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U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Programs Fall into Disarray

By Walter Pincus

Nearly three dozen U.S.-Russian programs designed to prevent the spread of Russian nuclear weapons and materials have foundered because of disorganization and a loss of trust between the two countries, according to an official who was instrumental in creating them.

The programs, which have cost the United States more than $5 billion to date, have “often lacked coordination not only with Russia but also within” the U.S. government, said Siegfried S. Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. “Nothing really terrible has happened,” Hecker said, but a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s nuclear complex “is largely intact, vastly oversized and overstaffed.”

With the election last year of President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB official, and the resurgence of Moscow’s security services, access to once-secret nuclear facilities has tightened, according to Hecker. “Today, the window of opportunity appears to be closing, both because Russia does not need our money as desperately and because the security services have begun to close up the complex,” he said in a lengthy article published recently in The Nonproliferation Review, a journal of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

Hecker, currently a consultant at Los Alamos, established early contact with Russian nuclear scientists after the collapse of the Soviet Union and was among the architects of the U.S. effort to avert the spread of Russian nuclear weapons. His comments come as the National Security Council is nearing completion of a review of the U.S.-Russian nonproliferation programs ordered by President Bush in March.

The administration already has signaled doubts about the effectiveness of the effort by cutting the budget proposed by the Clinton administration by $100 million. The programs, which will cost $872 million this year, have also been criticized by some lawmakers on Capitol Hill and by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

The nonproliferation effort began in the early 1990s to keep Russian nuclear materials from spreading, and to stop nuclear scientists from selling their knowledge to other countries. That was quickly complemented by the Nunn-Lugar program, which partially funded the destruction of Russian nuclear bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear submarines, as required by arms control treaties.

Overall, the effort gave rise to about 30 U.S.-Russian programs, managed by the Defense, Energy and State departments, aimed at tightening security at Russian nuclear facilities and providing money as an incentive to keep Russia’s weapons scientists and engineers from moving abroad.

Speaking Friday at a meeting sponsored by the Monterey Institute of International Studies and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Hecker said that although he remains a supporter of the programs’ nonproliferation goals, a major overhaul is warranted. “What is needed is a coherent, comprehensive, integrated strategy,” he said.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union built nearly 20,000 nuclear warheads. Today, although the Russian strategic force is declining, many thousands of warheads remain deployed at dozens of locations and more than 60 storage sites.