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UCLA Magazine Winter 2004
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Winter 2004
Stemming the Nuclear Tide
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There are also grounds for concern. The collapse of the Soviet Union caused “instant proliferation.” Where there had been one nuclear-weapons state, the Soviet Union, there were suddenly four: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Although it is believed that all of those nuclear weapons have been consolidated on Russian territory, there remains some doubt as to whether “all” really means all, and as to whether there remain outside of Russia substantial quantities of weapons-grade materials. Nor are we confident that the weapons and materials within Russia are adequately protected against theft or illicit purchase: The problem of “loose nukes” continues to merit our attention. Finally, economic dislocation in Russia has forced thousands of highly trained nuclear scientists and engineers onto the job market, and they may find willing employers among nations and organizations seeking to acquire or produce nuclear weapons.

Non-state actors, such as al-Qaeda and some other terrorist groups, have substantial resources, global reach and, it appears, incentives to strike at Western interests on a massive scale. It is unlikely that such a group could produce nuclear weapons on its own. The greater danger is that it might get them from a state sponsor, or it might buy or steal them. And there is reason to believe that if a terrorist group like al-Qaeda got nuclear weapons, it would use them.

All of these factors — incentives to acquire and use nuclear weapons, ample financial resources, inadequately secured nuclear weapons and materials, and a pool of highly trained specialists willing to sell their expertise — contribute to the challenge of stemming nuclear proliferation to states and terrorist organizations. Yet it is a challenge that must be met if our nation is to be secure. At present, U.S. nonproliferation policy must focus on Russia (as a potential source of loose nukes), North Korea, Iran and non-state groups, principally al-Qaeda.

Russia has thousands of nuclear weapons, thousands of tons of weapons-grade materials and thousands of nuclear engineers and scientists. Nightmarish stories of missing “suitcase bombs,” unlocked or unguarded storage facilities, black marketeering, etc. abound. Whether or not any of these tales is true, it is in Russia’s interest, and ours, to redouble efforts to secure those stockpiles and to prevent the leakage of nuclear experts and expertise.


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