The war on terror is now firmly in its second stage, as the international world is beginning to make wake up to the credibility of the threat of a nuclear attack by terrorists. Concerted efforts by international organizations to make sure nuclear materials aren't taken from one country to another are only now beginning to make consistent headline news. Years and years of painfully slow progress in Russia - where mainly US proliferation experts have been involved in tidying up WMD since 1991 - shows just how worrisome the situation has become.
Russia is host to the biggest portion of the world's most dangerous nuclear arms. And it is likely that it is also the country that has them stored in the poorest, most risky conditions, making them likely the number one threat to international security. It is difficult to get a clear picture on just exactly how many weapons there still are in Russia, even though this is one of the most transparent countries around when it comes to information about nuclear weapons, thanks mostly to US efforts.
Reports in the press frequently draw attention to Russian nuclear devices having gone 'missing', having been sold to foreign countries and even so-called nuclear-free ex Soviet Republics are still scaring the rest of the world from time to time when news emerges that parts of nuclear devices have surfaced, despite memberships to stringent international non-proliferation treaties.
People making informed guesses as to what kind of weapons are still freely available in Russia or the global black market tend to come up with wildly differing estimates, but there's no doubt that Russia has one of the most poorly guarded storage facilities in the world. In 1991, the US began to make an inventory of and dismantling plans for the nuclear arms available in Russia and its surrounding states - in a 10 year plan, the so-called Nunn-Lugar framework for the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program.
Now in its 13th year, the program's work is not even half done, even though all of the nuclear weapons from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus have been removed under its provisions. This involved the deactivation of 6,252 nuclear warheads and the reemployment of more than 20,000 scientists in other jobs. Russia was estimated to host some 20,000 nuclear warheads, stored in 120 facilities in 2003. Russian nuclear material amounted to some 40,000 tons - most of it stockpiled in unsafe housing. It is common for Russian tactical nuclear devices not to be equipped with electronic locks. In 2003, only about 20% of Russian nuclear materials have security systems that meet U.S. standards and most of these were funded by the CTR.
Many of the Russian weapons are also unsafe because of production faults, which means that there's no guarantee that one of them might just detonate at any given point in time. Their error margin is frighteningly high, in the hundreds, according to estimates by the CIA. This alone makes Russia's arsenal a more serious threat to the world than Iraq's ever was or would be. US and Canadian officers involved in the dismantling say that when they visited storage barns in 2002 in Shchuchye, which accounts for 17% of the total Russian stockpiles, they made sure they used flashlights rather than electric light for fear they accidentally trigger a detonator. They went into Russian facilities under the provisions of the infamous market fund that was set up to finance the CTR. The initial financing for it was $6 billion.
Building on this effort, which came under a lot of criticism because of Russian misuse of large parts of the financing, the G8 three years ago launched its still largely elusive Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. A total of $20 billion was reserved for the next 10 years to support cooperation projects globally, but with an initial focus on Russia. The recent initiatives have yielded contested results and the support of the countries signing up so far have since been less enthusiastic than US support. President Bush pledged $1 billion per year, but other G-8 members didn't want to pay the contribution fees they originally pledged. When Russia signed the agreement last August, it was the 15th country to join the PSI initiative.
The article was originally written in April 2005.
Angelique van Engelen is a freelance journalist who is involved in www.reporTwitters.com, a journalistic project that combines reporting with Twitter. She crowdsourced opinions on this issue on this site.