Moscow meeting on the future of the Nuclear Weapon Complexes of Russia and the USA

On 14-18 July 1998, Pugwash Meeting No. 237 was held in Moscow and Sarov (Arzamas-16), Russia

The Future of the Nuclear Weapon Complexes of Russia and the USA

Report by Jack Harris

THE fifth Pugwash Workshop on The Future of the Nuclear Weapons Complexes of Russia and the USA took place from 14-18 July 1998 in Moscow and at the Arzamas-16 nuclear weapons research facility in Sarov. More than 50 participants attended, including eleven from outside Russia and 40 senior Russian nuclear weapons specialists. The workshop included three days of discussions in Moscow (including meetings with senior military experts, the Minister of Atomic Energy and a Vice-Chairman of the Russian Duma) and a two-day visit to Sarov (Arzamas-16), one of the most important of Russia’s ‘closed’ or ‘secret’ cities and where Andrei Sakharov carried out pioneering work on nuclear weapons.

The group’s discussions were held in the midst of the political and economic instability currently plaguing Russia. Participants heard how regional governors in Russia are refusing to collect taxes and are demanding greater autonomy, reminding one of Yeats’s chilling words: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. In particular, the workshop focused on the security of literally hundreds of tons of fissile uranium and plutonium. The fact that many of those responsible for the decommissioning of nuclear weapons had not been paid for many months added additional urgency to the group’s discussions.

Current Russian National Security Policy

THE first workshop session was a highly disturbing cri de coeur. The shock felt in Russia by the expansion of NATO was referred to repeatedly. Many in Russia feel hemmed in on three sides, by an expanding NATO in the West, by Moslem fundamentalism in the South, and by a burgeoning and expanding China in the East. Since Yeltsin’s market reforms began in 1991, production has fallen by 50 percent and many parts of the country seek to survive on a barter economy. Many Russians feel that there is no way out of the morass without instituting what is anathema to Western, capitalist-orientated leaders – protection from world markets and restrictions on the movement of capital. In the military sphere, there is an increased reliance on nuclear weapons as Russia’s conventional military strength diminishes. While some participants expressed the hope that Russia would become closer to Europe, perhaps even joining the European Union and NATO, others felt that this would only serve to frighten and isolate China.

One participant noted disturbing parallels between Russia’s present predicament and the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany. There have been other equally apocalyptic comparisons – Yeltsin’s relationship with the Duma has been likened to that of Charles I’s with the English parliament in the seventeenth century, and more recently, the Presidential hopeful, Aleksander Lebed, has compared Russia’s present predicament with that at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

The “Big Five” Nuclear Powers and “Threshold” Nuclear States

THE group turned next to a discussion of India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear tests, which moved the two countries from ‘threshold’ to ‘declared’ Nuclear States. While India has received most of the criticism for initiating this new phase of the nuclear arms race, it is important to remember that shortly before India’s tests, Pakistan had provocatively fired a new missile with a substantial range. Neither India nor Pakistan had signed the NPT or the CTBT so neither had done anything illegal. In any event the five declared nuclear states were hardly in a moral position to pass judgement on another country’s ambition to emulate their action and acquire nuclear weapons. The point was also made on whether Israel would have to carry out a test before being recognised as a nuclear state?

It was suggested that the Pakistani test was the more worrying – it was after all the first Moslem state to openly acquire a nuclear weapon and other Moslem countries (Iran and Saudi Arabia were mentioned) could follow suit. The wisdom of Russia constructing a nuclear reactor for Iran was questioned, though it was pointed out that they were merely completing a construction program started by a German company. Iran now has two nearby countries with nuclear weapons which increases its incentive to possess them. Saudi Arabia has medium range (up to 2650 km) ballistic missiles of Chinese origin and is rich enough to buy nuclear weapons or the facilities to manufacture them, should it be allowed to do so. With its Chinese missiles it could represent a threat to any country in the Middle East.

The imposition of sanctions against India and Pakistan did not receive much support – it was pointed out that the economy of Pakistan was in any case extremely fragile so they were by far the more vulnerable to sanctions. In any event they probably haven’t many weapons (they may have used up all their arsenal in the tests). In contrast it could be assumed that India has sufficient fissile material for at least a hundred warheads. Perhaps India could be persuaded now to sign the NPT and CTBT. One participant pointed out that France enjoys good relations with India and in exchange for light water reactor technology, maybe France could persuade India to put its reactors under IAEA inspection.

Some disappointment was expressed that the Pugwash Council did not issue a statement condemning the Indian and Pakistan tests, and the Council was urged to do so.

Nuclear Stability: De-alerting and Disarmament

DESPITE the fact that the Cold War has been over for nearly a decade, the declared nuclear states, especially America and Russia, still keep their nuclear defences on hair-trigger alert, which is both dangerous and unnecessary. The events following the launching from Norway on 25th January 1995 of a rocket with scientific equipment designed to examine the Northern Lights, provides a good example of the danger of these procedures. Norwegian and US authorities had warned the Russians of this proposed launching, yet nonetheless military technicians at stations across northern Russia feared that they had picked up the launching of a single missile from an American nuclear submarine. They informed their superiors and President Yeltsin was alerted and for the first time his “nuclear briefcase” was activated for emergency use. With only a few minutes to spare before retaliatory action would have been taken, the radar operators realised that the rocket would land harmlessly in the sea.

More generally, both Russia and the US continue to keep the bulk of their nuclear missiles on high-level alert so that within minutes of receiving instructions a large part of the total of 5,500 warheads could be winging their way on their 25 minute journey over the North Pole. This could then be followed a few minutes later by a 1000 warheads from six US Trident submarines in one direction and between 300 and 400 warheads from Russian submarines in the opposite direction. Within 45 minutes, a nuclear war could have ended, with a thousand times more firepower than the accumulated total of all conflicts throughout human history.

By contrast, it is quite a simple matter to de-alert nuclear weapons and provide a delay of several hours or a few days before they can be fired. In this regard, Britain received some praise for having recently announced the de-alerting of its Trident missiles. Mention was also made of the appalling state of the Russian early warning system, as a lack of maintenance funds means that only a third of its modern early-warning radars are currently operational.

Reference was also made to a work stoppage at the Impuls Institute near St Petersburg by those responsible for maintaining the control systems of Russia’s nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile system. These personnel were reacting to the fact that they had not been paid for eight months and that their equipment was deteriorating because of lack of funds. In support of their action, Igor Rodionov, the Russian Defence Minister, wrote to President Yeltsin pointing out that Russia was approaching a threshold beyond which its missiles and nuclear systems would be uncontrollable.

In the discussion that followed, reference was made to Robert McNamara’s original classification of nuclear policy as having two roles. First, they can act as a deterrent – “if you attack my country we will retaliate, but not necessarily immediately.” For this role, few weapons are needed, the achievement of parity is not essential, and speed is not of the essence. The second role is that of damage limitation. In this case, large numbers of nuclear weapons are needed for targeting the nuclear weapons sites of potential enemies, speed is of the essence, and near parity of nuclear arsenals is highly desirable. The group felt that, if nuclear weapons are justified at all in the current situation, then they should only be regarded as a deterrent, so that numbers of weapons and timeliness of response are less important.

In conclusion, Western nuclear experts are far more prepared to contemplate a nuclear-weapon-free world than their Russian counterparts. With the collapse of its industrial and military base, Russia feels it needs nuclear weapons, particularly tactical nuclear weapons, to redress the military imbalance and defend its huge territory. Thus the much publicised claim that Russia needs “ten thousand tactical nuclear weapons to protect its borders.”

START Ratification

THERE was much discussion on whether or not the Duma would ratify START II before their summer break. [Editor’s note: START II had not been ratified at the time of the Clinton-Yeltsin meetings in Moscow in early September.] Irritation was expressed that the Russian parliament is using this issue as a political football, as a way of ‘getting at’ Yeltsin. While NATO enlargement provides a perfect excuse for prevarication, one speaker did find comfort in the fact that the vote on ratification was quite close – 40% voting for ratification and 60% against. For its part, the American Congress has decreed that no preparations can be made for START III until START II is ratified, thus solidifying the deadlock.

There was also discussion regarding some of the shortcomings of the START process, in particular the fact that it does not cover tactical nuclear weapons nor does the Treaty define what is to be done with the fissile material removed from the redundant weapons. There is also the problem of disposing of a large number of Russian nuclear submarines, especially without foreign help.

Visit to the State Duma and Ministry of Technology

WORKSHOP participants visited with the Deputy Chairman of the Duma, Mr S. Baburin, to discuss the Duma’s failure to ratify START II and NATO enlargement. In response to questions about the inadvisability of holding START ratification hostage to the NATO issue, Baburin switched the subject to NATO maintaining tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. During our meeting, the Duma was debating whether to accept the terms of a proposed IMF loan – a subject which was to have important implications in the following weeks.

The group then met with the recently-appointed Minister of Atomic Energy, Mr. E. Adamov to discuss the US-Russian HEU agreement. As part of its weapons dismantling program and the retiring of nuclear submarines, Russia is likely to have a surplus of some 1400 tons of HEU (>90% U235). HEU is simpler than plutonium to make into a bomb so the presence of this huge amount in Russia’s less than adequately secured institutes represents a huge diversion risk. However, unlike plutonium, HEU has a positive commercial value as it can be readily blended down to reactor-grade enrichment levels, which unlike MOX, is proliferation-proof.

On 14 January 1994, President Clinton announced the finalization of a Bush-Yeltsin agreement whereby the US agreed to purchase 500 tons of Russian HEU which had been blended to reactor enrichment level in Russia itself. The total cost was to be $12 billion over 20 years. Bearing in mind that 500 tons of commercially-viable HEU could in principle produce up to 25,000 atomic bombs, this appeared to be a perfect example of “turning swords into ploughshares.”

From the beginning of the program there have been complications. America had agreed to purchase only the enrichment component of the LEU supplied by Russia. Accordingly, as the HEU deal progressed, the US would progressively accumulate very large quantities of natural uranium which it has had to purchase on Russia’s behalf to compensate for the blending component. The problem here is that America is prevented by its own laws from exporting fissile material to Russia, so the latter is trying to arrange a sale of natural uranium with three Western companies.

To make things more difficult, the fall in the spot price of uranium prompted an ad hoc committee of 13 uranium mining companies, a trade union and the Department of Energy (DOE) to file an anti-dumping petition against Soviet uranium imports. Participants felt a further complication was the ill-advised decision by the US government to create the US Enrichment Corporation (USEC) which inherited DOE’s enrichment plants in Portsmouth and Paduca. The privatisation of USEC in July 1998 has introduced commercial complications into the negotiations with Russia. As a result of these factors, the HEU deal has come close to collapsing. Against this background it must be realised that other countries of the former Soviet Union now control some 40 percent of the non-Russian uranium market, so it is not surprising that commercial interests are beginning to get worried.

Participants felt that it would be far safer and more sensible if the US would purchase the 500 tons of HEU, pay the $12 billion up front and ship it to Oak Ridge to blend as and when it is needed. Although initially expensive, the sum involved is small relative to the total American defence budget or the risk that some of this material is diverted to hostile regimes. Regarding the remainder of Russia’s HEU, there are proposals for selling 100 tons of HEU to Japan, and perhaps also to the European Union, although Russian officials recognise that the European reactor fuel industry is already in a depressed state. Russia also has surplus weapons-grade plutonium which it would like to see manufactured into MOX for burning in civil reactors or fast reactors, rather than adopting the possibly cheaper route of mixing it with fission products and simply burying it in a geological depository.

Workshop in Sarov (Arzamas-16)

ARZAMAS-16 was the Soviet Union’s first weapons-design laboratory (where Zakharov worked) and is roughly equivalent to the Los Alamos national lab. It is located in Sarov, a city of 86,000 people and enclosed by a 73 kilometre fence. In Soviet times the inhabitants of the secret cities were restricted in terms of travel and visitors, though they did enjoy higher salaries than elsewhere in the Soviet Union. At present, however, there are delays of up to three months in receiving pay, and protest strikes are not uncommon.

The group was welcomed by R. Ilkaev, Director of the Nuclear Centre (VNIEF), who mentioned that the lab is interested in expanding its commercially viable, non-weapon activities, such as work on industrial diamonds, improved techniques for oil exploration, and medical and ecological research.

The workshop session focused on current Russian nuclear policy. Russian participants felt that nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence would continue to be an essential component of the country’s defense system through the early part of the next century. One participant pointed out that Russia and America have quite different defense needs, e.g., whereas the US has no need for tactical nuclear weapons, its geography makes them an essential component of the Russian nuclear arsenal. Moreover, America has two (declared) nuclear allies, while Russia has none.

Discussion then focused on Russia’s economic collapse and how these developments affected Sarov and the security of Russian nuclear weapons. Participants also reviewed the recent tests by India and Pakistan, the issue of de-alerting, security of fissile material, and the sale of HEU to US.

One promising initiative discussed was the possible establishment of a non-proliferation center in Sarov that could promote greater transparency in nuclear disarmament. Participants cited three examples: (1) the isotopic mix of weapons-grade plutonium is unclassified in the US, but classified in Russia; (2) the size of the total stockpile of weapons-grade uranium is similarly unclassified in the US, but classified in Russia; and (3) the total stock of HEU is classified in both US and Russia. Some Russians felt that Russia was more forthcoming than this suggested, and pointed out that with blended HEU entering the commercial market, there are now commercial reasons for not disclosing isotopic compositions and size of stocks available for dilution.

Following the meeting, a US participant reported interest in the US for providing initial funding for such a Nonproliferation Center at the institute. Follow up visits may be arranged through the Department of Energy’s Industrial Partnering Program, and there could be scope as well for extending the ‘Silicon for Siberia’ project at Sarov.

The workshop concluded with a tour of the Arzamas-16 weapon museum, led by Uri Trutnev, who designed and supervised the construction of the world’s largest nuclear bomb, a 100 megaton monster. This weapon actually had to be modified to half this power to save the plane that was dropping it, and in any event proved useless as a special cradle had to be constructed underneath the largest Russian bomber in order to carry it, making it an easy target. Trutnev said he had offered a model of the weapon to the Kremlin, to be exhibited along side the largest bell in the world (which has never been rung), and Russia’s largest cannon (which has never been fired). Meaningless tokens do not seem to be unique to any particular age or society.

List of Participants

From Outside the Former Russian Union

  • Dr. Bruce Blair, Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C., USA
  • Prof. Francesco Calogero, Professor of Theoretical Physics (on leave), Physics Department, University of Rome I “La Sapienza”; Chairman, Pugwash Council [formerly: Secretary-General (1989-97), Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs
  • Prof. Paolo Cotta-Ramusino, Associate Professor of Mathematical Physics, Department of Mathematics, University of Milan, Italy; Secretary General, Union of Italian Scientists for Disarmament (USPID)
  • Prof. Ge Junxin, China Academy of Engineering Physics (CAEP)
  • Prof. John (Jack) Harris, Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews; Freelance Writer and Independent Consultant on Nuclear Energy; Member of the Council, British Pugwash Group
  • Prof. Frank von Hippel, Professor of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, USA; Chairman, research arm of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS)
  • Ms. Kaoru Kikuyama, Policy Analyst, Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, Inc., Tokyo, Japan [former positions in academia]
  • Mr. Robert McNamara, former U.S. Secretary of Defense; former President of the World Bank; former President, Ford Motor Company
  • Dr. Steven Miller, Director, International Security Program, Center for Science & International Affairs, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA; Editor-in-Chief, International Security; Co-Chair, U.S. Pugwash Group
  • Prof. George Rathjens, Secretary-General, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA; Professor Emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge
  • Rear-Admiral (Rtd.) Camille Sellier, Policy Adviser, Commissariat a l’Energie Atomique, Bruyeres Le Chatel, France

Russian Participants Moscow Meeting

  • V. Adushkin, Director, Institute for Geospheric Dynamics, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences
  • A. Baev, Col. (Ret.), Ministry of the Interior, Russian Federation
  • A. Babenko, Directorate Chief, 4th Institute of the Ministry of Defense, Russian Federation
  • V. Bitkov, Section Chief, “Atominform”
  • K. Babievski, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Elemento-Organic Research, RAN
  • A. Belikov, Russian Student Pugwash
  • V. Belous, Maj-Gen. (Ret.), Military Policy Section Chief, Committee of Scientists for Global Security
  • I. Braychev, Directorate Chief, 4th Institute of the Ministry of Defense, Russian Federation
  • S. Vasil’eva, Laboratory Chief, Institute for Chemical Physics
  • A. Vetsko, Research Fellow, Moscow Center, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  • Ginzburg, Director of the Foundation “Development and Environment,” Leading Research Fellow, Institute for Atmospheric Physics
  • V. Goldanskii, Academician, Russian Academy of Sciences, Chair, Russian Pugwash Committee of Scientists, Member of the Pugwash Council and Executive Committee
  • V. Dvorkin, Major-General, Director of the 4th Institute of the Ministry of Defense, Russian Federation
  • A. Diakov, Director, Center for the Studies of Disarmament, Energy and Environment
  • D. Evstaf’ev, Senior Research Fellow, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies
  • S. Zaves, Russian Student Pugwash
  • N. Kalinina, Consultant to the Staff of the Government of the Russian Federation
  • Yu. Kazanskii, Rector of the Obninsk Institute
  • S. Kapitsa, Deputy Chair, Russian Pugwash Committee of Scientists
  • G. Kaurov, Ministry of Atomic Energy, Russian Federation
  • Yu. Kirshin, Maj-Gen. (Ret.), President of the Association of Military-Historic Studies
  • V. Krivohizha, Deputy Director, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies
  • G. Kuznetsov, Leading Research Fellow, 4th Institute of the Ministry of Defense, Russian Federation
  • V. Kulish, Consultant, Committee on International Affairs, State Duma, Russian Federation
  • A. Konovalov, President, Institute for Strategic Assessments
  • M. Lebedev, Chair, Russian Student Pugwash
  • Yu. Lebedev, Maj-Gen. (Ret.), Vice-President of RAU Corporation
  • V. Lobov, Army General (Ret.)
  • G. Mikhailov, Col-Gen. (Ret.)
  • B. Myasoedov, Academician, Russian Academy of Sciences; Director, Institute for Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry
  • Ye. Myasnikov, Research Fellow, Center for the Studies of Disarmament, Energy and Environment
  • A. Nikitin, Director, Center for Political and International Studies; Deputy Chair, Russian Pugwash Committee of Scientists; Vice President, Russian Political Science Association
  • O. Ol’hov, Leading Research Fellow, Institute for Chemical Physics
  • E. Petrov, Department Chief, Obninsk Energy Institute
  • N. Polyakov, Deputy Director, Institute for Chemical Physics
  • A. Pikaev, Director, Program for Non-Proliferation and Reductions of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Moscow Center, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  • A. Prokhorov, Director, Institute for General Physics
  • S. Podionov, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Space Studies
  • I. Safranchuk, Research Fellow, PIR-Center
  • Ye. Silin, Director Coordinator, Russian Euro-Atlantic Association
  • A. Sprengel, Chief Research Fellow, 4th Institute of the Ministry of Defense, Russian Federation
  • V. Strakhov, Director, Institute of the Physics of Earth
  • M. Strel’tsov, Ambassador, Diplomatic Consultant, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russian Federation
  • T. Tairov, Chair of the Association “Civil Peace”
  • R. Temirbaev, Ambassador (Ret.)
  • D. Trenin, Director, Moscow Center, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  • L.Feoktistov, Department Chief, Institute of Physics
  • V. Shmelev, Deputy Chief, Department of Non-Proliferation and Control, Russian Scientific Center, Kurchatov Institute

Russian Participants Meeting at Russian Federal Nuclear Center — All-Russian Scientific and Research Insitute of Experimental Physics (Sarov)

  • R. Ilkaev, Director, RFNC
  • Yu. Zavalishin, Director General, “Avantguard” Complex
  • G. Karataev, Chief of the City Administration (Mayor)
  • Rev. Sergiya, Curator of Holy-Trinity-Seraphim-Diveev Monastery
  • V. Rogachev, Deputy Director for International Relations, RFNC
  • Yu. Trutnev, Department Chief, RFNC
  • V. Punin, Department Chief, RFNC
  • V. Mokhov, Department Chief, RFNC
  • V. Afanasyev, Department Chief, RFNC
  • A. Chernyshev, Deputy Chief, Research, RFNC
  • V. Zhigalov, Director of VNIIEF-Conversion
  • L. Timonin, Deputy Chief Constructor (Chief Security Expert), RFNC
  • O. Vorontsova, Deputy Chief of Department for International Relations, RFNC
  • V. Yuferev, Section Chief, RFNC
  • V. Dubinin, Chief of Laboratory
  • A. Pevnitsky, Senior Research Fellow
  • L. Fomicheva, Section Chief
  • I. Zhidov, Senior Research Fellow
  • D. Sladkov, Deputy Chief of Department

List of Papers

  • Transparency Regime for Reductions of Nuclear Warheads Stockpiles. Problems and Solutions
    Anatoli S. Diakov (Russia)
  • De-Alerting Russian and U.S. Nuclear Missiles (Draft)
    Bruce Blair, Harold Feiveson, and Frank von Hippel, May 17, 1998
    (submitted to UNIDIR Newsletter)
  • “Prospects for the START II Ratification and Forecasts for Future Developments,”
    Ivan Safranchuk
  • Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Transcript of a Proliferation Roundtable on A Report from Moscow”
    Alexander Pikayev (Carnegie Moscow Center) and Dmitri Trenin (Carnegie Moscow Center), May 19, 1998
  • “What START-3 Could Correspond to Russia’s Interests?” 
    Eugene Miasnikov
  • “Weapons Centres: Problems of Conversion”
    Pyotr Shulzhenko, International Affairs Special Issue, p. 47-50