NBC Weapons: Good Deeds Go Unnoticed




January 19, 2012: One of the more successful nuclear disarmament efforts since the Cold War ended was the joint effort by the United States, Russia, and the successor states of the Soviet Union to round up and secure or destroy thousands of nuclear weapons. It worked. In particular, the smaller weapons (nuclear artillery shells and "backpack" nukes) never fell into terrorist hands. By the end of the 1990s, Russia reported that it had accounted for, and dismantled, all its nuclear armed rocket warheads and artillery shells.

All this was accomplished by an agreement between the United States and Russia to account for all Soviet nuclear weapons and dismantle most of them. The U.S. would provide funding and technical assistance, but the hard work would be carried out by Russian experts and diplomats. Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine inherited nuclear weapons when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 (and everyone agreed that whatever Soviet assets were on the territory of the 14 new nations created from parts of the Soviet Union were the property of the new country). Russia, with the financial and diplomatic help of Western nations, bought the nukes from those three nations and dismantled the weapons.

Russia was quick getting rid of their smaller nuclear warheads because they had fewer of them (than the U.S.) and wanted to rid themselves of a serious security threat. These small weapons were ideal for terrorists, and if the bad guys got one and used it, the nuke could be traced back to the manufacturer (via analysis of the radioactive residue). It took the U.S. another three years to get rid of their small nukes. By the early 1970s the United States had over 7,000 nuclear warheads stored in Europe, most of them 8 inch and 155mm artillery shells. The last of these was finally dismantled in 2003.

Meanwhile, the Russians had other, uniquely Russian, problems. They had a lot (tons) of other highly radioactive material in circulation, much of it in power form, and largely used for medical and industrial purposes. Particularly worrisome are the hundreds of Radiothermal Generators (RTGs) Russia set up in remote parts of the country during the Soviet era. The RTGs were similar to the power supplies found on some space satellites, using radioactive material to generate heat, and thus electricity, for radio beacons and signal repeaters in remote areas. In the early 1990s, the Russians weren't even sure where some of these RTGs were, and there were cases of civilians finding them, cracking them open and being injured, or killed, from the radiation. The Russians noted that there have been many attempts to steal radioactive material in Russia, but none, so far as is known, have succeeded. All of the RTGs were eventually found and destroyed.

There was one last problem. Russian officials admitted that during the 1990s, 5-10 pounds of enriched uranium and several ounces of weapons grade of plutonium had been stolen from their nuclear power facilities. Some of this stuff was later discovered, in small quantities, in Western Europe, Turkey, and Russia as the thieves sought to sell it. The amount the Russians admit to losing is not enough to make a bomb, and much of the missing stuff could be accounting and handling errors (both common in the Russian bureaucracy.)

In the last two decades, the only radioactive material smuggled out of Russia was small quantities, and usually low-level stuff unsuitable for a bomb. Most Russian nukes have been disassembled and their nuclear material turned into power-plant fuel. The remaining nukes are under very tight security and most of their nuclear scientists were given financial and career incentives (paid for by the U.S.) to leave nuclear weapons work behind. Nevertheless, for two decades, breathless new stories of Russian "loose nukes" were a media staple on slow news days.




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