Long-Standing WMD Destruction Efforts Face Fight Under Shadow of Iraq

Tidligere Senator Sam Nunn (venstre) og Senator Richard Lugar.
Foto: Thomas Nilsen

Publish date: March 24, 2003

Written by: Charles Digges

Under the shadow of America's new war to wrench hidden weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) out of Iraqi hands, some law-makers and observers in Washington are reiterating — for those who will listen — that the world's most destructive arsenals can be destroyed without war.

Furthermore, they say these arsenals — only a rough third of which are under any sort of dependable protection — are located at spots found on any reliable map of Russia.

What’s more is that the United States, in cooperation with Russia, has been working to destroy and dismantle nuclear, chemical and biological weapons inherited from the Cold War for more than a decade — though much more remains to be done.

But legislators who back expanding the powers of the so-called Nunn-Lugar act fear that the fresh American military assault on Iraq to destroy that country’s comparatively small weapons stocks will siphon funding, energy and attention from dealing with what is by far the world’s largest and most poorly secured stockpile of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons — in Russia.

They also fear, as does Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar — who with former Senator Sam Nunn created the Pentagon-run Nunn-Lugar, or Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programme — that peaceful American-led efforts to dismantle and secure the Soviet era nuclear machine are being "debilitated by intramural bureaucratic hassles," Lugar said at a hearing on American non-proliferation programmes held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.

"We are poised to use massive military force in Iraq in response to the threat of weapons of mass destruction," Lugar said. At the same time, Lugar said, American led efforts to secure and destroy weapons of mass destruction and materials that can be made into weapons in Russia were held up for most of last year by American bureaucratic delays.

Discussion of CTR shortcomings broadens
The Foreign Relations Committee hearings come at a time of intensified international dialogue about the efforts — and failures — of Western-led programmes that aim provide security for several hundred metric tonnes of weapons grade plutonium and uranium, chemical and biological weapons stock-piles, and dismantle strategic nuclear weapons located in Russia.

A Harvard University study released last week found that US efforts to help Russia and other nations secure and destroy poorly protected caches of nuclear weapons and radioactive material are moving too slowly to address the threat that some of the stockpiles could be tapped by terrorists or hostile states.

Dovetailing with the report’s release, International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, Chief Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei told a Vienna conference that, despite an increased awareness of the need for better nuclear security following September 11th 2001, radioactive material suitable for radioactive dispersion devices — so-called "dirty bombs" — continues to be lost or stolen.

ElBaradei said the problem of radioactive material suitable for such devices disappearing from regulator’s records was especially acute in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, where the IAEA has cooperated with Russia and the United States on operations to recover deadly radioactive material.

US non-proliferation rhetoric out of step with reality
But, according to the Harvard report — which was financed by the Nuclear Threat Initiative — the Bush administration has not fulfilled its promise that keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists would be its "highest priority."

"There remains an enormous gap between the seriousness and urgency of the threat, and the scope and pace of the U.S. and the international response," the study concludes.

Among the report’s findings — which are figures that have long been publicized by environmental groups and disarmament officials — are that only 37 percent of the "potentially vulnerable" nuclear material in Russia has been subject to "rapid" security upgrades financed by the United States as a stopgap step to keep it from being stolen or illegally diverted.

It also notes that many civilian nuclear reactors holding weapons-usable nuclear fuel in the former Soviet Union and developing countries are "dangerously insecure."

Waivers debated again
During Wednesday’s Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Lugar debated Assistant Secretary of State for Non-proliferation John Wolf on the usefulness of CTR programme certification review processes — which held up funding for CTR activities in Russia for much of last year after Bush became the first president to deny certification on the grounds that Russia was not being candid about its supplies of Soviet-era chemical and biological weapons.

At the same time, the Bush White House lobbied Congress for a law granting a procedure by which the president could waive certification requirements. After months of debate, a law granting the president three a three-year waiver on certification requirements was signed in January.

According to transcripts furnished by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Wolf testified at the hearing that even though the certification review "caused a logjam," the process "has utility because it focuses our attention; it’s part of our diplomatic leverage." Such leverage, he noted, could be applied in the sphere of Russia’s sour human rights records. Lugar disagreed.

"Let’s take the worst case scenario," Lugar said according to the transcript. "There are human rights violations in Russia. We’ve all seen them. And there are problems with access to some of these weapons site. I have first hand experience with that," he said.

"But does that mean we should stop destroying weapons? Who are we showing what? We have to be serious about the destruction of weapons of mass destruction. Global security depends on it. We want action. The American people, the world, wants the weapons destroyed, and not bureaucratic debate that gums up the works."

One such example of "gummed up works" came last year when Belgrade turned to CTR to secure and remove highly radioactive materials. Lugar said the government had to enlist the assistance of NTI — which is co-chaired by former Senator Nunn — to meet the $5m cost of the project because, as Lugar said Wednesday, "the bureaucrats determined that we don’t do environmental cleanup."

"What difference does that make when we’re talking about weapons of mass destruction," he added.

Lugar endorses Harvard findings
Last week, Lugar endorsed the findings of the Harvard report — which is entitled "Controlling Nuclear Warheads and Materials: A Report Card and Action Plan" — and said it stands as a stark reminder of the urgency of such programmes. "Having seen this inventory of their progress, hopefully we’ll find some people getting true religion again," he told USA Today
Among the report’s chief recommendations:

  • All assistance programs aimed at controlling the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons should be brought under the direction of a single person or office at the highest ranks of the administration. Those programs, run by the departments of Defense, Energy and State, lack coordination.
  • Additional funding is needed to finance new initiatives and strengthen existing programs. The report notes that current US spending of about $1 billion a year for all threat reduction programs represents about one-third of 1% of defence spending.
  • President Bush and other officials at the highest levels of his administration must become more directly involved in promoting and supporting threat-reduction efforts.

The report credits Bush with securing a commitment from the world’s Group of Eight industrialized powers last summer to collectively match a U.S. pledge of $1bn a year over the next decade to support such efforts as part of the "10 plus 10 over 10" or "Global Partnership" plan. But beyond such "occasional initiatives," the report says, there has been little engagement by top officials.

Lugar said Wednesday he plans to pass legislation this year that gives the President more flexibility and less restrictions to deal with caches of WMD anywhere in the world.

"We talk a good game about non-proliferation, but it’s going to take a lot more effort and political will to make it happen," Lugar said.