After 20 Years of US Aid, Russia Goes Solo on Controlling Loose Nukes

Posted October 18th, 2012 at 5:03 pm (UTC+0)

A Russian loose nuke blows up on the steppe? No, just a soldier violating no smoking rules at an ammo dump. The explosions on Oct. 9 rattled windows and rattled nerves in nearby Orenburg Photo: AP/Yevgeny

The day that Russia’s government decided last week to end its participation in the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, a huge, mushroom-shaped cloud rose high in the air over Orenburg.

In this case, the dust was kicked up by massive, accidental blasts of conventional weapons, largely stores of Soviet-era artillery shells.

To avoid the real thing, a nuclear explosion, American taxpayers have paid $7 billion over the last 20 years to cut the threat of loose nukes scattered around the former Soviet Union. The program did things as simple as build secure fences around warehouses that held nuclear materials, and as complicated as evacuating all nuclear weapons from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.

The thinking was that, given the lax safety measures of the Soviet Union, and the “anything goes” capitalism that followed the Soviet collapse, Russia and other successor states needed help fast.

But 20 years later, Russia’s government finances are among the best in the world. The Kremlin bridles at what it sees as the paternalism and intrusion of foreign aid in securing nuclear, chemical and biological materials.

In 1998, journalists stand around a Ukrainian SS-24 missile silo after it was destroyed at Pervomaisk, Ukraine. Ukraine inherited the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal with the 1991 Soviet collapse. The doomsday scenario of Soviet nukes falling into the hands of rogue states or terrorists has remained fiction, thanks to the massive U.S.-Russian effort to lock them up safely after the Soviet Union fell apart. At Pervomaisk, one missile silo was retained and converted into the Museum of Missile Troops Photo: AP Efrem Lukatsky

But that mushroom-shaped cloud over Orenburg hangs like a question mark over one all-Russian arms disposal program.

Down on the ground, at the Donguz military range on the morning of Oct. 9, Private Alexander Kasatkin had been unloading old ammunition for controlled disposal. The work was tiring and boring, so Private Kasatkin decided to sneak a cigarette break.

Apparently, an officer approached.

The private tried to ground out the butt with his army boot.


The ensuing fire raged for four hours, blowing up 4,000 tons of ammunition.

Private Kasatkin, being a young draftee, was fleet of foot and managed to scamper out of harm’s way, along with 300 other soldiers.

Amazingly, the only injury was to an officer discovered later in a protective bunker.

He was found to be suffering, understandably, from shell shock.

As sappers comb the area — finding 724 unexploded shells at last count — it would be nice to write off the Orenburg blast off as an embarrassing coincidence to the Kremlin’s decision to go it alone on nuclear and chemical disposal.

But reporters with computer search services quickly recalled that an officer was killed last month by an ammunition disposal blast, and that six soldiers were killed last May in a similar accident.

Alexander Kanshin, a member of the Russia’s Public Chamber, pulled it all together, saying at a press conference: “More than 50 servicemen have died and over 300 have been wounded in the scrapping of munitions in recent years.”

The military state that was the Soviet Union left behind vast stores of armaments. Those old explosives are becoming unstable. Rubber seals are drying and cracking.

Over the last two years, the Russian military has scrapped about half of 8 million tons of missiles and ammunition left over from the Soviet era, Deputy Defense Minister Army General Dmitry Bulgakov told a Defense oversight panel on Oct. 23. He said that about two thirds of the remaining 3.6 million tons are to be scrapped by the end of next year. Newer, safer disposal technologies are to be adopted, he said.

During 20 years of disposing nuclear materials and weapons under the Nunn-Lugar program, there are no known fatalities.

Instead, the track record is pretty impressive.

The day after the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that Russia wants to end — not amend — Nunn-Lugar, Senator Richard Lugar, Republican from Indiana, and one of the programs initial sponsors, announced the results of 20 years:

Officials and onlookers inspect the remains of the last Minuteman II missile silo after it was imploded Dec. 15, 1997, near Dederick, Missouri, USA. The implosion is in accordance with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed in 1991. Photo: AP/John S. Stewart

“The Nunn-Lugar scorecard now totals 7,610 strategic nuclear warheads deactivated, 902 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) destroyed, 498 ICBM silos eliminated, 191 ICBM mobile launchers destroyed, 155 bombers eliminated, 906 nuclear air-to-surface missiles (ASMs) destroyed, 492 SLBM launchers eliminated, 684 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) eliminated, 33 nuclear submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles destroyed, 194 nuclear test tunnels eliminated, 3,192.3 metric tons of Russian and Albanian chemical weapons agent destroyed, 590 nuclear weapons transport train shipments secured, security at 24 nuclear weapons storage sites upgraded, 39 biological threat monitoring stations built and equipped.”

This work has gone on largely behind the scenes. You have not heard about it because it was done safely, and professionally, without big oops moments.

This week brought a typical small item on the Interfax news wire.

On Oct. 18, work was completed in Kazakhstan on a 20-year American-Kazakhstan-Russian project to clean up Semipalatinsk, once the world’s largest nuclear testing ground. Stretching over 18,500 square kilometers, Semipalatinsk was used for testing about 500 nuclear bombs over 40 years, from 1949 to 1989.

Also this week, Kazakhstan agreed to host in Almaty the headquarters of the International Science and Technology Center (ISTC). Set up in Moscow in 1992, the largely Western and Japanese-funded program has helped 58,000 former Soviet weapons scientists find peaceful work in industry and in universities. Last year, Russia pulled out of the agreement, prompting the group to decide to move from Moscow.

As dust settled over Orenburg last week, Vedemosti, an independent Moscow newspaper, questioned whether: “Declarations of self-sufficiency to dispose of ammunition sound good in light of the explosion of thousands of shells in the Orenburg region.”

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

3 responses to “After 20 Years of US Aid, Russia Goes Solo on Controlling Loose Nukes”

  1. […] cloud over Orenburg hangs like a question mark over one all-Russian arms disposal program….. //… Like this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  2. Davis K. Thanjan says:

    The performance of the Nunn-Lugar disarmament project seems to have achieved most of its goal. The US expense of about $305 million per year during the last 20 years seems to be a bargain for the sake of disarmament. How many more nuclear arms have to be deactivated and dismantled by both the US and Russia in compliance to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) ratified in the US in 2010 and ratified in Russia in 2011? How many nuclear arms are left in the US and Russia?

    Because of Russian threat of developing offensive weapon systems if the US implement the Strategic Defensive Initiative (SDI), Obama administration caved in under this Russian threat. No wonder President Obama privately requested Putin to wait till the end of the US presidential election for more concessions to Russia. While getting concessions from US, Putin has embarked on $770 billion military expansion during next 10 years while Obama is cutting the military spending in the US by a trillion dollars, weakening the military balance between the US v/s Russia and the US v/s China and weakening further the military balance between the US v/s combined military of Russia and China. No wonder Russia and China resist any US military action both in the UN Security Council and in any country.

    • Steve Derks says:

      Mr. Thanjan: And your point is? I don’t see the Russians objecting to our occupation of Afghanistan, which is right at their doorstep. Oh, wait, they tried the same thing before us. You seem to forget that $770 billion is chump change to the Pentagon. You claim that our defense posture will be harmed if we cut a trillion dollars out of a defense budget of 7 trillion dollars. Mr. Obama is winding us down from two wars; a reduction in defense spending is in order. As far as I can tell, the Pentagon is on board with a reduction in the defense budget. Finally, I would add that placing US missiles (even if only defensive) in Eastern Europe is a provocative act. I would expect Russia to complain and respond if we do it. We need to quit saber rattling and give Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin a chance to do negotiate.



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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