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Study Finds Nuclear Security Lagging

By Ross A. Macdonald, Crimson Staff Writer

The rate of control and destruction of nuclear weapons around the world has dangerously fallen since the attacks of September 11, 2001, according to a Kennedy School of Government (KSG) study released on Monday.

In “Securing the Bomb: An Agenda for Action,” KSG Senior Research Associate Matthew Bunn and KSG Research Associate Anthony Wier criticized the slackened pace of Russia’s securing and destruction of obsolete nuclear material.

In the face of a burgeoning terrorist threat, the report calls upon the presidents of the United States and Russia to work cooperatively to create a climate of transparency.

Wier said that Russia’s stock of radioactive material could be procured by terrorists.

“Terrorists aren’t going to be sitting around in the hope or expectation that a state will give them the bomb,” he said.

Wier said that a crude nuclear device could be assembled from commercially available parts, and the only way to prevent nuclear attacks is to keep fissile materials away from potential terrorists.

According to the report, although the American military has steadily continued to dismantle its obsolete weapons, there are still an estimated 600 tons of vulnerable nuclear material in Russia.

By mid-2003, full security and accounting procedures had only been implemented for 22 percent of this material, while an additional 43 percent had received some initial security upgrades—a process currently stalled, according to the authors, by distrust and conflicts over access to nuclear sites to verify disarmament.

Citing a 2003 criminal case where a Russian businessman attempted to procure weapons-grade material for an unidentified foreign buyer, Wier said the report urges the presidents of the two nations to make nuclear security a priority and to “use the relationship they’ve developed” to “clear away any bureaucratic obstacles.”

The authors claim that it will take 13 years to comprehensively secure these arsenals at the current rate, while an aggressive timetable could have the work completed within four.

Despite the stalled progress, “the institutions are largely in place,” said Wier, but “constant presidential pressure” is needed to drive the process forward.

Although the report focuses on military disarmament, it also advocates an effort to remove material from lightly-guarded civilian research reactors that could be used in weapons.

In Cambridge, MIT has operated such a reactor since 1958, and its safety was scrutinized in the fall of 2001 as members of the City Council feared that it could be a vulnerable target for terrorist action.

City Manager Robert W. Healy told the council then that “security procedures are confidential,” and MIT has repeatedly defended its safety.

According to Wier, the Bush Administration will soon announce a consolidation of several programs within the Energy Department to better regulate and secure research reactors here and around the world, while the Senate has recently approved a set of incentives to promote these measures.

—Staff writer Ross A. Macdonald can be reached at jrmacdon@fas.harvard.edu.

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