A series of recent terrorist attacks in Beslan and Moscow attributed to Chechen rebels have spurred the United States and the Kremlin to step up activities to guard Russia’s high-risk nuclear materials.
The Russian Atomic Energy Agency announced Sept. 1 that Russia had moved additional troops to guard dozens of its nuclear facilities in the wake of the attacks, which included the seizure of a school in North Ossetia, a suicide bombing in Moscow, and the downing of two Russian airplanes. The announcement, reported by Reuters, did not specify the number of troops dispatched or the names of nuclear facilities slated to receive the additional security.
The United States did not formally respond to the report of the Russian troop movement, but Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton alluded to the liability posed by loosely guarded Russian reactors in a Geneva press conference Sept. 10. He said that “the recent tragedy in Beslan is a good example of the risk that they [the Russians] fully understand: that if terrorist groups are capable of carrying out that kind of operation, how much more horrible it would be if such a terrorist group got a nuclear weapon.”
In its most recent threat reduction effort in the region, the U.S. Department of Energy successfully returned 11 kilograms of enriched uranium fuel to a secure Russian facility from Uzbekistan on Sept. 9. Approximately three kilograms of the uranium consisted of highly enriched uranium (HEU), which could be used to make a nuclear bomb. The U.S.-funded retrieval project was completed under the Energy Department’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI).
The mission is the fifth such Russian fuel repatriation project undertaken since 2002, following removals in Bulgaria, Libya, Romania, and Serbia. In total, however, 20 sites in 17 countries have been identified as possessing Russian or Soviet-origin fuel that needs to be retrieved. The Energy Department aims to repatriate all fresh HEU fuel of Russian origin to Russia by the end of 2005 and all spent fuel by 2010.
The threat of nuclear theft became a central point of discussion during the Global Threat Reduction Initiative Partners’ Conference in Vienna, Austria, Sept. 18-19. Russian Atomic Energy Agency head Alexander Rumyantsev urged the nearly 600 delegates attending from more than 90 countries to “consistently and constantly improve the complex of measures aimed at ensuring nuclear and physical security.” Rumyantsev reported to Agence France-Presse Sept. 15 that Russian officials have managed to recover small quantities of weapons-grade uranium stolen over the past 25 years but that greater cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and foreign governments is needed to prevent future theft.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham told attendees at the conference that countries with nuclear materials “must…be the responsible custodians of these materials and the facilities in which they are located.” He also stated that the United States has helped eliminate 216 metric tons of HEU, has secured 43 percent of unspecified weapons-usable material in Russia, and anticipates securing all Russian navy nuclear-warhead sites by the end of 2006.