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Panel urges $30 billion to secure Russian nukes
By H. Josef Hebert The Associated Press
Published January 10, 2001 4:01 PM CST
WASHINGTON -- The possibility of Russian nuclear materials being stolen or diverted is "the most urgent unmet national security threat" facing the United States, says a task force of former federal officials. The panel recommends a $30 billion program to help Russia secure its nuclear stockpile.
"We have no proof of a diversion of weapons or material from Russia, but there is so much of it and security is so meager ... it is a continuing threat," warned former Sen. Howard Baker, co-chairman of the bipartisan panel.
Baker, a Tennessee Republican, said that as a courtesy he has discussed the report briefly with Vice President-elect Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, President-elect Bush's choice as defense secretary. He said he wanted to give the incoming administration "a heads up" on an issue it will face.
The report urged Bush and the new Congress to give the Russia nuclear proliferation concerns top priority.
"If there is going to be attention paid (to this issue) there has to be a very strong presidential leadership," said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., a panel member. Hamilton has been mentioned as a possible Bush choice for United Nations ambassador.
Russia has an estimated 40,000 nuclear weapons and more than a 1,000 metric tons of nuclear material including highly enriched uranium and plutonium scattered at facilities across Russia, many of them with inadequate security.
The problem has been compounded by the thousands of Russian nuclear weapons scientists who are out of work or on meager incomes "and may be tempted to sell their expertise" to other nations or terrorist groups, the report says.
"The issues are immediate and the dangers are real," said Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who a year ago ordered the task force review of U.S. efforts to deal with nuclear proliferation in Russia.
U.S. spending on nuclear security in Russia now totals about $900 million annually, about a third of that in Energy Department programs to help Russia secure nuclear materials, safeguard nuclear facilities and retrain nuclear scientists facing hard economic times.
Some members of Congress have been reluctant to continue spending even that much because of concern that money may be misused and because of Russia's refusal to stop selling civilian nuclear technology and conventional arms to Iran.
Russia's dealings with Iran are "a major cloud on the horizon" that will make it more difficult to sell the $30 billion spending plan to Congress, acknowledged Lloyd Cutler, President Clinton's former White House counsel and the other task force co-chairman.
The panel urged the Energy Department's spending be increased to $3 billion a year over eight to 10 years. The $30 billion price tag "would constitute the highest return on investment in any current U.S. national security and defense program," said the report.
While U.S. nuclear assistance programs for Russia have made progress, their shortcomings "leave an unacceptable risk of failure and the potential for catastrophic consequences," the report says.
To give the issue a higher profile, the panel urged Bush to create a "nuclear nonproliferation czar" with access to the president, and that Congress create a joint House-Senate committee on the subject.
Others on the panel included former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., who for years has been active on nuclear nonproliferation issues; Graham Allison, a nonproliferation expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government; former Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., now president of the University of Oklahoma; former Rep. David Skaggs, D-Colo., now of the Aspen Institute
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), January 10, 2001