US policymakers to the dangers, but it says little about what might in fact be done to reduce the risk we face. For a full discussion of these issues, we must turn to Avoiding Nuclear Anarchy, a compact, lucidly written study prepared by the Center for Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The four authors are all recognized experts in the field, and the senior author, Graham T. Allison, served as assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans in 1993-1994.

The authors describe their basic propositions as follows:

First, the leakage of weapons-usable nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union is already occurring and could easily get worse….

Second, no reality of the post- Cold War international environment constitutes a more direct threat to vital U.S. national security interests than nuclear leakage….

Third, the U.S. response to the threat of nuclear leakage through the fall of 1995 has been insufficient….

Fourth and finally, if the U.S. government is to reduce the threat of nuclear leakage…it must enlarge the political latitude available for pursuing anti-leakage efforts, and must be prepared to devote significantly greater resources to the task….

These words were written nearly two years ago, but the situation has not improved since then. In some respects it has gotten worse as US-Russian relations have deteriorated and funds available to deal with the problem, never adequate, have dwindled.



In 1986, when the Soviet nuclear arsenal reached its peak strength, the USSR had at least 45,000 nuclear weapons. Since then it has been dismantling between two and three thousand weapons a year, with custody of the fissile material passing from the Ministry of Defense to the Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom), which is responsible for Russia’s nuclear power reactors and for producing (and dismantling) nuclear weapons. This means that securing the weapons in the hands of the Defense Ministry, the question raised by Lebed and Yablokov, is only one part of the problem. According to Avoiding Nuclear Anarchy, there are actually four potential sources of nuclear leakage: the 15,000-25,000 weapons deployed by the Russian Ministry of Defense; weapons-grade fissile material stored in the huge Minatom complex; plutonium and other fissile material produced by power reactors; and nuclear material in research institutes and installations with naval propulsion and space reactor programs.

The total stock of fissile materials in Russia was estimated in 1995 at about 200 tons of plutonium and 800-1200 tons of HEU. In a country such as Russia, which has long had an advanced nuclear weapons program, a nuclear explosion can be created with as little as 2.2 pounds of plutonium or 5.5 pounds of HEU.1 Constructing a crude weapon would require a lot more, but not more than an employee of a nuclear installation could personally remove from a warehouse in a short time.

The theft of amounts of plutonium and HEU necessary to make bombs would probably not even be detected by the inventory tracking systems now used by Russian authorities, according to American specialists who have examined them. For example, when the government of Kazakhstan sold the United States over half a ton of HEU from an abandoned Soviet research project, the amount removed from storage was 4 percent more than the quantity the documents indicated. If there is a similar 4 percent error in inventories of Russian stocks of fissile material, it would mean that the makings of some 4,000 weapons are not in fact accounted for.

Some uncertainty about the size of inventories could probably be tolerated if controls were tight on the stored weapons and materials. But in Russia’s case it appears that risk of theft is high, since few installations have the array of sensors and other modern devices used in the United States to detect unauthorized removal of materials from laboratories and storage sites.

In the Soviet Union, where nuclear weapons specialists worked in cities that were closed to visitors and in heavily policed military installations, tight internal controls were not considered essential. Even if a worker were tempted to spirit some fissile material out of the warehouse, there was no easy way for him to dispose of it. The movement of people in and out of the closed cities and regions, and also across Soviet borders, was monitored so closely that penetration by criminal gangs able to deal in nuclear materials would have been exceedingly difficult.

This is not the case today. The once secret cities have been opened and there is plenty of evidence of criminal activity in and near them. The former KGB, which was primarily responsible for security, has broken up into several organizations, and some of its officers are suspected of association with organized crime. At the same time, the employees of Russia’s nuclear complex, who used to benefit from the best the Soviet system could offer in their wages and privileges, now go without pay for months on end.

The threat of nuclear leakage is only part of a broader problem. Diversion of chemical or biological agents also poses an international danger. The nerve gas attack on people in the Tokyo subway in 1995 by the Aum Shinriko sect showed the uses to which chemical agents might be put.

Russia has the world’s largest stocks of chemical weapons, and, at least until recently, the government has also had a program to develop biological weapons. This year the Russian State Duma finally ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, and President Yeltsin was willing to admit that the Soviet Union had a biological weapons program, something the Soviet government never acknowledged. Nevertheless, it will take many years before Russian chemical weapons are destroyed, and as yet no methods have been found to verify and enforce the ban imposed by the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention of 1972. The current status of Russia’s biological weapons program remains a state secret.2

Although the specific technical problems involved in safeguarding and destroying nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons differ in important respects, dealing with all of them will depend on the US and Russia having cooperative political relations. The deficiencies in the approach to Russian nuclear weapons and fissile materials can also undermine the success of the US in dealing with the other weapons of mass destruction.

This is not to suggest that the United States has done nothing to deal with the problem. Indeed, though the Cockburns say little about them, there have been, and still are, several imaginative programs to improve the security of nuclear weapons in Russia. The US was successful in encouraging the removal of nuclear weapons from Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine following the Soviet collapse. The purchase by the US government of HEU from Kazakhstan, described by the Cockburns, is a rare example of prompt coordinated action by the United States. The program of former Senator Sam Nunn and Senator Richard Lugar to provide assistance to Russia for dismantling nuclear weapons and for converting defense industries to civilian production has had some notable successes, despite inadequate funding and other debilitating constraints imposed by Congress. A program of cooperation between US nuclear weapons laboratories and Russian research institutes to improve the security of fissile materials has produced encouraging results.

In contrast, relations with Minatom have been strained, as have those with the Russian navy, which holds stocks of HEU and plutonium for reactor fuel cells. The risk of fissile nuclear material being diverted to terrorists or countries supporting terrorists, such as Iran, is now probably greater in those agencies that have not been cooperative than in those that have.

Before examining the reasons for this state of affairs, I should emphasize that Russians and Russians alone bear the responsibility for safeguarding their weapons of mass destruction. Maintaining control over these weapons and the materials to make them is just as important to Russia as it is to anyone else, since Russia is as likely as any other country to be a target of terrorists. The United States and its allies should not be blamed for any deficiencies that may be apparent in Russia’s custody of the weapons.

Nevertheless, the US government, to protect its own territory and citizens, has a vital interest in the ability of the Russian authorities to safeguard weapons of mass destruction as well as the materials and expertise to make them. Most members of the US Congress apparently think this is entirely a Russian problem and that assistance in dealing with it is just another form of foreign aid. This seems to me shortsighted to the point of irresponsibility. If Russia fails to protect its weapons of mass destruction, we will face a security threat no less agonizing than the one we confronted during the nuclear standoff of the cold war.

The authors of Avoiding Nuclear Anarchy point to four reasons why measures to improve the security of fissile materials and nuclear weapons in Russia have been both slow and inadequate. Russian agencies have often been unwilling to take the necessary steps. The US Congress has failed to make sufficient resources available and has placed conditions on US programs that undermine their effectiveness. Both the Bush and Clinton administrations have failed to give the issue the priority it deserves. West Europe and Japan have given inadequate support.

The most serious US failure has occurred in its relations with Minatom, which stores the Russian HEU and plutonium from dismantled weapons in its own buildings. Without cooperation from Minatom, we cannot be confident that the vast quantities of fissile materials in its custody are safe from theft and diversion. Unfortunately, relations between the US government and Minatom have been contentious ever since the Soviet Union began to break up.

The authors of One Point Safe place most of the blame for this situation on Viktor Mikhailov, the minister in charge of Minatom, whom they portray as aggressive, devious, and unyielding except under pressure. US officials undoubtedly see him this way and with some accuracy. However, an outside observer would note that the US has made no serious effort to work out cooperative relations with Min- atom; Mikhailov’s politics should have been predictable to anyone who understood the problems he faced in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed.

At that time Minatom was the largest and most secretive scientific-industrial complex in the country. Even today, more than a million people depend on it for their living. In 1991 and 1992, Mikhailov faced the total collapse of his empire. Many more weapons were to be destroyed than built; the safety of nuclear power was being questioned; highly enriched uranium from dismantled weapons, after being blended for use as fuel, could swamp the world market if sales were not carefully managed.

All of this weighed upon Minatom at a time when its funding from the Russian budget was cut drastically. While there was no way for Mikhailov or anyone else to avoid radical changes in Russia’s nuclear industry, the transition could have been eased by cooperative efforts with the United States. In 1992 and 1993, the United States almost certainly could have purchased all of the HEU and plutonium extracted from dismantled weapons if it had been willing to offer a quick settlement on reasonable terms. It also could have better comprehended the problems faced by Minatom; it should have attempted to organize joint projects designed to facilitate a step-by-step conversion of the nuclear industry in both countries to peaceful ends.

US policy showed no such clarity of purpose in 1992 and 1993—or thereafter for that matter. It seemed driven more by very narrow commercial interests than by any reasoned concept of national security. For example, from 1991 to 1993, Minatom was faced with an “anti-dumping” decision by the Department of Commerce, which levied a duty on all uranium imports from Russia. This tariff was large enough to price Russian nuclear fuel out of the American market precisely at a time when we should have been buying it. The anti-dumping policy continued during the negotiations for the purchase of large amounts of HEU from dismantled weapons. The Russians were given the impression that Americans were trying to acquire nuclear fuel at extremely low prices, thereby forcing the collapse of the Russian nuclear industry.

In early 1993 I attended a small dinner in Washington for Mikhailov, who had come to work on the deal for the sale of HEU. He had just come from a meeting with Vice President Gore, and he was livid. Gore, he said, “spent the whole time talking about how we should eliminate all nuclear power plants.” How, he asked, did Gore think the Russians were going to get rid of all the dangerous stuff they had? He then went on to say to those present, including representatives of a private firm interested in purchasing Russian fuel for US power plants, that the US anti-dumping policy combined with dilatory US negotiations would leave him no choice but to “go to Iran.” When deals with the US were delayed, he did just that, contracting to build a nuclear power plant there. Minatom’s dealings with Iran became one of the main disputes that have troubled US-Russian relations since 1993.

The US government finally concluded an agreement to purchase 500 tons of HEU from nuclear weapons over a twenty-year period, but only after tortuous negotiations. Delivery of the material, moreover, may be dependent on market price levels, since the US agency responsible for purchasing nuclear fuel is being privatized. Even if the agreement works as intended, delivery over twenty years will only gradually reduce the dangers of theft and diversion from Minatom stocks in Russia. It would have been far preferable to buy as much HEU as Russia would sell and ship it to the US for safekeeping, blending, and sale over time to nuclear power plants.

This is only one aspect of the US government’s clumsy dealings with Minatom, which are described with admirable detail and balance by Richard A. Falkenrath in an appendix to Avoiding Nuclear Anarchy. It is clear that in dealing with these matters, the US government had no sense of strategic direction. It allowed competing bureaucratic and private commercial interests to dictate contradictory policies without regard to their impact on national security.

It would be a formidable task, even under the best of circumstances, to work cooperatively with a ministry as traditionally secretive and with so many dirty secrets to hide as the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy. But it should not have been impossible to accomplish more than we have. The contrast between NASA’s good relations with the Russian space agency, also a very secretive organization during the Soviet period, and the hostility between US agencies and Minatom is striking. In dealing with the Russian space agency the US proposed a major joint project which has helped to keep Russian space science and engineering going (if only barely), and has saved the US the billions it would have cost to put in orbit a US space station to conduct the same experiments. If an international space station is finally constructed, it will doubtless be safer, and perhaps cheaper, than it would have been without the lessons learned from the joint program with Russia. Unfortunately, the US has never had the foresight to propose similar joint programs with Minatom.


There is no way to persuade the Russians to allow the United States to take a more active part in protecting their weapons of mass destruction without convincing them that US-Russian relations are fundamentally cooperative rather than competitive. In this case, “them” means not only the top government leaders, but also lower-level officials and technicians in the military, defense industry, and nuclear complex. The central government is now so weak that it cannot insure compliance with policies considered by powerful agencies to be contrary to their narrow interests. So long as US policies are viewed, however unfairly, as designed to weaken Russia, reduce and destroy its might and scientific potential, and take geopolitical advantage of its current weakness, it would be fatuous to expect its most secret installations to be opened to American specialists, even if the intent is to help the Russians help themselves.

Both Reagan and Bush understood the importance of convincing the Soviet leadership that ending the arms race, protecting the rights of their own citizens, and lifting the iron curtain in Europe were ultimately in the Soviet interest. As Gorbachev began to accept these goals, rhetoric about the evil empire was replaced by encouragement for democratization. Ending the cold war was increasingly seen as a joint effort, with success benefiting all parties. Bush understood that he should not make triumphal noises at the Berlin Wall when it came down, and he promised not to take advantage of the Soviet Union if it withdrew from Eastern Europe.

While the cold war ended on the West’s terms, it did so with Soviet cooperation and with a strong push from Russian leaders such as Boris Yeltsin, who were still subordinate to the Soviet state but who considered the end of the cold war a triumph of Russian national interests over those of Communist ideology. Even though President Bush, in the desperation of his losing political campaign in 1992, violated his understandings with Gorbachev by claiming that the US had “won” the cold war, he was very restrained when it mattered most. If US leaders had not paid close attention to the changing climate of US-Soviet relations between 1985 and 1991, it is most unlikely that the cold war would have ended as rapidly, peacefully, and definitively as it did.

Expectations for a new relationship in 1992 were so high that they were bound to result in some disappointment. Nevertheless, it was true then and remains true today that fundamental Russian and US interests do not conflict; and when it comes to reducing stocks of weapons of mass destruction and securing them from theft, their interests are identical. Nevertheless, both governments have allowed themselves to forget this basic point and have permitted a dangerous rift to develop and widen, as can be seen from the current strained relations between the US and Minatom.

Avoiding Nuclear Anarchy sets forth a realistic and practical program to minimize the threat of nuclear leakage from Russia, but there is little evidence that either the Clinton administration or Congress is prepared to give the subject the attention it deserves. Although the administration spoke in 1993 and 1994 of a “partnership for reform” with Russia, its policies soon drifted away from that goal. At present it is difficult to discern any coherent strategy in the administration’s approach to Russia. In making a major effort to bring more members into NATO when the countries who wish to join face no military threat, the administration undermines its ability to protect the United States and its allies from potential nuclear leakage from Russia.

Russia may have no choice other than to accept an enlarged NATO, but in the ensuing atmosphere of political estrangement, close cooperation in nuclear matters, never easy, will become even more difficult. It will also be much harder to maintain the momentum of weapons destruction if it appears to Russian military planners that they must retain a nuclear option in order to balance an expanding NATO which already has more powerful conventional forces than Russia. When conventional NATO forces were inferior in size to those of the USSR, the US refused to pledge that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons. Russian strategists are now saying that Russia can no longer adhere to a “no first use” doctrine for the same reason the US gave during the cold war. Instead of building on the sense of common purpose that was created in the late 1980s and early 1990s, both governments have frittered it away, bit by bit.

If One Point Safe results in better public understanding of the serious problem we face, it will have served a useful purpose. But in view of US policy up to now, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Clinton administration and the United States Congress are both failing in their highest obligation to the American people: to identify the most serious threats to American security and to do everything reasonable to meet them. They seem to be relying on a miracle without asking whether the Almighty will continue to protect those who stubbornly refuse to help themselves.

This Issue

February 5, 1998