Tuesday, July 25, 2006

New York Times Editorial - Loose nukes

New York Times Editorial - Loose nukes
Copyright by The New York Times
Published: July 24, 2006


President George W. Bush and President Vladimir Putin of Russia announced two new nuclear initiatives earlier this month that could make the world safer - if the presidents keep prodding their secretive and change- averse nuclear bureaucracies to follow through. On that score, unfortunately, the record is not great.

Declaring nuclear terrorism one of the biggest threats facing the world today, Bush and Putin began a new coalition of the willing that will share intelligence, develop better ways of securing bomb-making materials and train for the all too imaginable day when a terrorist makes off with a suitcase of plutonium or highly enriched uranium.

Any effort that requires governments to look harder at how they are protecting nuclear materials is a good idea. That is true whether a country has tons of plutonium stored at nuclear fuel plants or a few kilos of highly enriched uranium, which can still be found in scores of poorly guarded research reactors around the world.

The new group should develop a set of security standards for all nuclear facilities. And Bush and Putin should set the pace by being the first to sign on.

The two presidents also announced they would negotiate a civil nuclear cooperation agreement that could allow Russia to get into the multibillion-dollar business of storing spent nuclear fuel. Washington is hoping that the promise of new cash- paying customers will persuade Moscow to finally break with an old customer, Iran, and agree to UN sanctions if Tehran refuses to give up its nuclear ambitions. Profit is a strong motivator. But Russian officials have a long, cozy history with their Iranian counterparts, and Bush will need to keep reminding Putin that a nuclear-armed Iran would also threaten Russia's security.

Making all this happen will require the sort of intensive presidential attention that neither the White House nor the Kremlin has been willing to invest in the past. Long- running American efforts to help Russia lock up its nuclear arsenal are still plagued by bureaucratic and political wrangling. According to a recent survey by Harvard experts, 15 years after the programs began, the United States has provided full security upgrades for slightly more than half of the buildings with nuclear materials in Russia's far-flung weapons complex.

The pace has picked up since Bush and Putin pledged to improve cooperation last year. But there are still many problems to solve, including whether Russia will accept help to secure two huge weapons assembly facilities.

Proliferation experts have long urged the White House to name a top adviser to oversee the dozens of nuclear security programs that stretch across the Departments of Energy, Defense, Homeland Security and State. It's far past time for the White Bush does, maybe Putin will, too.

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