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An ounce of prevention

At a time when cooperative threat reduction desperately needs to expand, its programs are instead at risk.



The cooperative threat reduction (CTR) programs operating in Russia and other former Soviet states have been an unprecedented nonproliferation success. [1]  But the threat reduction agenda now faces a potential crisis driven by mounting unsolved problems and lingering policy disputes. If new agreements are not reached and greater flexibility is not introduced soon, major elements of the agenda could be derailed.

Threat reduction--securing and eliminating weapons and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) materials--is a unique post-Cold War tool, filling the gap between diplomacy and negotiation on the one hand and sanctions and military action on the other.

Since 1992, the United States has provided about $10 billion for the dismantling of hundreds of ballistic missiles, the deactivation of thousands of nuclear weapons, and the elimination or securing of enough material for thousands of additional bombs. In addition, tens of thousands of scientists and workers with WMD-related knowledge have been provided temporary work on civilian projects.

In 2002, the Group of Eight (G-8) nations made a major commitment under the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction to not only continue, but also to expand, threat reduction activities. The G-8 pledged $20 billion for related activities, initially in Russia, over the next 10 years. The United States is expected to contribute $10 billion to the Global Partnership, by far the largest amount of any nation. A collapse of U.S. threat reduction programs as a result of festering disagreements could endanger other G-8 commitments. This would allow obvious proliferation dangers to persist and kill fledgling efforts to extend this nonproliferation approach to new nations.


The looming threat

Cooperative threat reduction faces a potential survival crisis. But the crisis can be averted if top officials in the United States and Russia apply sufficient political attention and will to solving key problems.

The most significant challenge is the possibility that a key U.S.-Russian agreement governing major parts of the agenda will neither be ratified by the Russian parliament nor extended by the U.S. and Russian governments when it is due to expire in June 2006.

The principal problem is that language contained in the so-called CTR Umbrella Agreement regarding accident liability assigns full responsibility to Russia, even if the fault is American. [2]  The United States is demanding that this provision remain and that it be inserted in new agreements. But Russia points out that the liability standard contradicts its domestic law and that the standard may not comply with other relevant international agreements. [3]  The Russian position was summed up bluntly in September 2003 by Anatoly Antonov, Russian ambassador-at-large: "Why should Russia be held liable for something somebody else did intentionally?" [4]

In fact, the CTR liability standard is more severe than those of most other threat reduction agreements between G-8 nations and Russia, and more severe than in other U.S.-Russian agreements. [5]  Yet in the last two years, senior Bush administration officials' insistence on maintaining the standard has already resulted in the expiration of three nuclear security-related agreements and potentially threatens the future of the CTR Umbrella Agreement, which governs both Defense Department CTR activities and key Energy Department programs. [6]

For more than a decade, the liability provisions of this and other related agreements were not major impediments to progress, but what seemed like a technical dispute two years ago has grown into a serious threat.

Other U.S.-Russian agreements, including those governing the Energy Department's Nuclear Cities Initiative, plutonium science and technology, and nuclear safety cooperation, also had rigorous liability language. And even if they did not assign blanket responsibility to Russia, their language had been vetted and approved by U.S. government lawyers. However, when those agreements came up for renewal in 2003, the Bush administration insisted that their liability provisions be revised to meet the stricter terms contained in the CTR Umbrella Agreement. If not, they would not be extended. And they were not extended--setting a problematic precedent.

The United States also insists that the same liability standard be adopted in the government-to-government agreement assisting Russia in eliminating its weapon-grade plutonium stockpile. The impasse on this issue has delayed construction of critical facilities for both Russian and U.S. plutonium disposition programs by at least one year; as a result, G-8 contributions to this project have been withheld.

If the United States is willing to let important nuclear security agreements expire because the liability dispute cannot be amicably resolved, the Russians may decide not to extend the CTR Umbrella Agreement. In that case, major threat reduction programs will end in mid-2006. The practical effects of a potential shutdown could be felt much sooner, as threat reduction program offices begin curtailing activities months in advance.

In addition to the Nuclear Cities Initiative and plutonium disposition programs, other threat reduction efforts that could be forced to wind down include: chemical weapon destruction; some biological threat reduction work; fissile material protection, control, and accounting; nuclear warhead security; and the completion of strategic delivery vehicle elimination.

Administration officials have claimed for months that they are close to a resolution, but none has materialized. [7]  Recently, administration officials indicated that they may be close to a compromise on plutonium disposition liability, but will maintain a firm stance on other liability negotiations. [8]  In the meantime, two key senators, New Mexico Republican Pete Domenici and Delaware Democrat Joseph Biden, have aggressively pushed for a resolution of the dispute so that programs can continue. But the administration has not budged.

Other disagreements between the United States and Russia have also deteriorated the atmosphere of cooperation vital to the success of threat reduction.

One of the longest-standing disputes is over access to sensitive Russian facilities where fissile material and warheads are stored, as well as access to key biological facilities run primarily by the Russian Ministry of Defense. The United States wants more access to assess the security dangers, determine that proper remedies are made, and assure that funds are spent as agreed. Russia, however, fears the penetration of its secret facilities and wants to limit the presence of U.S. officials and contractors. Russia's position has hardened as hardliners and the FSB (the KGB's successor) have gained greater power in Vladimir Putin's government.

Steps have been taken to ameliorate the problem. Lists of approved visitors have been created, greater reliance has been placed on Russian subcontractors and trusted agents, and President George W. Bush hinted in late December 2004 that the United States might be willing to offer reciprocal facility access in exchange for greater Russian transparency. In fact, last November a high-level delegation from Russia visited U.S. facilities. [9]  A compromise on access could be in the works, but time is running out.


Finishing the job

Assuming that a collision over the extension of the CTR Umbrella Agreement can be avoided and that threat reduction activities continue in Russia, the critical question becomes one of consolidating achievements and accelerating the schedule. During the 2004 presidential campaign, Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry agreed that finishing the job was America's top priority.

Now is the time for the Bush administration to act on the president's assurance that preventing WMD terrorism will be treated as the most serious threat facing the United States, and on the specific threat reduction pledges it has made. Surprisingly, one of the Pentagon's first post-election acts was to propose a 10 percent cut in the CTR budget. To its credit, the White House torpedoed the reduction and even suggested a slight increase. [10]  But the incident indicates an ambivalence toward the threat reduction agenda in powerful quarters of the government--a problem that has delayed key security programs over the last four years.

There are three important reasons to press for a completion of key nonproliferation objectives in Russia and the former Soviet states on a more aggressive schedule than current projections. (See "Bad Timing?")

First, it is in the best interests of the world to close off access to vulnerable WMD stockpiles and expertise. Security upgrades now protect roughly 50 percent of Russia's estimated 600 metric tons of fissile material (this does not include fissile material in weapons). But only 26 percent of the protected material has received the necessary comprehensive safeguards. [11]  This leaves more than 300 metric tons of weapons-usable materials without adequate security. Similar problems exist at Russian biological facilities, and thousands of tons of toxic chemical weapons have yet to be destroyed.

The second reason to act quickly is that some domestic constituencies in both Russia and the United States are unconvinced or opposed to threat reduction programs and objectives. Key members of Congress, like Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, fight every year for threat reduction programs. But other members are wary. They see implementation problems in important programs and growing unspent funding balances. Their skepticism is fueled by the Kremlin's retreat from democratic principles and practices, and they ask why Russia does not contribute more financially now that its economy has improved.

Russia has even fewer strong supporters of cooperative threat reduction, and their numbers are shrinking in the harsh political environment. In addition, as Russia gains strength economically, consolidates political power in fewer hands, and grows more self-assured, the government is increasingly unwilling to accept U.S. threat reduction dictates and conditions.

Finally, there are other countries where threat reduction principles and practices could be applied. But U.S. funding for threat reduction efforts is not likely to expand, even if the mission does. Congress, for example, gave the Defense and Energy Departments the authority to spend as much as $50 million each on threat reduction outside Russia and the former Soviet states. But it did not provide additional funds, meaning that some threat reduction activities in Russia and the former Soviet states might be cut as a result of trade-offs.

If U.S.-Russian threat reduction efforts are to be saved and strengthened, leaders in both countries need to demonstrate greater commitment to progress. As President Putin has consolidated his control over virtually all aspects of the Russian political system, the responsibility for progress in Russia lies at the Kremlin's door. Russia needs to promote greater transparency instead of clinging to hyper-secret attitudes that stifle engagement.

In the United States, President Bush has claimed a mandate to govern, declared that preventing proliferation is America's top security goal, and expressed a commitment to spend his "political capital" to advance his policy objectives. It should therefore be within both presidents' power to overcome the serious obstacles impeding threat reduction programs.


Modernizing the mission

The weakness of U.S. domestic political support for threat reduction presents a problem. Many officials still perceive threat reduction assistance as foreign aid rather than an investment in the first line of defense against WMD terrorism. Threat reduction also relies on international cooperation rather than the unilateral exercise of American power and prerogatives, which distresses some ideologues. As a result, threat reduction is perceived among some important constituencies as not being tough enough to fight the war on terror because it is focused on safeguarding materials rather than attacking terrorists. [12] 

Despite the program's successes, prejudice remains. But the difficulties encountered in the Iraq War and the discovery of the clandestine A. Q. Khan nuclear supply network have made it clear to an increasing number of U.S. politicians and the general population that more than military action is required to protect America from WMD terrorism.

The Bush doctrine of military preemption has opened the door for a transformation of how threat reduction is perceived. Threat reduction can be thought of as a non-military preemptive defense strategy focused on eliminating the threat before it reaches U.S. shores. It is less expensive and more acceptable diplomatically than military activities. By changing the perception of cooperative threat reduction and emphasizing the link between homeland defense and the security of global WMD stockpiles, domestic support for these programs could be boosted.

Of course, because it is U.S.-focused and an endorsement of preemption, this change in thinking could present a significant challenge for U.S. partners in Russia, the former Soviet states, and the G-8. But along with a change in perception could come a change in language. The term "cooperative threat reduction" has become ingrained in the political dialogue. But it is a remnant of a different era, when the initial threat reduction effort aimed to help post-Soviet states in the face of economic collapse and assist them in meeting the conditions of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

The objective today is to prevent global proliferation, which requires a more expansive set of countries and coalitions. Describing partner nations as "threats to be reduced" may inhibit cooperation. Instead of aiming future efforts at Russia and the former Soviet states, it may now be possible to work with them, G-8 countries, and other nations and institutions under a new, more effective conceptual banner of "cooperative proliferation prevention." Such a concept could utilize the principles and programs developed under the traditional threat reduction umbrella, and expand and reshape them to address pressing global proliferation problems.


Engaging new countries

The U.S.-Russian threat reduction relationship has produced a large body of expertise, information, professional connections, and lessons learned that could serve as a valuable basis in addressing proliferation risks in countries beyond the former Soviet states.

The process of extending threat reduction programs and principles to new countries, although difficult, is not impossible and in fact has already begun.

As mentioned earlier, Energy and Defense were authorized to direct portions of their threat reduction funds outside the former Soviet Union. In late 2004, Senator Lugar introduced new legislation allowing for further expansion of Defense Department threat reduction efforts. He also called for a broader application of threat reduction to other regions and nations that face potential proliferation problems.

If passed, this legislation would build on initiatives undertaken in China, Iraq, Libya, and Albania.

Cooperation with China, particularly on nuclear material security issues, began in the mid-1990s. But the program was suspended in the wake of accusations that a spy had stolen W88 warhead designs. The program was resurrected in early 2004 and is again focused on nuclear material security as well as export control, but progress has been slow.

In Iraq, the U.S. government has used threat reduction as a model in establishing programs to help redirect former weapons scientists to peaceful and productive jobs. Both State and Energy have programs in this area, though neither has dedicated U.S. funding for the long term. Unfortunately, violence in Iraq and threats against Iraqi scientists have slowed the program.

Libya's decision to renounce its chemical and nuclear weapons programs provided the United States and Britain with an additional opportunity to extend threat reduction offshoots. The Energy Department paid to have Libya's nuclear infrastructure transported to the United States. More than 3,000 Libyan chemical munitions were destroyed, and stocks of chemical weapon agents and precursors have been secured and consolidated for destruction. [13]  Efforts also have been made to redirect Libya's scientists to new employment, but there is no dedicated U.S. or British funding to sustain this effort.

The first use of Defense's Cooperative Threat Reduction Program funds outside Russia and the former Soviet states will be in Albania. In October 2004, the Bush administration released $20 million for the destruction of approximately 16 tons of chemicals from Albania's chemical weapons stockpile over the next two years. [14]

The United States is also breaking new ground multilaterally. In May 2004, Energy announced the creation of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative to secure, remove, and dispose of nuclear and radiological materials from vulnerable facilities around the world. [15]  This program will integrate the management of several preexisting programs in three areas:

• Facilitating the removal of vulnerable nuclear materials. A series of operations have removed materials from Kazakhstan, Georgia, Serbia, Uzbekistan, Bulgaria, Romania, and most recently, the Czech Republic. [16]

• Converting nuclear reactors that use highly enriched uranium fuel to non-weapons-usable fuel.

• Eliminating materials and equipment that could be used to produce a dirty bomb.

Under the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, the United States wants to partner with other countries and international organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency. Congress provided funding this year to accelerate the initiative's progress.

Other key countries could one day be included in some form of cooperative proliferation prevention, including Pakistan and India, and perhaps ultimately, if there are dramatic breakthroughs, North Korea and even Iran.

In India and Pakistan, different approaches will be required to reflect the individual circumstances and challenges in each country. Should they decide to participate, it will be important that neither is put in the position of being seen as a recipient of Western aid but instead as partners in preventing global WMD proliferation. Moreover, each nation's decision to take action must be made internally. Future nonintrusive efforts could be based on information exchanges or discussions of best practices and lessons learned for nuclear security.

The United States and North Korea have already participated in a form of threat reduction as part of the Agreed Framework, under which Pyongyang's plutonium program was frozen and spent fuel rods were secured and monitored. If another agreement can be reached to freeze, monitor, and ultimately eliminate North Korea's nuclear program, then additional threat reduction actions could be introduced.


Strengthening the agenda

Threat reduction efforts are at a critical juncture. Existing U.S.-Russian programs need to be completed more quickly than in the past if they are to achieve their security objectives during this dangerous period. Major obstacles must be overcome through serious, sustained, and candid high-level political discussions.

Moreover, the future of threat reduction must be as a global nonproliferation tool--not one that is pursued primarily by the United States or that is limited to one geographic area. Threat reduction must be transformed into a multilateral effort that can be applied to a range of proliferation problems across the world. Meeting this goal requires nations with experience on this agenda--the United States, Russia, other G-8 nations, as well as the former Soviet states--to work together to address new proliferation problems and extend the benefit of their knowledge and practices to others.

In order to strengthen this agenda and better prepare it as a foundation for expansion, the administration and Congress need to exercise leadership in the coming year.

The Bush administration should:

• Establish the necessary high-level political dialogue between the United States and Russia to overcome current debilitating obstacles (like access and liability disputes) and secure the ratification or provisional extension of the CTR Umbrella Agreement.

• Create a semiannual, performance-based review mechanism for threat reduction efforts presided over by senior high-level officials from both countries.

• Explore opportunities to engage partners, including Russia, in expanding the agenda to new countries.

• Urge the G-8 Global Partnership to broaden its geographical focus at its next meeting.

Congress should:

• Streamline threat reduction legislation to eliminate conditions that impede progress, or give the president the permanent authority to override those conditions.

• Provide greater flexibility to facilitate expansion of global threat reduction.

• Increase funding for biothreat reduction in Russia and the former Soviet states.

• Provide additional funding, authorization, and necessary leadership to accelerate global nuclear material removal programs.

• Expand the global program to remove all weapons-usable uranium fuel elements from research and power reactors.

• Create a joint, bipartisan "First Line of Defense Caucus" for senators and representatives.


Investing in prevention

If a terrorist group were to acquire and detonate a nuclear weapon in a major city, the results--in human, financial, and environmental terms--would be catastrophic. In our tightly integrated world, an act of nuclear terror anywhere would have security, political, and financial impacts around the globe and across generations.

And yet governments continue to respond to catastrophes mostly after they occur, and the level of political and financial capital invested by officials in preventive approaches and policies remains inadequate. The recent tsunami is a tragic illustration of the consequences of failing to invest in catastrophe prevention.

While some experts and officials stress how difficult it is for terrorists to acquire or manufacture WMD, there can be little doubt that the consequences of nuclear terrorism would be devastating. The risks can be greatly reduced through a proven and effective set of cooperative proliferation prevention measures. But doing so will require a more serious and proactive approach by the United States, Russia, and other members of the international community, starting immediately.


1."Cooperative Threat Reduction" refers to the program managed by the Defense Department. This article uses "cooperative threat reduction" in a generic sense, to encompass cooperative nonproliferation programs led by Defense, Energy, and State, as well as similar efforts being implemented by other nations.

2. The "Agreement Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation Concerning the Safe and Secure Transportation, Storage, and Destruction of Weapons and the Prevention of Weapons Proliferation," signed June 17, 1992, established the legal framework for the Defense Department's Nunn-Lugar assistance to Russia, spelling out the rights and responsibilities of both countries. It had a duration of seven years; a protocol extending the agreement for another seven years was signed in June 1999.

3. See Overcoming Impediments to U.S.-Russian Cooperation on Nuclear Nonproliferation: Report of a Joint Workshop, U.S. National Academies Committee on U.S.-Russian Cooperation on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Russian Academy of Sciences Committee on U.S.-Russian Cooperation on Nuclear Nonproliferation (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2004), pp. 81-83.

4. Joe Fiorill, "U.S.-Russian Liability Dispute Could Bode Ill for Threat Reduction Programs," Global Security Newswire, September 22, 2003.

5. See R. Douglas Brubaker and Leonard S. Spector, "Liability and Western Nonproliferation Assistance to Russia: Time for a Fresh Look?" Nonproliferation Review, Spring 2003, pp. 1-39.

6. Peter Eisler, "Renewal of Deal to Secure Russian Arms in Doubt," USA Today, December 14, 2004.

7. In March 2004, Spencer Abraham said the United States would "work to resolve the liability issue by this spring." Statement of Spencer Abraham, Secretary, Energy Department, Senate Committee on Armed Services, March 23, 2004.

8. See Daniel Horner, "'More Help Needed From Russia on Nonproliferation,' Abraham Says," Nuclear Fuel, January 17, 2005.

9. Mike Nartker, "Bush Seeks More Russian Access to U.S. Nuclear Sites," Global Security Newswire, December 21, 2004.

10. Bryan Bender, "Cut in Funds for Securing Nuclear Materials Rejected," Boston Globe, January 7, 2005.

11. Remarks prepared for Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, Council on Foreign Relations, January 13, 2005; and Energy Department, U.S. Department of Energy Performance and Accountability Report for Fiscal Year 2004 (DOE/ME0044), November 15, 2004.

12. In a June 1, 2004 media conference call organized by the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign, Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss argued, "As long as you have terrorists out there, there are going to be weapons available to terrorists irrespective of what kind of weapons you're talking about. . . . Weapons of mass destruction mean nothing if you eliminate terrorists." Associated Press, "Kerry Blasts Lack of Bio-Terror Readiness," June 2, 2004.

13. Testimony of Paula A. DeSutter, Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance, "Hearing Before the Subcommittee on International Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Human Rights," U.S. House of Representatives, September 22, 2004.

14. Joby Warrick, "U.S. to Aid Albania in Destroying Chemicals," Washington Post, October 22, 2004, p. A16; Mike Nartker, "U.S. to Aid Destruction of Albanian Chemical Weapons," Global Security Newswire, October 22, 2004.

15. Remarks prepared for Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, International Atomic Energy Agency, May 26, 2004.

16. See Philipp C. Bleek, "Global Cleanout: An Emerging Approach to the Civil Nuclear Material Threat," Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, September 2004.


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Kenneth Luongo is executive director and William Hoehn is Washington office director of the Russian American Nuclear Security Advisory Council (RANSAC).

March/April 2005 pp. 28-35 (vol. 61, no. 2)  2005 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists


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Sidebar: Bad timing?

Many experts consider the administration's timetable for the completion of key threat reduction programs to be too long. In many cases, program completion is at least five to ten years away. In some cases, as with nuclear material security, it is not clear, under current constraints, that program schedules will be met. In others, such as plutonium disposition, delays caused by the liability dispute have pushed back facility construction by one year. And in areas such as biothreat reduction, significant expansion is needed, which will require more time and money.

Following are the goals and target completion dates for selected threat reduction programs:

Global Threat Reduction Initiative
The Energy Department plans to repatriate all Russian-supplied fresh highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel to Russia by 2005. Energy also plans to complete the repatriation of all Russian-origin spent fuel by 2010. Energy anticipates converting 105 research reactors to operate on low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel by 2014.

Eliminating weapon-grade plutonium production
The project will construct or refurbish fossil fuel-based generating capacity in Russia to facilitate the shutdown of three remaining Russian plutonium production reactors--two in Seversk by 2008, and one in Zheleznogorsk by 2011.

Russian nuclear material security
Energy says it expects to complete Material Protection, Control, and Accounting security upgrades for about 600 metric tons of Russia's nuclear weapons-usable material by the end of 2008.

Russian nuclear material consolidation and conversion
By the end of fiscal 2015, Energy expects to have converted approximately 27 metric tons of Russian HEU to LEU.

Russian warhead security
Energy plans to secure 39 Russian Navy warhead sites by the end of fiscal 2006 and 25 Strategic Rocket Forces sites by the end of fiscal 2008. The Defense Department CTR program also aims to secure Russian warhead storage sites, though its timeline for completing this work has not been publicly specified.

Second Line of Defense and megaports
Energy hopes to install radiation detectors at 293 border-crossings and 20 "megaports" by 2012.

Plutonium disposition in Russia
Energy anticipates completing construction of the MOX fuel fabrication facility in Russia by 2008, though this estimate assumes a resolution of the ongoing liability impasse.

Russian Transition Initiatives (RTI)
RTI strives to create 15,000 civilian jobs outside the Russian WMD complex by 2030, with an intermediate goal of creating 60 new technologies or businesses by 2015 to support sustainable jobs. RTI aims to meet 100 percent of its nuclear complex downsizing goals for six Russian facilities (two weapons assembly plants, two weapons design institutes, and two plutonium production facilities) by 2015.

Biothreat reduction
The Defense Department's CTR program, Energy's RTI office, and the State Department all contribute to efforts to prevent proliferation of bioweapons and related expertise. CTR continues to dismantle bioweapons-related infrastructure, secure pathogen stockpiles, conduct cooperative research with Russian and former Soviet bio-institutes, and develop a threat assessment and disease response network for Central Asia. RTI's Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention continues to fund several projects aimed at redirecting bioweapons scientists. The State Department oversees the Bio-Chem Redirect Program, the Bio-Industry Initiative, and provides the U.S. contribution to the Moscow and Kiev Science and Technology Centers.

Chemical weapons destruction, demilitarization
By 2008, the CTR program expects to complete a facility in Shchuchye, Russia, to destroy Russia's nerve agent stockpile. By fiscal 2007, CTR plans to complete decontamination and dismantlement of former Soviet-era nerve agent production facilities at Novocheboksarsk.

Kenneth Luongo and William Hoehn

Sources: Remarks by Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, June 14, 2004, and September 20, 2004; Fiscal 2005 Congressional Budget Request, Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation; Linton Brooks, prepared Senate statement, March 23, 2004; CTR Annual Report to Congress for fiscal 2005, Defense Department; correspondence with energy officials.


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