The loose nukes cable that shook Washington

When the Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago, it left behind hundreds of tons of highly-enriched uranium and plutonium spread across 11 time zones. Some was protected by no more than a wax seal and string, and the system for keeping track of it was a pile of paper receipts. Today, much of this material has been locked down. But things were not so certain back then.

In late 1991, Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, gave a speech saying that after spending trillions of dollars on the Cold War, the United States should spend a little more to help make Soviet weapons and materials secure. Congress was indifferent, worried more about the recession at home. One Pentagon official said he wanted the Soviets to go into “free fall.” With the critical help of Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Nunn managed to win approval of the legislation, and President George H. W. Bush signed it into law, without much enthusiasm, just weeks before the Soviet flag came down from the Kremlin.

For a few years after that, progress was achingly slow. The powerful Russian atomic energy ministry denied there was  a problem. Cold War mistrust was still evident on both sides.

In The Dead Hand, I described the ground-breaking work of Kenneth J. Fairfax, who was an officer in the environment, science and technology section of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Fairfax was an intrepid observer, visiting many nuclear facilities, and reporting first-hand what he saw. In 1994, he sent cables to Washington which documented some of the very serious gaps in nuclear security in Russia.

These messages alarmed officials in the Clinton White House. They confirmed what some other experts feared, that Russia’s nuclear materials were widely spread and poorly secured. I had been told of these cables, but never seen them. Last month, in response to my Freedom of Information Act request, the State Department declassified and released two of the cables.

The documents were heavily redacted, but the sections that were released offer another vivid reminder of the chaotic and potentially dangerous situation in the early 1990s.

In 1994, several alarming nuclear smuggling incidents occurred. On August 10, criminal police at the Munich airport confiscated a black suitcase being unloaded from a Lufthansa flight from Moscow. Inside was a cylinder containing plutonium. The seizure was the result of a sting operation set up by the German authorities, and touched off a great deal of speculation about Russia leaking fissile material.

This prompted Fairfax to write a cable describing, in a non-technical way, the nuclear security situation in Russia. It wasn’t his first report, but it was broader than others, an effort to analyze what he had seen. The cable, marked secret, was  sent Nov. 16, 1994, and landed in Washington with a bang. (Fairfax pointed out that he was describing the handling of nuclear materials, highly-enriched uranium and plutonium, and not completed warheads or weapons systems.)

He painted a grim picture. He said the financial crisis in Russia was such that “many nuclear workers are leaving their jobs and those that remain receive low pay which often arrives months late. Rumors of layoffs and closures circulate frequently, including rumors that the government may close entirely some of its ‘secret’ nuclear cities, which are home to almost 1,000,000 people.

He added:

While modern practices of nuclear material control and accounting (MC&A) are complex and often difficult to explain, they are a key element in the protection of nuclear materials. By tracking nuclear materials as they move from place to place, owner to owner and even from one physical form to another, MC&A procedures provide a means of theft or diversion of materials by persons within the industry by making it likely that any such diversion would be detected during an audit and could be traced to through accounting records. Unfortunately in Russia, where the possibility that workers may choose to steal nuclear materials is exacerbated by the worst financial crisis the nuclear industry has faced in its 50 year history, MC&A procedures are almost non-existent.

While the government was claiming that fully-functional systems were in place, Fairfax wrote, “what passes for MC&A in Russia is a archaic paper-based system of receipts and seals.”

Every person and organization handling nuclear materials signs for the material on receipt and receives a signature when the materials are turned over to another person or institute. Unfortunately, the mounds of receipts which this practice generates are simply accumulated and stored. Their utility in tracking nuclear materials is very limited. While a receipt could be used to document that a particular enterprise received a shipment of a nuclear material on a certain date, there is no ongoing accounting of nuclear stockpiles.


Such a material balance generally cannot be maintained since the information recorded on a receiving document cannot be matched exactly to materials leaving. Whenever the material received changes form—from HEU oxide in powder form to metallic HEU, for example, changes in weight and chemical composition result in a situation in which there is no method in place to match the materials flowing into a facility exactly with materials flowing out.

Fairfax also reported that a member of a visiting delegation from Euratom summed up the situation by saying “they had concluded that no system of nuclear accounting existed in Russia. Each of the six organizations he surveyed claimed to have a system, but each system was different and there was no integration. The systems also lacked computerization or any other method for producing reliable running totals.”

This was more than a paperwork issue. Without a serious method for keeping track of the nuclear materials, it would be hard to detect if some was stolen or diverted.

Fairfax reminded his readers in Washington that the problems were not only deterioration in the facilities, not just holes in the fence and unpaid guards. The larger factor was that history had washed away the Soviet Union, and taken with it all the rigid controls of a police state.

The Soviet-era control systems, he said, were “very carefully designed by highly qualified experts to respond to the threat climate which existed at the time.” The main Cold War threat was external: the United States and its allies. Soviet officials feared the United States might try to steal nuclear secrets or materials. The KGB guarded against foreign intrusion, and workers inside the fence were subject to close scrutiny and potentially severe punishment.

Fairfax wrote:

Due to the nature of Soviet society, there was no domestic ‘black market’ for stolen nuclear materials. In addition, the borders of the Soviet Union were tightly closed, greatly reducing the chance that a third country or a terrorist group would attempt to target Soviet nuclear materials.

Fairfax noted how the KGB kept workers in line.

The level of control—and the use of state terror to exert control—in the former Soviet Union cannot be overstated. This use of terror shaped the security and threat environment in which officials of the former Soviet Union designed systems for nuclear security. From the very beginning of the Soviet nuclear weapons program, Soviet security services repeatedly demonstrated that they were willing to use any level of terror to maintain control over people involved in the nuclear program. Inside Russia’s closed cities, many scientists are only just now beginning to mention the names of colleagues who disappeared, sometimes together with their entire family. The presumption was always that the person had been somehow involved in prohibited activities. Many stories and even bits of black humor deal with the heavy hand of the KGB and with security in the system of closed nuclear cities.

Fairfax had good access to scientists, police and even a few former KGB agents who understood the nuclear dangers. Fairfax sought to sensitize officials in Washington not to alienate the Russians, who often bridled at Western criticism. He wrote:

These Russian experts cite the fact that their security systems worked essentially flawlessly for over 40 years. While a part of the risk facing Russia’s nuclear stockpile can be traced to the deterioration of security measures since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the most important factors which have led to increased risk are changes in the nature of the threat and in the nature of Russian society.  


Security systems in place today were designed during the Soviet period, when the nation was characterized by a powerful centralized state with a pervasive security network.

What Russia would need as a democracy with markets would be far different. The heavy hand of authoritarianism was gone. Any new approach would require more money than the near-bankrupt Russian state could afford, perhaps billions of dollars, Fairfax said.

That’s where Nunn-Lugar came in. The program began with $400 million annually. Today, the concept has grown to include programs run by the departments of Defense, Energy and State to deal with the global threat of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The Energy Department’s nonproliferation programs alone are now over $2 billion, but the totals are still a small fraction of overall U.S. defense and security budgets. President Barack Obama has set an ambitious goal of attempting to lock down all vulnerable nuclear material around the world in four years.

One of the White House officials who received the 1994 Fairfax cable—and was alarmed by it—was Matthew Bunn, then in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Bunn and others in the White House were galvanized by the Fairfax reporting to ramp up U.S. efforts. It wasn't easy, and progress was painstaking. Bunn is now a professor at Harvard University, author of “Securing the Bomb,” a series of thorough annual reports sponsored by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which is co-chaired by Nunn and Ted Turner.

How far has Russia come since 1994? A long way. In “Securing the Bomb” for 2010, Bunn wrote:

Throughout the Russian nuclear complex, the most egregious weaknesses of the past—gaping holes in security fences, lack of any detector at all to set off an alarm if someone were carrying out bomb material in a briefcase—appear to have been fixed, making nuclear thefts far more difficult to accomplish. At the same time, the Russian economy improved dramatically over the past decade (though it has taken a substantial hit from the current world economic crisis), and that, combined with an overall revival of both the civilian and military sides of Russia’s nuclear establishment, has largely eliminated the 1990s-era desperation that created unique incentives and opportunities for nuclear theft. No longer are there guards leaving their posts to forage in the forest for food, as occurred in the late 1990s. And strengthened central control and the renewed strength of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, undoubtedly also contribute to deterring attempts at nuclear theft. Overall, the risk of nuclear theft in Russia has been reduced to a fraction of what it was a decade ago.

There are still problems, as Bunn also makes clear. But imagine what kind of world we would face if Nunn and Lugar had not stepped up to the plate?

Would Congress have the same far-sighted approach today?

(For his cables on the fissile materials crisis, Fairfax received the State Department’s 1994 award for excellence in reporting on environment, science and technology issues by the Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science. Recently, he was nominated to be U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan.)


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