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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Leaks Signal New Era Of Proliferation

Russian diplomats in Washington are already nervously trying to establish how much Boris Yeltsin's summit with President Clinton next month is likely to be disrupted by American nervousness over leakages of nuclear material. They should not be too concerned. The Clinton administration does not want the summit to be overwhelmed by a row about Russian nuclear security.

Below the surface, however, there is real concern. U.S. officials in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, charged with helping improve the Russian control systems, agree that the new Russian state agency for monitoring nuclear stocks is being steadily blocked by officials in the Atomic Energy Ministry and the Defense Ministry. They fear that the anti-proliferation effort which Clinton called "a top priority of U.S. foreign policy" is visibly failing. The Bush and Clinton administrations set up a three-tiered strategy to deal with the prospect of nuclear leaks from the remnants of the Soviet Union.

The first idea was to intensify and coordinate international police and intelligence efforts to control smuggling. The visit to Moscow earlier this year by FBI Director Louis Freeh and the opening of a permanent FBI office there were part of that effort.

The second idea was to help the Russian and other former Soviet authorities establish a Western-style accounting and control system for their nuclear materials. In the past, the Soviet bloc had relied simply on physical security, rather than on constant monitoring of stocks.

"They do not know how much they have, nor where they have it, and in that context, security is very hard to guarantee," comments Carl Stoiber, a former State Department proliferation expert who now runs the international division of the U.S. government's Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The third part of the strategy was to curtail Russia's annual production of plutonium, and an agreement to tail off military production has been signed. But so far there are no controls on the amounts of plutonium produced by the civilian sector.

This strategy is visibly inadequate, although it will be pursued and intensified. The funds are available to hire Russian nuclear scientists for more wholesome pursuits and to provide U.S.-style monitoring and control systems that would keep track of all nuclear stocks. But these funds remain unspent, as the Russian bureaucracy stalls and squabbles.

The result is that the United States is learning to live in a world at the mercy of nuclear promiscuity.

"We are in the midst of a revolution in military affairs, a period of virtual proliferation in which we are losing the assurance of strategic warning," David Kay, the chief UN nuclear weapons inspector for Iraq and now a private consultant in Washington, noted recently. "This means a fundamental change in U.S. defense posture. We no longer face are single, clumsy, bureaucratic and predictable opponent in the Soviet Union, but a number of fast-moving, flexible and unpredictable threats."

Henry Sokolski, who ran the anti-proliferation effort in Bush's Pentagon, calls the new era "the age of nonapocalyptic proliferation." In effect, U.S. strategic planners reckon the Russian nuclear leaks can be slowed, but not stopped. Public efforts to maintain the nuclear virginity of states from North Korea to Iraq, Pakistan to Iran, will continue. But in the real world of the Pentagon, they are preparing for something like a nuclear AIDS, with the globe's nuclear immunity systems breaking down, and a fearsome epidemic looming.