New Nuclear Nightmares

The dangers of nuclear weapons on the loose in the former USSR have been exaggerated. But, claims the author, other dangers have been overlooked.

By Tariq Rauf | 1992-07-01 12:00:00

Nothing less than a revolutionary plan is sufficient to deal with the challenge of containing the over 25,000 nuclear warheads in the former USSR, of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons technology and know-how to other countries, and of avoiding nuclear accidents.

Plans for dismantling the nuclear apparatus initially looked promising. In December 1991, the four republics housing the former Soviet Union's strategic weapons-Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan-signed a non-proliferation agreement with the other Commonwealth of Independent States republics. They agreed to accept international inspections, unified command of strategic weapons, and joint control of the nuclear launch code. Belarus, Kazhakstan and Ukraine agreed to withdraw all tactical nuclear weapons to Russia for dismantlement by July 1 of this year; Ukraine agreed to dismantlement by 1994 of all strategic nuclear weapons stationed on their territory.

Then on May 23, the U.S. and the nuclear-equipped republics signed an agreement to adhere to the START Treaty of 1991. Belarus,

Kazakhstan and Ukraine also agreed to destroy or turn over all strategic nuclear weapons to Russia, and to join the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty in the shortest possible time.

According to senior Russian officials, all strategic nuclear weapons deployed outside Russia have been removed from alert status, and it would take at least 90 days to restore them. By March 31 1992, about 70% of nuclear weapons in Belarus and 37% of nuclear weapons in Ukraine had been transferred to Russia for dismantlement. In the meantime, Soviet nuclear weapons, like those in the U.S., have multi-level controls that combine physical devices and procedural practices to impede their unauthorized or unintentional use.

However, many nuclear weapon scientists and technicians are virtually unemployed and their organization bankrupt. The demand clearly exists for their services in the Third World.

There is a real danger of leakage of nuclear weapon technology and materials from the former USSR. In the absence of strictly enforced export controls, and given the dismal state of the economy, there is great concern about nuclear materials and know-how being clandestinely transferred to other countries around the world, such as Iran, Libya, or Israel. Nuclear weapon scientists and technicians may leave and take up positions abroad. Reportedly 19 such scientists have already gone to Israel and others are on the way, and according to unconfirmed reports, Libya, Iran and Iraq apparently have tried to recruit others. A private corporation is now financing part of the work of the Russian Ministry for Atomic Power and Industry (MAPI) and of Arzamas 16 ( a nuclear weapons laboratory). MAPI is responsible for the entire Soviet nuclear fuel cycle and for the USSR's nuclear weapons production and testing program. Arzamas 16 is the main weapons laboratory in the Soviet Union.

In return for private financial support, MAPI and Arzamas are working on a commercial plan to dispose by means of underground nuclear explosions of such items as chemical and radioactive wastes, retired chemical weapons, decommissioned nuclear reactors, and retired nuclear warheads. MAPI/Arzamas will provide the technological know-how, the "peaceful" nuclear explosive devices and destruction sites.

In sum, the problems posed by the privatization of the nuclear sector include the rise of private nuclear entrepreneurs, and the collapse of the former state monopoly and control in the nuclear sector. President Yeltsin has apparently perceived the danger: be signed a decree in early March prohibiting privatization of Arzamas-16 and Chelyabinsk-70-Russia's two nuclear weapon complexes. However, earlier on 27 February, he authorized preparations for 2-4 nuclear tests after the end of the testing moratorium in October 1992--reportedly, two tests will be carried out next spring to demonstrate destruction of toxic materials.

Another major source of worry is the safety and security of 48 of the 77 operational civilian nuclear power reactors in the former-USSR. Poor safety conditions, faulty designs and construction, and improper maintenance have created the risk of another Chernobyl-type catastrophe.

Nineteen nuclear reactors of the older RBMK (or large capability boiling water) type lack the core cooling system and containment buildings. Emergency cooling is necessary in case the reactor's cooling system breaks down, and containment domes serve to hold in radioactive gases and particles in case of an accident. The RBMK offers two important advantages over other reactor types for plutonium production, as it is designed for on-line refuelling:

it can be refueled without shutting down the reactor (as in the case of Ontario Hydro's CANDU reactors at Pickering and Darlington). This is particularly advantageous in the production of plutonium, because frequent refuelling is necessary.

In addition, twelve VVER (water energetics/LWR) nuclear power reactors are also prone to safety defects. This type of reactor was exported to eastern Europe, and VVER-440s are operational in Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria.

Structural weaknesses, combined with a poor safety culture and near abysmal working conditions, significantly raise the risk of catastrophic nuclear accident. Since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, plant control and shutdown systems have been retrofitted, and monitoring capabilities improved. Currently, IAEA and international teams together with Russian scientists are studying ways of improving the safety of the VVER reactors. According to one estimate, upgrading deficient CIS reactors could cost up to U.S. 50 billion.

The U.S. is helping the former USSR in ensuring the safety, security, disablement, and dismantlement (SSD) of nuclear and chemical weapons. The U.S. is now providing 25 safe-secure specialized rail-cars and about 250 special/super containers to address Russian needs for additional transportation and containers. The U.K. is also supplying some super containers. This will cost several million dollars. The U.S. is also providing Kevlar blankets to protect weapons from small arms fire, and technical assistance in developing alternative ways of safely storing plutonium from dismantled warheads. Co-operation is being extended in improving nuclear accounting systems, and in devising swift and effective emergency measures to deal with any nuclear accident or incident.

U.S. scientists have provided Moscow with details on their procedures and systems for ensuring the safety and security of nuclear weapons, weapons disablement and dismantling, and command and control. Russian experts will be invited to the U.S. for briefings and demonstrations of U.S. safe and secure transportation and storage technologies, equipment, and facilities; and to observe procedures for quick response in the event of nuclear accident.

These programmes are being funded from a $400 million fund authorized under the December 1991 Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act This fund will also pay for the construction of a new 20,000 square metre facility in Russia to store nuclear materials from dismantled weapons.

The U.S. has also set aside $25 million (from the $400 million) to establish two International Science and Technology Centres, in Moscow and in Kiev, by June 1992. They will serve as a clearing house for providing intellectually stimulating peaceful work for nuclear weapons scientists and technicians. The European Community has also pledged $25 million dollars, and Japan and Canada are expected to pledge up to $20 million and $2.5 million, respectively.


Four courses of action would be helpful:

First, an accurate accounting and inventory must be made of all nuclear weapons, and tamper-resistant seals or tags affixed by CIS authorities.

Second, the U.S. must use the U.S. $400 million set aside by Congress to provide technical and financial assistance to Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine to ensure the security and storage of nuclear weapons, assistance in safe transportation for dismantlement in Russia, and helping to dispose of the fissile material in an environmentally sound manner. Russia also lacks sufficient plutonium and uranium storage facilities, and this could hamper warhead destruction.

Third, the U.S. must devise a plan for radical reductions in its own nuclear arsenal (estimated at 19,000 warheads) and together with Russia, devise a plan to achieve deep cuts to a residual level of 1,000 (or less) warheads on either side. President Hush's proposal in his "State of the Union" message on 28 January would leave the U.S. with up to about 4,700 accountable (and over 8,000 actual) strategic nuclear warheads at the end of the process. Russian

President Yeltsin's response went much further in proposing a level of 2,000-2,500. In the interim, however, both sides could remove a significant number of their strategic forces from alert status, and seriously consider moving to a "zero alert status" pending agreement on radical reductions in nuclear weapons. Yeltsin recently stated that former Soviet nuclear weapons would no longer be targeted at North America and the West, but the U.S. has been unable to confirm either the removal of missile guidance packages or their recalibration.)

Finally, Western countries should follow through on their stated policy of linking economic co-operation and assistance to Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, with assurances of these states' compliance with the Alma-Ata and Minsk accords, enactment and enforcement of acceptable export controls, as well as acceptance of full-scope safeguards as non-nuclear weapon states parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Tariq Rauf is a senior research associate with the Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1992

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1992, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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