Russia's Loose Nukes Said to Pose 'Catastrophic Threat' to US

By Nathan Burchfiel | July 7, 2008 | 8:31 PM EDT

( - The threat of Russian nuclear materials falling into the hands of terrorists is the "most catastrophic threat facing America," national security expert Robert Boorstin warned Wednesday in urging the Bush administration to take more aggressive action to secure the Russian nukes.

"No other country has nearly as many vulnerable weapons," as Russia, said Boorstin, senior vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress (CAP), one of two Washington, D.C. think tanks - the Henry L. Stimson Center is the other -- that have just released a report on the threat. The groups attempted to measure the progress made since the 2001 Baker-Cutler Task Force established a strategy to neutralize the Russian nuclear materials by 2011.

The CAP report states that Russian "stubbornness over allowing U.S. personnel sufficient access to sensitive sites" is partially to blame for the failure to meet Baker-Cutler recommendations. It encourages the U.S. to develop closer relationships with the Russian government to improve the cooperation.

The Baker-Cutler Task Force found that enough bomb-grade material existed in Russia for tens of thousands of nuclear weapons to be manufactured. In order to secure the nuclear materials, the Baker-Cutler report recommended that the U.S. oversee and fund the consolidation of storage sites in Russia and increase security and inventory procedures to protect the sites.

While some "discreet progress" has been achieved, Boorstin said, the CAP/Stimson report concluded that the U.S. might not be able to finish the task of securing the Russian weapons and materials until 2020 or possibly even 2030.

Harvard University professor Graham Allison said the pace at which weapons have been secured in Russia in the four years since Baker-Cutler is as slow as it was in the four years prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Allison, who last year wrote the book "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe," said the second Clinton administration and the first Bush administration deserve poor marks for their handling of non-proliferation efforts, but that he's "much more encouraged" about the second Bush administration.

"With an agenda so clear," Allison said, referring to the Baker-Cutler Task Force recommendations, "the progress is so little."

During the 2004 presidential campaign, President Bush and his Democratic challenger - Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry - did refer to the Russian nuclear materials as the number-one threat to American security.

But Bush now needs to appoint someone to establish "benchmarks and accountability" to encourage faster progress in securing the threatening items, Allison said, adding that "the entire program is ripe for re-conception."

The Baker-Cutler Task Force has estimated the cost of the project to be around $30 billion, which Allison said is a "drop in the bucket" when it comes to national security spending. The task force recommended initial funding from the United States and a commitment by the Russian government to eventually take over the project as American responsibility phased out.

Alton Frye, a member of the Stimson Center's board of directors, was not optimistic about the project. "There's a big gray area of uncertainty" related to how much nuclear material is at risk, he said. And "we believe terrorists have not gotten their hands on them yet," but "we have to speak in terms of probabilities and not certainties."

Frye said terrorists have not yet obtained Russian nuclear materials because while progress is not moving as fast as possible, "we have made some good progress ... and they (the Russians) have made some progress" on their own.

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