highly enriched uranium

In the 1990s, after the break up of the Soviet Union, Russia's status as a nuclear power raised two major issues. First, the deactivation of nuclear weapons in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union caused a series of problems that affected primarily the civilian population. Second, the rate and conditions for reduction of Russia's nuclear arsenal were matters of heated debate among military and civilian policy makers in the mid-1990s.[Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The break up of the Soviet Union in 1991changed geopolitical equation of the treaties. Where there was one country with nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union, now there were several. All battlefield nuclear weapons were returned to Russia in 1992 but Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan retained thousands of warheads for intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Under pressure form the United States and other countries, Belarus and Kazakhstan agreed to turnover their arsenals to Russia. Stanislav Shushkevich, the first leader of Belarus, told National Geographic, “We had 81 mobile missiles, sufficient to eradicate Europe and the United States. But who were we defending from? So I thought the sooner they were out of the country the happier we could be.”

The Ukraine looked at the issue differently. It chose to keep its 1,240 strategic nuclear weapons as deterrence against Soviet aggression and a means of bargaining with the West for financial aid. In the end it bowed to international pressure and returned its weapons to Russia in 1993.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States helped Russia move "loose nukes" in the Ukraine and Belarus into Russia and encouraged U.S. missile; manufacturers to link up with their counterparts in Russia to keep scientists, materials and technologies from falling into the hand of terrorist or rogue states.

Dismantling Nuclear Weapons in Russia

As of 2005, the United States and Russia had dismantled 25,000 nuclear weapons, destroyed hundreds of missile system and had worked together to safeguard Russia’s remaining nuclear material. Russia has four facilities for decommissioning warheads. Storing the leftover weapon-grade material is problem for the dismantling facilities. Money that is supposed to have been spent on dismantling nuclear weapons has been spent on paying soldiers.

During five decades of the Cold War, the Soviet Union stockpiled an estimated 40,000 nuclear warheads, which were located from the Far East to the Ukrainian Republic on the western border. Besides the Russian Republic, three other Soviet republics — Belorussia, Kazakstan, and Ukraine — had nuclear weapons on their soil. In the early 1990s, Russia and the United States agreed that, to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials, the three other republics should relinquish their entire stockpiles to Russia or destroy them. Although the final cleanup of nuclear materials promises to last into the next century, by the end of 1994 the three former Soviet republics had signed START I and the NPT as non-nuclear states. (Ukraine required additional security assurances and financial aid from the United States as a condition of its participation.) [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Experts estimated that disposal of all deactivated nuclear warheads would require at least ten years because Russian facilities can only dismantle 2,000 warheads per year. Another complication is the disposition of an estimated 100,000 now-superfluous employees of nuclear weapons installations who had access to nuclear technology; failure to find suitable employment for such individuals might cause them to sell their highly valuable knowledge abroad. And the total number of displaced employees of nuclear installations is estimated to be much larger. *

Nuclear Materials in Russia

Another problem related to Russia's nuclear arms is the radiation pollution that has resulted from the discarding of nuclear materials into the ground and the sea. The naval forces have continued the Soviet-era practice of dumping nuclear materials overboard in the Sea of Japan and the Kara Sea, provoking strong reactions from neighboring countries. In mid-1996 at least fifty of Russia's decommissioned nuclear submarines were standing with fuel rods intact along the Arctic coast, awaiting dismantlement (see Environmental Issues Under Nature). [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the 1990s Russia possessed an estimated 600 tons of weapons-grade nuclear material kept at 100 different facilities. The Soviets did not keep very good records so it was difficult to determine exactly how much plutonium, highly enriched uranium and other nuclear materials it possessed.

The fissile materials—plutonium and highly enriched uranium—are necessary to make a nuclear bomb. Around four kilograms (nine pounds) of plutonium or 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of highly-enriched uranium are necessary to make a bomb. These material were found at over 40 sites in Russia and the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. Low-enriched uranium is much less dangerous than high-enriched uranium but it can be processed into high-enriched uranium. At least 200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium is needed to produce enough high-enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb. In addition to uranium and plutonium there is a wide variety of nuclear materials that can not be used to make a nuclear bomb but can be used to make a so-called dirty bomb.

Between 1995 and 2005, an estimated 50 tons of bomb-grade plutonium has been extracted from bombs in Russia and the United States. Around 34 tons of plutonium, much of it produced by nuclear power plants, was stockpiled in Russia in the early 2000s.

Three nuclear reactors built for the military in Siberia continued to produce weapons grade material in the early 2000s. Because they provide heat for two Siberian cities Russia wouldn't shut them down unless the U.S. provided money to build oil or coal-fired plants. In 1994, the U.S. government purchased 600 kilograms of highly enriched uranium form Kazakhstan to get it out of circulation.


Little Boy internal components

Lack of Security of Nuclear Material

In the early 2000s, a total of 700 tons of weapons-grade nuclear material was stored at 90 facilities in Russia. As of 2001 only about 40 percent of these facilities had adequate security according to U.S. officials. Stories circulated about plutonium being stored in milk buckets or behind doors sealed by a single padlock; people cross country skiing through gaping holes in barbed fences and past bored guards at "secret city" military installations; and doors of rooms where nuclear material was are stored being left unlocked.

During the Soviet era the system of “Guns, guards and gulags” was used to protect it borders and nuclear facilities, making it difficult for nuclear materia to get out of the country. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this security system broke down and it became easier to get nuclear materials out of nuclear facilities and remove them from the country. This was especially worrisome when you consider that it was possible to smuggle weapons-grade nuclear material in a container the size of a hockey puck that was not dangerous handle or transport. Such containers held nuclear material used in small reactors.

U.S. energy official discovered 160 pounds of weapons-grade uranium placed in shiny spheres stored in high-school-style lockers secured by a single chain in Building 116 of the Kurchatov Institute in the suburbs of Moscow. No guards were posted outside the building.

Russian Nuclear Scientists and Lose Nukes

U.S. Officials were particularly worried about thefts of nuclear material by insiders. Material control and accounting procedures were often deficient. In some places where nuclear material was unaccounted for it was impossible to determine whether it had been stolen, used or simply lost track of. Black marketers reportedly had easy access to Chelyabinsk-70, a closed city for nuclear scientists.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, nuclear scientists in charge of developing weapons and safeguarding them were suddenly either unemployed or not being paid. Scientist at Arzamas-16, the Russian equivalent of Los Alamos laboratory, and Chelyabinsk-70 demonstrated for back pay and loss of benefits such as health care and housing.

About 150,000 Russian scientist worked in the Russian nuclear weapons industry in 1995. According to Western estimates 3,000 of them were knowledgeable of "critical nuclear-weapons design information." Most of these worked at Arzamas-16 or Chelyabinsk-70.

China, North Korea, Iran and Iraq all reportedly tried to recruit Russian nuclear and missile scientists in what pundits called the "Human Proliferation" Threat from Russia. One Russian scientist was given a $3,000 Compaq laptop computer by the Iranian Academy of Science and was paid between $300 and $500 each to solve math problems related the nuclear research. Russian scientists have also been commissioned by Pakistan and North Korea to work in their nuclear weapon and missile programs.

Improved Security of Nuclear Material

By the late 1990s the security surrounding nuclear materials had greatly improved. Barbed wire fences were put up, keyboard entry devices replaced padlocks and guards were placed in sensitive locations. Radioactivity detectors were set up outside facilities to raise alarms if any material was removed. These measure have been called the First Line of Defense. The Second Line of Defense s security is at airports and borders. In the late 1990s few border posts, ports or airports had radioactivity detectors but more were getting them all the time. Some sophisticated radioactivity detectors were installed at the main airports in Moscow with U.S. financial assistance.

In 1994, Russia and the United States agreed to inform each other of dangerous incidents involving nuclear materials, and the U.S. Energy Department began providing money for improving nuclear security Under U.S. President Bill Clinton, much of the money in the fund was spent on other things. Under Bush, the money was cut and then reinstated by Congress. As of 2002, $6.4 billion of American aid has been spent. Some experts at that time said it would cost $17 billion to provide adequate security for Russia's nuclear weapons. The project was delayed because lingering Cold War mistrust and lack of funds.

In a move that would have been considered preposterous in the Cold War, the United States signed a deal in 1992 to purchase 500 metric tons of weapons-grade enriched uranium over 20 years for $10 billion to use in U.S. power plants. The primary purpose of the deal is to keep the uranium out of the hands of would-be terrorists. The operation is run by the U.S. company USEC, which had purchased 250 tons of diluted bomb grade material—enough to make 10,000 nuclear warheads—as of 2005

The United States has also come up with projects to provide paychecks for the nuclear scientists. A year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a group of Russia's top scientist were paid $288,501 by he U.S. Defense department to produce a history of the Soviet nuclear testing program. The 2,000-page document covered 715 nuclear tests over 41 years. In October 1998, Congress appropriated $20 million to give to Russian scientists so they wouldn’t sell their secrets to enemies of the United States like Libya and Iran.

Theft of Nuclear Material in the Early 1990s

Between 1990 and 1994, the number of documented cases of smuggling of nuclear materials out of Russia went from zero to 124, mainly because of lax security at nuclear sites. Although most cases of nuclear smuggling have involved civilians, in 1994 naval officers stole three uranium fuel rods from a submarine in Murmansk — and in the mid-1990s the fast-deteriorating living standards of Russia's military made such incidents more likely. The Ministry of Defense has voiced concern that terrorists might take advantage of security lapses to seize a nuclear weapon; in 1995 a Chechen guerrilla leader threatened to use nuclear terrorism against Russia's civilian population. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

There have been many stories about nuclear material being stolen or found. Most worrisome are the ones involving fissile materials (plutonium and highly enriched uranium), which can be made into nuclear bombs. Between 1991 and 2001, Russian authorities said they foiled 23 attempt to steal fissile materials. Authorities say enough material is unaccounted for to make at least one bomb. The Russian government has a list with nearly 200 terrorist organizations that are trying to obtain nuclear materials.

In 1992, a worker stole 1.5 kilograms of highly enriched uranium in Podolsk near Moscow. In 1993, a thief stole 1.8 kilograms of highly enriched uranium from Andreyeva Bay. Also in 1993, 1.3 kilograms of bomb-grade, highly-enriched uranium was found in the garage of a Russian naval officer in Murmansk. In January, 1993, 60 kilos of enriched uranium was seized in Izhevk, east of Moscow. In 1994, a man was arrested in St. Petersburg with three kilograms of highly-enriched uranium that he stole from a nuclear facility. In 1994, Seymor Hersh reported of rumors of nuclear warheads from SS-20 missiles being offered in the black market for $70,000 a piece.

In November 1992, four thefts of radioactive material were detected at a nuclear plant near St. Petersburg. One of them involved Cesium 137, a particularly dangerous material. In 1992, 4.4 tons beryllium from the Institute of Physics and Power Engineering in Yekterinburg was purchased using a phony purchase order forms by a trading company with ties to organized crime and shipped to Moscow in a truck and flown to Lithuania. In 1993 the beryllium was seized at Lithuanian bank but somehow a deal was made by an Austrian-Italian consortium to sell it to a mysterious buyer for $24 million (10 times the market price). Beryllium is an important material used in making hydrogen bombs.

Theft of Nuclear Material in the Late 1990s and Early 2000s

In 1995, a man was arrested in Moscow with 1.7 kilograms of highly enriched uranium. The thief reportedly stole the uranium from a Navy storage facility in Murmansk by climbing through a hole in a wooden fence, sawing through a padlock of a warehouse door and opening a lid to a submarine reactor core and brwaking off three pieces of uranium. "Potatoes are guarded better," one U.S. investigator told Newsweek. In December 1998, Russian security agents foiled a conspiracy to steal 18.5 kilograms of highly enriched uranium from a nuclear facility in the Chelyabinsk region of Russia.

There have been reports of organized crime in Russia trying to infiltrate military installations and steal nuclear material and sell it. In December 2001, Russian police arrested seven members of the Balashikha criminal gang who were trying to sell more than one kilogram of weapons-grade uranium-235 for $30,000. In July 2001, Russian police arrested three people who were trying to sell 1.7 kilograms of weapons-garde uranium-235 to buyers from Turkey. The uranium is believed to have been taken from decommissioned submarine.

In November 2004, a retired physicist at a former Soviet laboratory turned in containers with plutonium-238 that he had kept for years in his garage. The man said he found the materials in a scrap heap at the former laboratory where he worked. He turned them in after reading about rewards for nuclear materials. Plutonium 237 can not be used to make a nuclear bomb but can be used to make a nasty highly-radioactive “dirty bomb.”

Investigators in Europe and the United States have said they think the threat of presented by the theft of nuclear material is greatly exaggerated. The FSB (successor to the KGB) has repeatedly asserted that Russia’s nuclear material are secure.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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