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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Billions Begin to Corral Russia's Loose Nukes

APThe Kurchatov Institute has heightened security to prevent theft of nuclear material.
In islands of secrecy across Russia, American experts and American money are fitting locks and installing cameras, hardening walls, powering up databases, training guards in a vast, costly effort by one old foe to defend the weapons of another.

Before the Americans came to Moscow's Kurchatov Institute, home to 10 tons of bomb uranium, a guard behind a lobby desk simply waved scientists and technicians through. Now the traffic is controlled by "man trap" entrance cages, surveillance video and radiation detectors.

Far to the east, at a former weapons complex beyond the Ural Mountains, hundreds of one-ton concrete blocks are slowly being positioned over open receptacles holding bomb plutonium -- more U.S. dollars at work to foil nuclear thieves.

"Threat reduction," a historic U.S.-Russian effort that has ballooned to a $1 billion-a-year enterprise, is steadily locking down more of this country's "loose nukes," the warheads and bomb material whose security began to loosen in the disarray after the Soviet Union's collapse.

But the new security is far from total. Many doorways to plutonium and highly enriched uranium still lack detectors and cameras. More than half the 600-plus tons of Russian bomb material that isn't inside warheads still lacks even basic security upgrades -- improved locks, hardened windows, reliable inventories. And all still depends on imperfect humans.

Behind walls topped with barbed wire, Kurchatov Institute staff detected a critical flaw in the software of their new U.S. accounting system, one that stalled the computer inventory of their uranium for more than a year. The programming was making batches of bomb material "disappear" from the database list.

Simple human glitches, in the realm of nuclear arms, can lead to catastrophe.

Bomb material has, in fact, been disappearing from the former Soviet nuclear complex, as seen in reported cases in which traffickers have been caught.

The most serious was the attempted theft in 1998 of 18.45 kilograms of nuclear material, including bomb-grade uranium, from a Urals facility by two insiders conspiring with outsiders. It was probably enough to build a weapon. No information has emerged about ultimate buyers.

"They were caught before they got off the property," said Yury Volodin, nonproliferation chief for Gosatomnadzor, the nuclear regulatory body.

Have serious losses occurred in which the material was not recovered? "This is sensitive information," Volodin replied in an interview in Moscow, "and I am not authorized to discuss such things."

Such things have been high on the discussion list worldwide since Sept. 11, and the talk in Washington and Moscow is of quickening the effort to keep nuclear weapons out of unfriendly hands. The man in charge of the Russian nuclear arsenal, Colonel General Igor Valynkin, underlined the threat when he announced that twice last year terrorists -- he didn't say who -- had been detected reconnoitering Russian weapons storage sites.

From small pilot projects in 1994, the U.S.-Russian security effort has evolved into two dozen major programs operated by the U.S. Defense, Energy and State departments and other U.S. agencies. The U.S. Energy Department's work alone accounted for some 2,000 U.S. travelers to Russia last year.

The Pentagon helps finance the Russians' dismantling of unneeded warheads, along with computerization, fence-building, alarm systems at warhead storage sites. It is also upgrading Russian nuclear transport with armored railcars and trucks.

The U.S. Energy Department deals with the Nuclear Power Ministry's "loose" fissionable material -- plutonium and uranium not in weapon form. The Americans finance security upgrades ranging from personal identification systems to the reinforcement of gates and walls at nuclear research institutes, fuel production facilities, naval fuel storehouses and other sites.

The U.S. State Department works, through subsidies and jobs programs, to keep former Soviet weapons experts, financially strapped in a changed Russia, from accepting tempting job offers from governments or others with nuclear ambitions.

A U.S.-Russian agreement last September cooled some friction over the Americans' demands for access to more sensitive locations. But disagreements persist over a handful of warhead assembly and disassembly sites, noted Yury Fedorov, a Moscow nuclear security expert.

"If you had access to material just released from nuclear weapons, it's possible you'd find out the particular composition. That's sensitive information," said Fedorov, of the Center for Policy Studies in Russia.

Those warhead sites are one gap in the U.S. security plans. Another is represented by almost 200 decommissioned Russian nuclear-powered submarines, docked for years waiting to be dismantled. Everyone concedes the security is erratic for the subs' tons of uranium fuel -- both fresh and spent, some of it weapons-usable. But the huge estimated cost of full security, approaching $1 billion, has largely kept the Americans away.

For all the U.S. accomplishments on loose nukes, nonproliferation specialists say the effort must be doubled -- at least.

A U.S. Energy Department advisory task force last year concluded that nuclear leaks from Russia are "the most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States today." It advised a multiple leap in budget for the Russian programs -- to up to $3 billion per year for the Energy Department alone.

At the Group of Eight summit in Canada last week, U.S. allies took one step forward, committing to spending up to $10 billion over the next 10 years on the security of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons material in Russia. Submarine dismantlement operations will be a special focus.

Some Russians object that Western media overstate the threat and say that the number of trafficking cases has declined since the mid-1990s as security improvements have taken hold. But the thefts that go undetected or unreported remain a dark statistic, especially in a nuclear complex without a reliable, full inventory of bomb material.