Securing Nuclear Materials in Russia and Beyond

Laura Holgate
Vice President for Russia and Newly Independent States Program at the Nuclear Threat Initiative

October 15, 2003

Thanks to Harvey and Heidi.

Harvey asked me to talk about US programs to address "loose nukes" and why they are so hard, especially politically. This is a question I ask myself every day, because it would seem like a real no-brainer to lock up and get rid of any material that could be used to make a nuclear bomb. Reality shows us it's a lot harder than that.

Let me present my remarks in three parts:

1. What would a serious loose nukes policy and program look like?
2. How close are current programs to this ideal?
3. Why is it so hard?

Caveat: By focusing on the weapons and materials, we implicitly define proliferation as a supply-side problem. It makes sense to do this because the supply of nuclear materials is easier to control than the demand for nuclear weapons, whether from states or non-state actors. We should still be pursuing parallel policies to improve global security writ large, in ways that reduce the chances that states will pursue nuclear weapons to increase their own security, and to "dry up the swamps" of misery, chaos, violence and disaffection that spawn and nurture terrorists. These will take much longer, however, and we don't have time to wait.

A Real Loose Nukes Approach

Are we there yet? Rating Progress Toward this Ideal

Why is it so hard?

Bottom line: loose nukes are not really anyone's top priority. When push comes to shove, no one pushes or shoves for threat reduction. Other priorities win out: contracting orthodoxy, flat budgets, turf protection, etc.

The real miracle is how much has gotten done despite these immense challenges. The key is dedicated, motivated staff with activist leadership who refuse to accept business as usual, matched by the same in a partner country who sees such cooperation to be in their interest. Our challenge is to try to create these conditions wherever we can.


Laura Holgate joined NTI after serving in a number of senior positions in the federal government. She managed the Cooperative Threat Reduction program at the U.S. Department of Defense, which provides assistance to Russia and the new independent states in securing and destroying excess nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and materials. She also served as director of the Office of Fissile Materials Disposition at the U.S. Department of Energy.

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