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Facing the nuclear danger

The war on terrorism threatens to overshadow the greatest weapons-proliferation challenge of all — the safe management of nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union.

Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden and Kim Jong-Il are each well-known for their possible ties to weapons of mass destruction, but has anyone heard of Alexander Tyulyakov? Tyulyakov was deputy director of Atomflot — the state-owned company overseeing Russia's fleet of nuclear icebreakers. In August, he was arrested by the Russian Federal Security Service and charged with trying to sell more than a kilogram of uranium and radium to nuclear smugglers.

When Tony Blair and George W. Bush meet in London this week, it must be hoped that their discussions on the threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction will not be confined to the status of weapons programmes in Iraq, North Korea and Iran.

Proliferation experts have argued for years that the kind of activities in which Tyulyakov was allegedly engaged present an immense danger. This was acknowledged soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in particular by then senator Sam Nunn (Democrat, Georgia) and Senator Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana), who co-sponsored a 1991 law to support the adequate supervision of nuclear materials there. But it has been difficult for the United States to sustain its commitment to Nunn–Lugar programmes. And European governments have shown even less commitment — lamentably, some of them continue to see this pressing issue as something for the United States and Russia to address (see page 219).

But the problem belongs to all of us and it isn't going away. Its scope spreads far beyond the old Soviet atomic-weapons complex and the nuclear submarines' fuel cycle. Across Russia, for example, hundreds of weather stations and navigation beacons are powered by highly radioactive strontium, which could be used in so-called 'dirty' weapons that spread such materials around without any fission reaction. And shipyards and factories house tonnes of nuclear fuel from ships and power plants. Research reactors in the former Warsaw Pact countries pose another risk. That's aside from the tonnes of biological agents thought to reside in Russian military installations, and the thousands of intact nuclear weapons still deployed or stored in the country.

The Nunn–Lugar act and other salient measures anticipated a prolonged and concerted Western effort to help safeguard these materials. But a report released this week by a coalition of 21 non-proliferation organizations suggests that the effort is in danger of stalling.

The report (see describes the progress to date of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, an initiative launched in June 2002 to secure government commitments of US$20 billion over ten years to clean up facilities, manage materials and gainfully employ weapons scientists in the former Soviet Union. But in the first year of the partnership, the report says, its 14 member governments spent only about half of the US$2 billion needed to meet its goals.

If governments are serious about slowing weapons proliferation, there can be no higher priority than making up this shortfall. And that will only be the start of the decades-long commitment required to contain the Soviet legacy of weapons of mass destruction.

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Facing the nuclear danger. Nature 426, 213 (2003).

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