The events of September 11 sent an
urgent wake up call that the United States should take very
seriously the continuing efforts by terrorist groups to acquire
nuclear weapons. Fortunately, Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico
Republican, has heard that call and introduced a bill that could
help prevent a nuclear September
The State Department currently
lists more than a dozen rogue states and terrorist organizations,
including Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda, that are actively seeking
Russia's vast and
undersecured stockpiles of excess fissile materials represent the
most likely potential source of terrorist nuclear capability.
According to U.S. intelligence agencies, Russian criminal groups are
already supplying al Qaeda with components for nuclear weapons. All
that's missing is the nuclear material
In the days following the
September 11 attacks, Russia's Federal Security Service reportedly
thwarted an attempt by one of these criminal groups to sell stolen
or diverted nuclear weapon-grade material to an unidentified
For several years, Russia
has been hinting that it would be interested in selling these same
nuclear materials to the United States for peaceful uses.
Unfortunately, these hints have usually fallen on deaf
Now, thanks to Mr.
Domenici's leadership, we stand at the threshold of just such an
agreement, and the timing could not be more
Russia's Cold War-era
nuclear stockpiles, which include 700 to 800 tons of highly enriched
uranium and 150 to 200 tons of weapon-grade plutonium, pose a
growing risk because of serious gaps in Moscow's nuclear security.
Many of these scattered stockpiles are stored in makeshift
warehouses, protected only by $5 combination locks or the
equivalent. Small amounts of these materials have already been
confiscated by European law enforcement officials from sellers
looking for buyers.
It would take
only 15 to 20 pounds of this uranium, or an even smaller amount of
plutonium, to arm a device capable of leveling downtown Washington
or lower Manhattan. Iraq and the terrorist group Islamic Jihad have
each reportedly offered Russian workers enormous sums of money for
enough nuclear material to produce a single
The blueprints and
non-nuclear components necessary to build crude but highly effective
nuclear weapons are readily available. The only component
prohibitively difficult to develop or acquire is the nuclear
There is no reliable way
of keeping a nuclear weapon or contraband from being smuggled into
U.S. territory if it ever does fall into the wrong hands.
Fortunately, Moscow appears willing to sell these same materials to
the United States, or to a U.S.-led group of international
investors, for just a few thousand dollars per
Mr. Domenici has introduced
a bill that establishes a framework for how such a transaction might
take place. Under the bill's provisions, the U.S. government would
guarantee loans to Russia in increments of $20 million, up to $1
billion at any one time, accepting Moscow's fissile materials as
collateral. For each $20 million loan, Russia would place 1 metric
ton of uranium and 1 metric ton of plutonium under International
Atomic Energy Agency safeguards at a secure facility in Russia that
is mutually acceptable to both Russia and the
As part of the deal, Russia
would guarantee that the fissile materials placed under IAEA
safeguards would remain there indefinitely, meaning until they are
used as nuclear fuel or otherwise permanently disposed. This entire
process could be completed within just a few
The opportunity has never
been greater to resolve the tremendous risk to U.S. and
international security posed by Russia's enormous stockpiles of
Rep. Lois Capps,
California Democrat, has introduced a companion bill in the House.
Congress should move quickly to consider these two bills, make any
necessary revisions and deliver legislation to the president as soon
as possible for his signature.
only problem is, the bill has been introduced in each chamber of
Congress by a member of the minority party in that chamber.
Consequently, the House version of the bill is tied up in the
International Relations Committee, while the Senate version
languishes in the Foreign Relations
One possible solution
to breaking the current impasse would be for Mr. Domenici to call up
his Republican colleagues in the House, remind them that H.R. 3290
is the House version of his bill and ask them to put it on the fast
track. Correspondingly, Ms. Capps should call up her Democratic
colleagues in the Senate, remind them that S.1277 is the Senate
version of her bill and ask them to free it up as soon as possible.
Otherwise, the next "act of war"
against the United States might very well turn out to be an act of
Wagner is president of the California Center for Strategic Studies,
a non-profit non-partisan policy think tank based in Santa Barbara,
and executive director of the Swords Into Plowshares