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Cold war is over, but the nuclear age isn't

A former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory discusses the effort to help Russia upgrade its security.

By DAVID BALLINGRUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2001


TAMPA -- During the good old days of the Cold War, the Soviet Union could be counted on to run a tight ship.

No nuclear weapons were likely to go missing inside the secret city Arzamas-16, or any other nuclear facility behind the Iron Curtain. A suffocating Soviet security system saw to that.

"They depended on guns, guards and the Gulag," said Dr. Siegfried Hecker, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1986 to 1997. "It was a rigid system, but one with a terrific security record."

Arzamas-16 was the Soviet Union's code name for a nuclear weapon research center in the city of Sarov, near Moscow. It was modeled after the Los Alamos Lab in the United States A fence and armed guards ringed the city which, despite being home to 80,000 people, appeared on no maps, said Hecker. Inside, Soviet scientists were pampered and carefully watched.

"Our society is transparent; theirs was opaque," said Hecker.

But the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and Hecker, now a senior fellow at Los Alamos, came to the University of South Florida on Friday to warn that the fresh air of freedom left the Russian nuclear arsenal vulnerable. Greed and corruption rushed into a leadership vacuum left by the failure of the Communist Party, he said.

"In a struggling country, where everything is for sale, how do you keep your secrets?" he asked. "How do you keep your weapons and weapons materials secure?"

Part of the answer, he said, is that newly friendly nations, such as the United States, must understand their own self-interest and offer help.

Hecker said he has been part of a nine-year, continuing U.S. effort to assist the Russians in upgrading their weapons security systems.

"We need to play a role in this," he said. "If Russia and the U.S. can pull in the same direction, we can isolate the potential troublemakers in the world."

The greatest danger comes not from bombs but from lost nuclear material, he said.

"Bombs have serial numbers," he said, and are typically subjected to strict inventory requirements. But the nuclear materials that might be used in a bomb -- plutonium and enriched Uranium, for example -- "are kept in hundreds of places and are used for many purposes."

At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet weapons production line was busy.

More than 100,000 nuclear weapons were built and tens of thousands remain in the Russian arsenal. A staggering 125 to 200 metric tons of plutonium, and 1,200 metric tons of enriched Uranium, were produced, he said. And only now are the Russians developing sophisticated ways to maintain accurate inventories.

Hecker has some personal knowledge of the difficulty of maintaining security in a weapons lab.

In 1999, former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson recommended that he and two others at Los Alamos be disciplined in the Wen Ho Lee spy case.

Lee was arrested on 59 counts of illegally copying design secrets on behalf of China. He was held for nine months in solitary confinement. The government never came up with much evidence to support the charges, however, and Lee eventually pleaded guilty to just one felony count: downloading nuclear weapons design secrets to a non-secure computer, his own. The other charges were dropped, and Lee has continued to deny spying.

Hecker said Friday he was not disciplined in the Lee matter, despite Richardson's recommendation. Nevertheless, he said, the Lee case troubled him greatly.

By downloading secret material to a non-secure computer, he said, Lee "created an extraordinary vulnerability.

"Why it was done, I can't say. But I can tell you that it was deliberate, systemic and egregious. He betrayed the trust of those of us in the lab, and he betrayed the trust of his country."

The damage caused by the Lee episode "is still being evaluated," Hecker said.

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