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[cdn-nucl-l] A quest to safeguard nuclear stockpiles
Posted in the Santa Barbara News Press on November 19, 2001 and at:
A quest to safeguard nuclear stockpiles
Santa Barbara man working with Rep. Lois Capps
NORA K. WALLACE
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
For most Americans, the destruction of Sept. 11 was almost incomprehensible.
But for Brett Wagner of Santa Barbara, there's a fear of more horrific
suffering, especially if terrorists are able to create nuclear weapons.
Mr. Wagner, president of the nonprofit California Center for Strategic
Studies, based in Santa Barbara, has warned that a softball-sized lump of
plutonium packed in a bomb could obliterate an area like lower Manhattan or
downtown Washington, D.C.
He and other experts have estimated the damage from such an attack could
reach $2 trillion, with hundreds of thousands of fatalities and injuries.
Mr. Wagner is hoping legislation carried by Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa
Barbara, will lead to the first major nuclear arms agreement of the 21st
century, and prevent terrorists from having the means to make such
Mr. Wagner, executive director of the center's Swords into Plowshares
Project, has spent the past few years encouraging the government to work on
a program that would safeguard the former Soviet Union's nuclear
stockpile -- items that are now thought to be under shoddy protection.
Mrs. Capps last week introduced HR 3290, the Russian Fissile Materials
Disposition Loan Guarantee Act. It is a companion to legislation in the
Senate authored by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-NM and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.
The bill would provide U.S. loan guarantees for the purchase of Russia's
excess nuclear materials.
In exchange, Russia would be required to place the materials in facilities
safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency until they can be
disposed of safely or used as fuel.
For each $20 million loan, one metric ton of highly enriched uranium and one
metric ton of weapon-grade plutonium would be put into the facility. The
materials would serve as collateral for the loans.
The Russian government currently has between 700 to 800 tons of the uranium
and 150 to 200 tons of the plutonium.
A Russian official recently disclosed that there was an attempted theft of
nuclear materials from its custody within the past two years.
"Russia's enormous stockpile of nuclear materials is extremely vulnerable,"
Mrs. Capps said. "If they get into the wrong hands, these materials could
cause even more destruction than the horrific attacks of September 11th."
Mr. Wagner said the State Department knows of at least a dozen terrorist
organizations or rogue states that are actively seeking nuclear weapon
Experts contend that Osama bin Laden has tried to buy the elements to build
a nuclear weapon.
Mrs. Capps called the attempted thefts of nuclear materials a "wake-up call.
It's a matter of national security. I would hope my colleagues see it the
same way I do."
Mr. Wagner and Mrs. Capps have been discussing the bill since August, though
both agree that after Sept. 11, the need for it became more urgent.
Mr. Wagner said last week's meeting between President George W. Bush and
Russian President Vladimir Putin could signal a readiness to support such
"It's an issue that's been heightened by that occasion," Mrs. Capps said.
"Presidents Putin and Bush are talking about reducing the nuclear stockpile.
People are thinking about this. What people fear the most is nuclear
Mr. Wagner calls the cost of the uranium and plutonium stockpiles a bargain,
available now at "firesale prices."
"The U.S. has spent a trillion dollars defending ourselves against the same
nuclear material, some in warheads, some stockpiled," Mr. Wagner said of the
Cold War. "And no one wants to pony up $10 billion to simply buy it, and not
have to fear it anymore."
A flaw with the bill, Mr. Wagner said, is a $1 billion cap on the loans. It
would take $10 billion to buy the entire stockpile, he said. Eventually,
that cap would have to be addressed in another bill, he added.
The money Russia would get from the loan guarantees it would only be used
for three purposes: nonproliferation activities such as creating better
security measures, restricting its nuclear infrastructure, and retiring its