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Terrorists eye Russian nuclear material

Thursday - 3/10/2011, 12:38pm  ET

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Former Soviet Union leader Mikail Gorbachev, left and German chancellor Angela Merkel, right, stand in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011. (AP Photo/Tobias Schwarz,Pool)
J.J. Green,

WASHINGTON - For decades, Russian authorities have proclaimed their nuclear weapons and fissile material are "safe."

But an article in a scientific journal by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is stirring concerns that they may not be. The worry radiating through the international community is that terrorists may have friends who have access to fissile materials.

"The insider threat remains a very serious problem," says Robert Berls, senior advisor of the Nuclear Material Security Program at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

He tells WTOP there is a concern the nuclear gatekeepers could look the other way.

"You can have all the security you want -- the most sophisticated locks and security systems -- but if you have one person in a secure facility stealing materials then you got a very, very serious problem."

And that is exactly what Alexander Bortnikov, the chief of the FSB, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, has warned about.

"We have information which indicates that terrorists are continuing to attempt to get access to nuclear materials (and) biological and chemical components," Bortnikov tells the Interfax and Itar-Tass news agencies

Matthew Bunn, a principle investigator for Harvard University's Project on managing the Atom, says "the danger of nuclear terrorism is real enough to justify urgent action to reduce the risk."

"Some terrorist groups are actively seeking nuclear weapons and the materials to make them. It is plausible that a technically sophisticated terrorist group could make a crude nuclear bomb if it acquired enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium…"

Gorbachev wrote the following in the March edition of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:

"We especially must pay attention to keeping weapons and materials of mass destruction -- in this case, nuclear weapons-grade materials such as high-enriched uranium and plutonium -- out of the hands of terrorists and rogue nations."

The Soviets successfully tested an atomic bomb in 1949. That milestone was followed by a strategic arms build-up that produced approximately 45,000 nuclear weapons by 1986.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the Russian Federation inherited most of the USSR's weapons of mass destruction including a massive nuclear weapons production machine and hefty stocks of weapons grade fissile material.

According to U.S. Government estimates, Russia currently has approximately 770 metric tons of weapons grade-equivalent highly enriched uranium (HEU) and approximately 128 metric tons of military-use plutonium.

Russia has been a willing partner in non-proliferation, but economic decline, a rise in official corruption and deteriorating storage facilities have alarmed intelligence officials around the world. Major terror attacks at Russia's Domdedovo airport and on Russia's subway have unnerved many and given rise to concerns that the material may be more vulnerable than previously thought.

"Important weaknesses in nuclear security still exist in many countries and thefts of HEU and plutonium have already occurred. Nuclear smuggling is very difficult to interdict, and the consequences of a terrorist nuclear detonation would be immense and far-reaching," Bunn says.

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(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)