Panel Urges $30 b to Safeguard Nuclear Stockpile

WASHINGTON - A blue-ribbon panel is urging the United States to spend $30 billion over the next decade to help Russia secure its nuclear materials, or risk a "potential for catastrophic consequences."

The task force in a report to be presented Wednesday said that Russia's vast stockpile of nuclear weapons and nuclear material poses "the most urgent unmet national security threat" facing the United States today.

The bipartisan panel urged President-elect George W. Bush and the new Congress to give the Russia nuclear proliferation concerns top priority. Several of the task force members already have discussed the findings with Vice President-elect Dick Cheney.

U.S. spending on nuclear security programs in Russia now total about $700 million, an amount the task force called inadequate. The panel urged spending to be increased to $3 billion a year over the next eight to 10 years.

The task force, chaired by former Republican Senator Howard Baker and Lloyd Cutler, President Bill Clinton's former White House counsel, was created a year ago by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to examine the effectiveness of U.S. efforts to secure Russia's nuclear materials.

Others on the panel include former Representative Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who has been mentioned as a possible U.N. ambassador in the Bush administration, and former Senator Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat, who for years has been active on nuclear nonproliferation issues.

While the U.S. assistance program has made some progress, its shortcomings "leave an unacceptable risk of failure and the potential for catastrophic consequences," the task force report says.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, one of the gravest concerns among nuclear nonproliferation experts has been the safeguarding of more than 40,000 nuclear weapons and more than a 1,000 metric tons of nuclear scattered at facilities across Russia.

The problem has been compounded by the thousands of Russian nuclear weapons scientists who are facing hard economic times "and may be tempted to sell their expertise" to other nations or terrorist groups, the report says.

Some members of Congress have expressed reluctance to pump billions of dollars into the Russia program, especially in light of Russia's insistence on civilian nuclear technology sales to Iran and other disagreements.

But the task force said the $30 billion price tag "would constitute the highest return on investment in any current U.S. national security and defense program."

The report was to be presented to the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board Wednesday.