By Lt. General Robert Gard, Jr. and Candice DeNardi
On Monday, November 8, 2010, two Armenians—Sumbat Tonoyan, a retired physicist, and Hrant Ohanyan, a failed businessman—pleaded guilty during a secret trial held in Tbilisi to smuggling 18 grams of highly enriched uranium (HEU) into Georgia.
In March 2010, a month before the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington D.C. where 47 world leaders pledged to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years, Tonoyan and Ohanyan were arrested for smuggling HEU into Georgia. The two Armenians placed the 18 grams of uranium, enriched to a weapons useable level, in a pack of Marlboro cigarettes lined with strips of lead to fool radiation detectors at the Georgian border. Tonoyan and Ohanyan then smuggled the HEU via a train bound from Yerevan to Tbilisi, and attempted to sell it to someone they thought was an agent representing Islamic radicals; instead, he turned out to be an undercover agent of Georgia’s radioactive materials investigations team.
There are several disturbing facts about this incident. It illustrates the very real threat of the theft, smuggling, and sale of nuclear materials to prospective buyers, especially terrorists. But what’s equally chilling about this case, and others for that matter, is that the uranium the men were smuggling wasn’t even missed. No one knows where exactly it came from, although most suspect it originated in Siberia, perhaps even up to ten years ago. During the Cold War, many Soviet factories produced and stockpiled excess quantities of HEU or plutonium in order to make up for potential shortfalls in production quotas for future accounting periods (you didn’t want to fall behind on quotas in the Soviet Union, lest you be sent to the GULag). Much of this was unaccounted for; it is impossible to know for sure, therefore, how much of this material was produced, where it is located, how it is stored, and—most importantly—how much is missing.
According to the Guardian’s Julian Borger, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been “21 seizures or attempted thefts of weapons-grade material, uranium or plutonium, in the region.” In each of these cases, the stolen material was never accounted for in the first place. These incidents highlight the need for strengthening and extending efforts to inventory, consolidate, and secure nuclear materials. The potential for theft or sale of Russian HEU has been substantially reduced, but by no means eliminated, by cooperative efforts between the U.S. and Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. While the materials stockpiles have received at least minimum security measures, the 445 metric tons of HEU that remain in some 220 buildings at 52 sites in Russia present a tempting target.
It is essential, therefore, to continue to focus on Russia as an indispensable part of the larger program to secure all weapons grade fissile materials in four years, as outlined by President Obama in Prague and reaffirmed at the Nuclear Security Summit in April. Obviously, Russian cooperation is critical. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, START I and programs to secure Russian nuclear weapons and fissile materials, popularly if erroneously grouped together under the “Nunn-Lugar” legislation, have facilitated collaboration, even during low points in U.S.-Russian relations. If the Senate fails to approve or indefinitely delays New START, the U.S. will not only lose a crucial window into the size and makeup of Russia’s still enormous deployed strategic nuclear arsenal, but it could also lose a vital partner in efforts to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism. In the words of Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN):
Russia and the United States have agreed, based on the Nunn-Lugar Umbrella Agreement and the understanding between Presidents Obama and Medvedev, to continue to cooperate on Nunn-Lugar projects while ratification of the New START Treaty is pursued. But it is unlikely that Moscow would sustain cooperative efforts indefinitely without the New START Treaty coming into force.
We must ratify New START and accord top priority to ensuring that other attempts similar to the Sumbat Tonoyan and Hrant Ohanyan effort don’t succeed, either.