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Strengthening Long-Term Nuclear Security: Protecting Weapon-Usable Material in Russia
gies operated by the Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan have blurred the distinction between governmental and nongovernmental activities and highlight the urgency of securing weapon-usable material. Further, thwarting access to weapon-usable material by subnational or international groups also serves to prevent access to such materials by irresponsible states. Both dangers deserve priority attention.
Thus far, the acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability by terrorist groups has been constrained primarily by the difficulty these groups face in obtaining sufficient quantities of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium that could be fashioned into crude nuclear weapons.1 The protection, control, and accounting of these materials remain imperative to mitigating the threat of nuclear terrorism.
Russia, along with the United States, has by far the world’s largest inventories of weapon-usable material. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, incidents of theft and attempted theft of small quantities of weapon-usable material from Russian facilities have been occasionally reported. In each case, the quantities of material involved have been far less than the amount required for a nuclear weapon.2 The number of reported incidents of attempted theft of weapon-usable material in Russia has been declining but there is no basis for judging the actual number of unreported attempts or the number of successful thefts.3 Upgraded physical protection and accounting systems, which are the focus of this report, may have contributed to the reduced number of attempts to steal material. Further, the cooperative materials protection, control, and accounting (MPC&A) program has involved thousands of Russian participants and has certainly heightened sensitivities to the possibility and consequences of thefts.
In 1996, another NRC committee visiting Moscow was informed that there had been 23 attempted thefts prior to that time. However, these attempts related only to a limited number of Russian facilities. While in Russia in 2003, the committee was informed of three unsuccessful attempts to steal weapon-usable material from Russian facilities since 1996. Each effort was foiled by the Federal Security Service (FSB) within the facility or in the immediate vicinity of the facility. Reports of a smaller number of incidents are included in the database of
For the purposes of this report, HEU consisting of more than 20 percent of uranium-235 or plutonium that has been separated from fission products and other actinides is referred to as weapon-usable material.
The amount of material required to construct a crude nuclear device is often cited as 8 kilograms of plutonium or 25 kilograms of U-235 contained in HEU. The committee considers these estimates to be reasonable. The exact amount required depends on a variety of factors including the sophistication of the weapon design and the exact characteristics of the material. The amounts involved in the reported incidents of attempted material theft have usually been much less than these amounts.
In a 1999 interview published in Izvestiia, V. B. Ivanov, then deputy minister of atomic energy of the Russian Federation, stated that during the Soviet period two cases of denied access to nuclear materials were reported; between 1992 and 1995, 28 cases were reported; and after 1995, three or four cases were reported.