A Response to Critics of U.S.-Russian Nuclear Security Cooperation

By Nickolas Roth

Most U.S. policymakers support critical U.S. investments in improving security to prevent the theft of nuclear weapons and weapons usable material in Russia. A few, however, are starting to raise doubts about whether this cooperation is a good idea. Skeptics argue that, because of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, the federal government needs to make a stronger case for nuclear security cooperation with Russia. They argue that the U.S. case needs to address issues like the cost of nuclear security programs, the fungibility of money given to Russia for security upgrades, and the marginal benefit of nuclear security spending in Russia. The problem with these concerns is that they do not acknowledge the purpose of nuclear security cooperation: reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Instead, they appear to be grounded in the mistaken belief that such cooperation is a favor the United States does for Russia, not something that both countries do because it’s in their interests. If skeptics had a sufficient appreciation of the threat, they would likely have a better understanding of why cooperation is in the United States’ interests.

As described in detail below, nuclear terrorism poses a threat to U.S. security; nuclear security cooperation with Russia can reduce that threat; the cost of addressing the threat is tiny by comparison to what’s at stake; there is little danger that U.S. support for nuclear security in Russia will allow Russia to undertake a larger nuclear weapons modernization program; and the marginal benefit of spending money on nuclear security in Russia or elsewhere is easily high enough to justify the expenditure.

The Threat

While it is likely that an act of nuclear terrorism is a lower probability event than other national security threats, some treat it as a “no probability event.” Making this assumption is a mistake, especially considering the catastrophic humanitarian, economic, and geopolitical consequences of a nuclear detonation in a populated area. Military and intelligence officials and other government experts have repeatedly expressed concern about the threat of nuclear terrorism, including both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama. The threat is comprised of three factors: the intent to carry out such an act, the capability to produce and deliver a nuclear device, and the opportunity to acquire the necessary nuclear material.

There appears to be some level of agreement among proponents and skeptics of cooperation on the idea that there are, and will continue to be, well-funded technically sophisticated groups seeking nuclear weapons. The area where opinions seem to differ is whether a terrorist could acquire such material and what they could or would do with it. In other words, how difficult would it be for a terrorist to build a nuclear bomb?

Making nuclear weapons-usable material like highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium, which generally don’t exist in nature, is a complex and expensive process.  This is why a terrorist group intent on acquiring nuclear weapons would likely try to obtain HEU or plutonium from a state’s nuclear program.

Building a functioning nuclear weapon is less difficult than making the nuclear material for it. Harold Agnew, the former head of Los Alamos National Laboratory, once described the debate over this topic in the follow way: “those who say that building a nuclear weapon is easy, they are very wrong, but those who say that building a crude device is very difficult are even more wrong.” According to the 2006 book chapter, Terrorist Nuclear Weapon Construction: How Difficult?, once it acquired the material to build a nuclear weapon, it would be possible for a technically sophisticated organization with resources—like Al Qaeda, which has previously attempted to develop a nuclear weapon—to build a simple gun-type nuclear device.

A 1977 Congressional Office of Technical Assessment report describes what resources might be required to build such a weapon: “A small group of people, none of whom have ever had access to the classified literature, could possibly design and build a crude nuclear explosive device. They would not necessarily require a great deal of technological equipment or have to undertake any experiments. Only modest machine-shop facilities that could be contracted for without arousing suspicion would be required. The financial resources for the acquisition of necessary equipment on open markets need not exceed a fraction of a million dollars. The group would have to include, at a minimum, a person capable of researching and understanding the literature in several fields and a jack-of-all trades technician.” In other words, it does not take a James Bond villain to build a nuclear bomb.

Even more unnerving is that it would be very difficult to track down the material once it was removed from regulatory control. The material is hard to detect and there are nearly infinite locations around the world to hide it. Enough material for a nuclear bomb could easily fit into a truck and be driven across any of the porous borders around the globe.

With the difficulties involved in recovering nuclear material, the key barrier to preventing a terrorist from acquiring and using a nuclear weapon is preventing nuclear material from being stolen in the first place.

The Continued Case for Russia

Why is Russia such an important part of stopping the theft of nuclear weapons-usable material? Russia has the most nuclear material of any country in the world. Although a lot has been accomplished in improving its nuclear security since the 1990s, there are still significant weaknesses. There are troubling cases of corruption and theft within its nuclear industry; funding for security is still insufficient at some Russian sites; Russian nuclear security regulations still contain important weaknesses, and the Russian regulator’s authority and resources are limited; and nuclear material accounting at facilities is still not effective enough to detect the theft of small amounts of nuclear material. In most of the ~20 cases of nuclear smuggling that have been detected, the material originated in Russia (although when it was stolen is uncertain). Ideally, over time, Russia should address these issues on its own. In the meantime, cooperation with the United States is an important tool for strengthening security at facilities with nuclear material.

In the coming years, the plan for nuclear security cooperation with Russia is to focus on ensuring sustainability, strengthening security culture, strengthening regulations and enforcement, and exchanging best practices.  As the scope of cooperation shifts from the past focus on large-scale equipment installations to these priorities, there will continue to be a slow decline in spending. These cooperative efforts help by both improving security in Russia and maintaining a relationship and exchange of insights among the countries with the worlds’ two largest nuclear stockpiles, which is in the United States’ interest.  

To summarize: Terrorists have shown both interest and technical proficiency in developing a nuclear weapon. To do that, they need nuclear material. There are large quantities of nuclear material in Russia stored in such a way that they are vulnerable to smart thieves with insider knowledge of facilities. If terrorists gained access to that material, they could use it in a nuclear bomb in a populated area. Given these risks, it is hard to conclude anything other than the United States should be doing everything it can to prevent the theft of nuclear material.

Other Critiques of Nuclear Security Cooperation

While the basis for cooperation should depend on the threat, the answers to the following concerns further emphasize that cooperation is in the United States’ interests. 

The Financial Burden of Security

Some have objected to the idea that Russia, which is capable of paying for nuclear security on its own, is unwilling to pick up the tab for some security upgrades that it does not think are a priority. This is understandable, as we should expect all nations to provide effective security for their nuclear materials. At the same time, this concern misses the point. While Russia can afford it, there are things the United States thinks are important that Russia does not want to spend the money to do.

The United States needs to prioritize national security decisions based on its interests, not its expectations of what other countries should do. The United States should continue to encourage Russia to take on the financial burden for securing its nuclear material. In the meantime, however, the United States needs to apply the same standard for nuclear security cooperation with Russia that it applies towards other national security priorities. As long as working with Russia reduces the threat of nuclear terrorism, we should continue to do so.

Some have also raised concerns about the United States providing indefinite funding for nuclear security in Russia. They argue that, given uncertainty about the health of the U.S. economy, the United States might not be able to afford spending money on such a program. Considering the threat, spending money on nuclear security cooperation with Russia is a reasonable investment. The United States spends approximately $100 million on nuclear security cooperation with Russia, $25 million of which goes to U.S. national labs. This represents about .01% of defense spending, less than the cost of a single F-35 fighter jet. There is no doubt that spending on Russian nuclear security is less than U.S. defense spending on national security threats that present less risk. When assessing nuclear security programs, policymakers should focus on their ability to mitigate the threat, not on an arbitrary timetable.


Some have also raised concerns that when the United States spends money on nuclear security in Russia, it frees up Russian rubles that can be spent on Russian nuclear weapons. There are two reasons that this should not be a major concern.

The first is that the United States is paying for security upgrades that Russia was not willing to buy on its own. As a non-nuclear example, if someone offers to pay for you to see a movie you never intended to see, you do not then have additional money to spend on other things because you didn’t pay for the ticket. You never intended to pay for it.

The second is that, even if money were fungible, the contribution the United States makes through nuclear security spending is trivial compared with what it already provides to Russia through trade. In 2013, the United States added $15 billion to the Russian economy through trade. While that number will be reduced in 2014, the United States will still be contributing over $10 billion to the Russian economy. Moreover, the $75 million the United States does contribute for nuclear security programs would, if fungible, be an insignificant contribution to Russia’s military programs, even if 100% of the nuclear security money was money Russia would otherwise have spent on nuclear security and then decided to spend on nuclear weapons. In 2012, Russia spent nearly $70 billion on its military. 

If fungibility is an issue to some, where does this concern end? Are they also arguing that Russia should be completely economically isolated? Such an action would have significant negative economic repercussions around the world.

Marginal Benefit

Some have questioned whether money spent on nuclear security in Russia could be better spent on nuclear security in other countries. This should be rejected as a false choice. Americans should not be forced to choose from where the nuclear material that was used in a bomb against them came. Given the immense consequences of a nuclear terrorist attack and the modest costs of nuclear security, the United States standard for spending should be that no effort that shows promise of being able to make a significant and lasting reduction in the risk of nuclear terrorism should be delayed for lack of money.

Russian Interest in Cooperation

Some have identified that there are signs that Russia is decreasingly interested in cooperation. While this appears to be true, it should not be viewed as an excuse for the United States to back out of its responsibility for preventing the theft of nuclear material. If Russia is becoming more reluctant, the United States needs to make a better case for why cooperation is in both countries’ interests.

While it is important for skeptics to ask probing questions that force governments to develop strong justifications for their programs, many of the concerns identified indicate fatigue towards nuclear security cooperation. Rather than focusing on the threat, they focus on how quickly programs can end. If one considered that there was a realistic possibility of a terrorist acquiring nuclear material from Russia, building a nuclear weapon out of it, and using it on the United States or its allies, concerns about cost, fungibility, and marginal benefit would likely disappear.

Nickolas Roth is a research associate at the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.