Whose loose nuke are you?

By Gordon Prather

With the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact in 1989 – and the prospect of massive land battles in Central Europe ended – both the Soviet Union and the U.S. began to dismantle tens of thousands of tactical “battlefield” nukes.

Two years later, with the Soviet Union about to come unglued, Russian officials came to “lobby” the U.S. Congress. The Russians planned to secure custody of all Soviet nukes, tactical and strategic; to dismantle those “excess” to Russian needs; to store and eventually dispose of the recovered fissile material as reactor fuel. The problem was, the Russians couldn’t afford to do all that. Would Congress help?

Rarely has Congress responded so quickly to a request for money. The so-called Nunn-Lugar Act declared that it was in our national interest to help keep Soviet nukes, nuke materials and nuke scientists from getting “loose.” Bush the Elder was authorized to “reprogram” up to $400 million to implement Nunn-Lugar from funds already appropriated for that fiscal year to the Department of Defense.

The optimum way to have provided direct Nunn-Lugar assistance would have been for the Department of Energy – not DOD – to have been funded. Unfortunately, it was several years before Congress got around to authorizing DOE labs to deal directly with their MINATOM counterparts.

Hence, DOD had to contract with DOE to provide MINATOM thousands of “bird cages” to safely store the recovered fissile materials; to provide MINATOM fissile material protection, control and accounting equipment; to help the Russians install our MPC&A equipment and to train them how to use it.

As President Clinton took office, the No. 1 threat to our national security was the prospect that Russia would not be able – even with our financial and technical assistance – to prevent Soviet nukes, nuke materials and nuke scientists from getting loose.

But for Clinton’s Greenpeace entourage, U.S. national security was not as important as world peace. For them, 10,000 nukes in our hands was the threat, not a few “loose” nukes in the hands of terrorists.

So, Clinton made it quite clear to the rest of the world – if not to Congress – that he intended to pursue “a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control” as required by Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Clinton unilaterally subjected our “excess” nuke materials and nuke infrastructure to the full NPT Safeguards and Physical Security regime.

Clinton expected all other nations having nukes to follow our example.

Russia did – somewhat reluctantly – once Clinton and a Republican Congress made it clear that the promised Nunn-Lugar assistance was contingent upon it. Clinton had hijacked Nunn-Lugar, transforming it from a nuke proliferation prevention program into a nuke disarmament program

At the 40th General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1997, Director General Hans Blix announced the US-IAEA-Russia Trilateral Agreement. We and the Russians each committed to “transparently” and permanently dispose of 34 tons of weapons-useable plutonium under the watchful eyes of the IAEA.

But there was a big problem. The Russians intended to make mixed-oxide (MOX) reactor fuel out of their excess weapons-grade plutonium. Once that was gone, they intended to continue making MOX from plutonium recovered from the “spent fuel” of ordinary nuclear power reactors. So the Trilateral Agreement essentially committed us to fund the recycling of spent fuel – heretofore prohibited in the U.S. – and a concomitant international rebirth of nuclear power.

No way would Clinton’s Greenpeace entourage allow that to happen. So, Clinton never asked Congress for the necessary funds to implement the Trilateral Agreement.

As a result, when Clinton left office, the Russian loose-nuke threat was at least as bad as when he entered.

Worse, as President Bush took office, there had been added the Pakistan loose-nuke threat. Pakistan had dozens of fairly sophisticated “Islamic” nukes and openly supported the ruling Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. The ruling Taliban openly provided refuge to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.

Four years later, the Russian and Pakistani loose-nuke threats are somewhat worse, and, thanks to Operation Iraqi Freedom, the North Korean loose-nuke threat has been added.

Fortunately, Congress has authorized Bush to “reprogram” within DOD up to $50 million of Nunn-Lugar program funds in the current fiscal year for DOD “to resolve a critical or emerging proliferation threat” in a country not formerly part of the Soviet Union.

So, what do you suppose Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Feith will do with the $50 million? Bomb the Bushehr nuke facility in Iran?

Stay tuned.