I have a new favorite dinner-party game. I call it, Mention Nuclear Terrorism. The rules are simple: while sitting around a table with a group of people, say ï¿½nuclear terrorism.ï¿½ No complete sentence is required; you can even whisper the words under your breath. Like the library scene in Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, the phrase will trigger a flurry of exits. Once the room is cleared, youï¿½re free to devour whatever is left on everyoneï¿½s plates. Trust me, I've gained 15 pounds in the last two months. It works every time.
It's hard to blame people for avoiding the subject. There's not much you can do about it, and a mushroom fireball above Midtown isn't an image you want in your head as you try to fall asleep. But maintaining some kind of sustained discussion would have its upsides. Enough buzz could trigger an exodus to less densely populated parts of the country, engendering a welcome slide in rents. And we'd likely see the return of terror-sex.
But the biggest benefit would simply be taking our future at least partly into our own hands, instead of pretending that smart and patriotic people along the Potomac have things under control. We last saw a burst of this attitude in February 2003, when hundreds of thousands marched through the city against the Iraq war, a criminal adventure that took precious resources away from the search for al Qaeda, and which even the Bush administration admitted heightened the risk of domestic terrorism.
Since then, the threat of nuclear terrorism has been allowed to grow with little attention paid by the public and local pols, most of whom, the mayor in particular, don't seem to understand what's at stake.
New Yorkers weren't always so averse to confronting nuclear threats. Fifty years ago, mass protests forced the scrapping of mandatory citywide air-raid drills, once people figured out they were more about scaring the shit out of them than surviving WWIII. More famously, in 1982 up to one million people gathered in Central Park to protest the arms race and Reagan brinkmanship. It stands as the largest gathering in city history.
And today? If disarmament activists managed to get more than a few dozen people together on the Great Lawn, Parks Commish Adrian Benepe would throw down his trowel and personally lead the riot squad charge, double-fisting night-sticks and screaming about how much time and money has gone into restoring the grass.
But that's assuming you could get more than a few dozen people to mobilize around nuclear issues. Considering the millions of yawns that greeted the opening and closing of last month's failed U.N. conference on the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Benepe needn't worry about his precious tulips. Though we still sit atop the short list of cities most likely to suffer the realization of al Qaeda's avowed goal of an American Hiroshima, New Yorkers can seem as uninterested as the rest of the country when it comes to the nuclear terror clock and the policies that determine the placement of its minute hand.
Lincoln, Nebraska can afford to forget that the world is awash in poorly guarded stocks of highly enriched uranium (HEU). New York City cannot.
As was widely reported in the weeks and months after 9/11, it takes only around 20 kilos of HEU to make a bomb big enough to flatten most of downtown. The technical hurdles to building a functional nuclear device tend to get overstated in media reports, where journalists like to stress the higher likelihood of a dirty bomb attack, but it's pretty easy.
A "gun-style" A-bomb basically requires slamming one grapefruit-size slab of HEU into another at high speed, propelled by a conventional charge. The entire mechanism can be fit into a medium-size suitcase and assembled in a studio apartment. The tallest hurdle for the nuclear terroristï¿½the only hurdle, reallyï¿½is not constructing the bomb, but acquiring the raw material.
As for motive, al Qaeda has promised to carry out a nuclear attack and has been searching for weapons-grade material since the early 90s. Bin Laden has always claimed that 9/11 would be followed by a much bigger bang, one that will bring the U.S. to its knees. (Does that make NYC or D.C. the balls?) No one in intelligence agencies anywhere actually believes that the quiet on the American front reflects the effectiveness of Bush's war on terror; it simply confirms the patience of al Qaeda and the group's commitment to making sure the sequel to 9/11 is worth the wait.
Before and after the 2004 elections, Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri issued "final chance" warnings to Americans that some watchers have interpreted as an Islamic gesture made in order to justify the future use of weapons of mass destruction. (Al Qaeda was criticized by some radical clerics for not issuing such a warning before 9/11.) As for which kind of weapons might be used, two al Qaeda-linked militants captured by German intelligence in January were recorded discussing locations at which uranium could be acquired. While it's nice to know this particular cell was still looking, they weren't the first to seek such a purchase, and they won't be the last.
In their first debate last fall, George Bush and John Kerry both claimed to understand the severity of all this. But the second Bush administration, after repeatedly conjuring up mushroom clouds to justify its policies and terrify rural Ohioan voters, has failed to deliver on its rhetoric. In the four years since 9/11, roughly the same amount of weapons grade material has been secured at Russia's porous supply depots as was secured in the four years before 9/11. Looking ahead, only one-quarter of one percent of the 2006 Pentagon budget is slated for programs to secure the rest of itï¿½a fraction of that slated for the ongoing missile defense fiasco and other juicy but useless defense-sector gravy trains. The Dept. of Homeland Security, meanwhile, is paying $250,000 a pop for radiation detection systems that can't tell the difference between uranium and low-level radiation emitted by everyday products like cat litter.
"If you put Los Alamos Laboratories at Long Beach, you could detect [nuclear materials entering port]," says Tom Cochran, head of the nuclear division at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Because of the fact that you can't really detect uranium readily or reliably, you ought to have a very high priority on rounding it up and eliminating it, particularly [its] commercial uses."
Most nuke-watchers agree. The good news is that they believe securing the world's existing supply of HEU is doable, since it's scattered around the world at hundreds of locations, not thousands. With a war-footing level of attention, resources and cooperation between the nuclear powersï¿½specifically the U.S. and Russiaï¿½experts believe the world's stockpiles can be accounted for and secured in the next few years, in time to greatly reduce, if not eliminate, the risk of weapons-grade material falling into terrorist hands. The price tag put on the entire project by Harvard Univerisity's Graham Allison is $10 billion, matched by an equal amount of political capital and energy on the part of every G8 government.
Few outside the Bush administration, however, believe securing the world's production and traffic in nuclear materials is possible without fundamental changes in America's foreign policy and the way it organizes its defenses. To paraphrase U.N. Atomic Energy chief Mohamed ElBaradei, it's hard to lecture on the dangers of smoking while French inhaling a menthol.
"There have been several important missed opportunities caused by Bush policies," says Mathew Bunn of Harvard University's Belfer Center, which closely monitors the twin threats of proliferation and loose material.
"The U.S. is walking away from its commitments that are crucial to strengthen. If we want other countries to accept constraints, we're going to have to accept constraints."
Bunn recently co-authored the new installment of an annual report called "Securing the Bomb." Now in its fourth year, the report was commissioned by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), an organization co-chaired by former senator Sam Nunn and funded by Ted Turner. At the moment, Nunn, who has devoted his life to the issue since 1989, is struggling to maintain a guarded optimism.
"We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe," the former senator told a Tokyo audience last week. "And right now the threat is outpacing the response."
An adequate response, argues Nunn, would involve the nuclear powers' setting an ambitious timetable for securing all nuclear material storage facilities, as well as new stringent and transparent international standards for doing do; devaluing nuclear weapons in their own military postures; strengthening the Test-Ban Treaty with renewed U.S. support; creating a new international regime for the production and distribution of nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes; and crafting a creative new strategy of "cooked carrots and sharp sticks" to knock North Korea and Iran off the nuclear path. All of this, he says, must be done with urgency.
This is an imposing list, and it gets wonky fast. It also doesn't lend itself easily to public participation. But Nunn strongly believes the public has a crucial role. Last month his organization released a straight-to-video nuclear-terror docudrama called Last Best Chance, starring Fred Thompson as President. It won't have an impact anywhere near that of 1983's The Day After, which jolted the nation and bolstered the Freeze movement when broadcast primetime on ABC, but it's a noble attempt to encourage public demand for swifter action. In the last few weeks alone, more than 30,000 people have ordered free DVD copies from lastbestchance.com.
In any national resurgence of interest in nuclear issues, New Yorkers should be out in front. Last month Bloomberg signed on to a mayoral climate change initiative started by Seattle mayor Greg Nickels. Why shouldn't New York's mayor lead the charge in setting up a similar coalition built around the threat of nuclear terrorism? Why aren't the city's politicians expressing outraged opposition to policies that fail to adequately confront the danger?
All politics may be local, but the definition of local has changed. What happens at a storage facility in Siberia is as important to New York as what gets built on the Hudson Railyards. Because there's no point in developing waterfronts, building Freedom Towers or winning the Olympics if a handheld nuclear bomb can come through the Holland Tunnel one drizzly afternoon and take it all away.
2. Russian, Italian Chiefs of Staff to Discuss Antiterror Cooperation
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Chief of the Russian Armed Forces' General Staff Yuri Baluyevsky will have talks on Tuesday with his Italian counterpart Giampaolo di Paola, who arrived in Russia on Sunday for a four-day visit.
The Russian and Italian chiefs of staff will discuss a wide range of issues of military and military-technical cooperation and prospects for relations between Russia and NATO and the European Union in the areas of defence and security.
The military officials will discuss ways to step up cooperation in fight against international terrorism and mass destruction weaponry proliferation.
The Italian military chief is expected to meet in Moscow with the State Duma Defence Committee's head Viktor Zavarzin and head of the Russian Defence Ministry's economy and finance service Lyubov Kudelina, a Russian Defence Ministry source said.
1. RosAtom, US Energy Dept Prepare Report on Nuclear Security
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Alexander Rumyantsev, Head of Russia's Federal Atomic Energy Agency (RosAtom), leaves for Washington by air on Wednesday to attend a session of the Russian-US High-Confidence Group (HCG), a RosAtom official has told Itar-Tass. On the US side, the session will be attended by Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman, the official specified.
In keeping with the arrangement made between Moscow and Washington at the summit in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, in February, "The Co-Chairs of the HCG (Rumyantsev and Bodman) are to present a report to the Presidents of Russia and the US by July 1 about cooperation on nuclear security and non-proliferation of nuclear materials." Subsequently, the Co-Chairs of the HCG have been assigned to inform Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush on those matters on a regular basis," the RosAtom official said.
President Bush appointed Bodman to the post of US Secretary of Energy at the beginning of 2005. Bodman superseded Spencer Abraham. The RosAtom official pointed out that cooperation between the RosAtom and the US Department of Energy (USDE) on nuclear security and non-proliferaiton, when the USDE was headed by Spencer Abraham, "underwent a certain development and resulted in the signing of a number of treaties and contracts that contribute to building mutual confidence in the field of nuclear security".
Bodman and Rumyantsev first met a week ago when Bodman was in Moscow on an official visit, holding talks with a number of Russian government ministries and agencies, including the Foreign Ministry and RosAtom. "The preparation of a document on the state of cooperation between Russia and the US on nuclear security and non-proliferation was one of subjects of discussion during the meeting in Moscow," the RosAtom official emphasised.
Russia leaders should withstand Washington's persistent offers of control over tactical nuclear weapons
US Senator Sam Nunn who visited Russia was visibly worried... by the condition of Russian nuclear weapons, particularly tactical weapons. American democracy's peace loving envoy suggested control over them. Russia and the United States do not have any mutual obligations in this sphere, and the politician from across the ocean calls it abnormal and dangerous.
NBC already quoted Senator Nunn as advocating a bilateral accord that would stipulate the complete opening of nuclear arsenals. "We want the final estimate of tactical nuclear weapons," Nunn said. "These are small portable weapons that may be stolen or sold. We do not know how many of them the Russians have." This last sentence explains everything.
Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, the man who handled the matter when yet chief of the Main Directorate of International Military Cooperation of the Defense Ministry, categorically denounces the very possibility of this sort of accord. To quote Ivashov, "the quantity and composition of Russian tactical nuclear weapons are one of the most important state secrets." "Perhaps, it's our only military secret we've managed to keep a secret," he said. Ivashov is convinced that only whoever plans an aggression against Russia may be interested in control over tactical nuclear weapons.
Nuclear missiles, torpedoes, tactical bombs and rounds, warheads for antiaircraft and tactical missiles with a range under 500 kilometers, and particularly mines and field charges are not strategic weapons. As such, they do not pose any direct threat to the territory of the United States thousands of kilometers away. It was announced on more than one occasions that these weapons would only be used on the territory of Russia itself in an external aggression from abroad threatening existence of the state as such. The same principle is reiterated by the Russian military doctrine.
According to Ivashov, "our tactical nuclear weapons may worry the United States only in an attempt to establish military control over the territory of Russia, i.e. occupy it." The general does not say plainly that the Americans plan an attack against Russia but he is convinced that there must be something in their "persistent attempts to pave way to establishment of control over tactical nuclear weapons."
"American experts evaluate Russian arsenals of tactical nuclear weapons at 18,000-19,000 articles," Ivashov said and US arsenals at 3,000 articles. "In other words, once again Russia is expected to disarm unilaterally."
Indeed, the signing of the agreement means that Russia will be compelled to disclose the location of arsenals of tactical nuclear weapons, their parameters, delivery and application means, and many other things. It will enable the Americans to target their missiles at the arsenals in question and demand reduction of the Russian arsenals "to the mutual parity level." The Pentagon in the meantime may open arsenals on the territory of the United States without saying a word on exactly what it has abroad.
That is precisely why Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said at Baikonur on June 2, "We are prepared to begin a dialogue about tactical nuclear weapons as soon as all countries possessing them begin keeping them on their territories."
Pavel Zolotarev, Deputy Director of the Institute of the United States and Canada of the Russian Academy of Sciences, is of a different frame of mind. Zolotarev is convinced that Nunn's initiative should be backed wholeheartedly. "I do think it is necessary but not from the point of view of the problem of bilateral relations between Russia and the United States," he told INTERFAX - Agency of Military News. "It is necessary from the point of view of prevention of proliferation of nuclear weapons." Zolotarev is stone-cold confident that "the signing of the Russian-American accord will set an example for other countries to follow. It will ease their way to involvement in negotiations over tactical nuclear weapons.",
So far, examples like that are not exactly followed. Meanwhile, ex-secretary of state, Madeline Albright, recently called Siberia too vast and wealthy a region to belong to Russia alone. Albright said it was not fair. It stands to reason to assume that Albright was of the same mind when she had held a senior position in civil service and had merely been too diplomatic to speak her mind. It certainly seems that all US leaders are of the same frame of mind. No wonder the White House is out to secure its positions in the Persian Gulf, in the Caspian region, and other strategic oil and gas bearing areas. That is why the Western democrats are so worried by ethnic strife in the oil bearing Darfur in Sudan and do not give a damn about genocide in Rwanda or Burundi.
In the next several decades the world will be dominated by whoever controls oil and gas reserves, not by whoever is physically the strongest. Russia with its colossal oil and has reserves may become a key component of the global economy and politics. We do not know at this point how far the United States is prepared to go in its eagerness to take over the West Siberian oil.
The situation being what it is, tactical nuclear weapons assume the qualities of strategic ones. They become a factor of strategic nuclear deterrent. In the era of globalization when raw materials are being fought over, wars are no longer waged to destroy the enemy or occupy its territory. They are waged to take over the regions known as sources of raw materials. Tactical nuclear weapons in these circumstances may deprive the aggressor of victory and of raw materials, which will be tantamount to defeat.
Russia has turned down American offers of control over tactical nuclear weapons on at least three occasions. The Americans are going about it in a different manner now. They emphasize the danger of the terrorist threat. That is why Senator Nunn is so worried by security of Russian nuclear arsenals.
Every now and then Western media outlets come up with wild stories of the theft of "nuclear suitcases", "backpacks", and other "carryalls" from Russian army depots. All this innuendo is supposed to force Russia to expose its last nuclear secrets. All these attempts have failed so far.
We can only hope that Russian leaders have sufficient political will to withstand the persistent offers of control. We have practically dismantled Russia's strategic nuclear might already. Let us retain the grounds at least in the sphere of tactical nuclear weapons.
1. Georgian Rebel Zone Says Has No Nuke Bomb Material
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An atomic institute in Georgia's rebel Abkhazia region on Thursday welcomed a decision by the U.N to send inspectors to the former Soviet republic, saying the facility had no bomb-grade nuclear materials.
The United Nations Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on Wednesday it would send inspectors to Georgia, and diplomats said the team hoped to track down bomb-grade atomic materials feared lost in the country.
Some diplomats said the inspectors might go to Abkhazia to find plutonium or highly enriched uranium that may have gone missing from the Sukhumi institute -- once a key Soviet research centre for bomb-grade uranium enrichment.
Abkhazia broke away from Georgia in 1993 after a war which devastated the Black Sea region. "Our institute does not have any fissile materials needed to make nuclear weapons, but there are radioactive materials there," Anatoly Markoliya, director of the Sukhumi institute, told Russia's Interfax news agency.
"I will gladly receive experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency."
No date has been announced for the inspectors' visit but it is expected "in the coming weeks".
Olga Pustovarova, who worked at the Sukhumi institute in the 1980s and is now a Sukhumi-based ecology expert, said no dangerous materials had disappeared from the facility and all radioactive materials were under armed guard.
"The loss of any radioactive materials from the institute is out of the question," Pustovalova, who escorted IAEA inspectors during a visit in May 2001, said in the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi.
Officials at Russia's Atomic Energy Agency have said all potentially harmful nuclear materials have been removed from the institute.
A U.N. diplomat has said there are concerns "about 9 kg (19.8 pounds) of plutonium" -- enough for two bombs -- may have gone missing.
There are also questions about 1 kg of weapons-grade enriched uranium feared to have vanished from the institute, U.N. diplomats said. A Russian government official denied this.
It takes about 25 kg (55 pounds) of highly enriched uranium to make a standard atomic bomb.
The Soviet Union's collapse left many nuclear facilities with inadequate security. Former Soviet republics with big stocks of nuclear materials face Western pressure to prevent dangerous materials from falling into the wrong hands.
There has also been speculation that underpaid individual nuclear scientists may be selling sensitive technology and know-how to rogue states interested in developing nuclear arms. Officials in former Soviet republics have denied this.
2. UN to Assess Georgia Amid Atomic Security Concerns
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The U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Wednesday it was sending inspectors to the former Soviet republic of Georgia and diplomats said the team hoped to track down any lost bomb-grade atomic materials.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is also trying to set up a mission to Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region to find any weapons-grade plutonium or highly-enriched uranium that may have gone missing from a nuclear institute in rebel- controlled Abkhazia, diplomats close to the IAEA said on condition of anonymity.
"There will be a trip to Georgia with senior safeguards inspectors," IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said.
"It will be the first meeting with the new government and will focus on implementation of safeguards and the Additional Protocol in all of Georgia," she added.
While this technically includes Abkhazia, diplomats said going into the unstable breakaway region will require special security arrangements that the IAEA is still trying to organise.
Georgia, whose President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power after a pro-Western "Rose Revolution" in 2003, ratified the Additional Protocol in that year.
It is an agreement that gives IAEA inspectors the right to conduct more intrusive, short-notice inspections than standard safeguards checks under the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
A Western diplomat from a country on the IAEA's board of governors told Reuters that the inspectors would arrive in Georgia "in the coming weeks", though he gave no date.
Like many states in the former Soviet Union, Georgia has had problems with the disappearance of dangerous radioactive materials that could be used in a so-called "dirty bomb", when an explosive like dynamite is laced with radioactive substances to spread them over a wide area.
Missing Plutonium and Enriched-Uranium?
In addition to incidents of trafficking of radioactive materials in Abkhazia, there are also concerns that the most precious of nuclear materials -- weapons-grade highly enriched uranium and plutonium -- have gone missing, diplomats said.
Georgia lies in the Caucasus mountains and is racked by conflicts over the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Shortly after insurgents captured the Abkhazian capital, Sukhumi in 1993, Georgian scientists fled from an atomic physics institute there and its nuclear stocks vanished.
One U.N. diplomat said there were concerns that "around 9 kg of plutonium" -- enough for one bomb -- may be missing.
"The Russians did an inspection at Sukhumi and found traces of plutonium there," a diplomat said, declining to give details.
Diplomats in Vienna said around 1 kg (2.2 pounds) of weapons-grade enriched uranium is also believed to be lost, though a Russian government official denied this. It takes around 25 kg (55 pounds) of highly-enriched uranium to make a standard atomic bomb.
A Georgian official agreed that questions remained about Abkhazia.
"I cannot rule out that some radioactive and nuclear material may still be there (at Sukhumi)," Soso Kakushadze, head of the Nuclear and Radiation Safety Department of Georgia's Ministry of Environment, told Reuters in Tbilisi.
"I also cannot rule out that they've got illegal nuclear materials there. Everything needs to be checked," he added. (Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze and Niko Mchedlishvili in Tbilisi and Maria Golovnina in Moscow)
1. Russian Atomic Chief Heads For Talks in Washington
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Russia's atomic energy chief was heading to Washington Wednesday for talks on nuclear security and stopping the spread of nuclear materials, the Russian nuclear agency said.
Alexander Rumyantsev was expected to meet with U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, the Federal Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement.
The two officials were slated to meet under the auspices of the Russian-U.S. High-Confidence Group, a committee set up during the Slovakia summit in February at which presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin embraced new measures to combat nuclear terrorism and better safeguard atomic weapons arsenals.
Washington wants to increase security at Russian research facilities and other sites where radioactive materials are stored, but the effort has been stymied by disputes over contractors and funding and Moscow's wariness about U.S. access to sensitive sites.
Last month, during a trip to Moscow, Bodman said the two nations had made "good progress" in cooperating on nuclear security.
The U.S. secretary also said that the two countries were close to agreement on a program to use plutonium from nuclear weapons to make a fuel called MOX, which has been held up by a dispute over liability of American contractors.
1. Russian Nuclear Chief Says Iran's Fuel Cycle Plans Make No Economic Sense
BBC Monitoring and Interfax
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The head of the Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) gave a positive assessment to the progress of the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran and hoped to visit this country by the end of 2005.
"Over the last year a very great push forward has been made in Iran and I am very satisfied with the progress of the work there. I hope to visit the Bushehr nuclear power plant again before the end of the year and I think that from this point one would be able to see clearly when the plant can physically become operational," Rumyantsev said in an interview to Interfax.
In addition to this, when commenting on the plans of Iran, announced earlier, to create its own production processes of the nuclear fuel cycle, the Rosatom head said that he did not support this initiative.
"I do not support the plans (of the Iranian leadership - Interfax) to develop its own fuel cycle purely from the economic point of view: until one has 8-10 units of nuclear power plants, having one's own nuclear cycle is not economically justified," he said. "This is simply a process that wastes lots of the country's money. In today's terms, it is not viable," Rumyantsev added.
Indian ruling coalition leader and Indian National Congress Chairwoman Sonya Gandhi met with President Vladimir Putin at his summer residence in St. Petersburg as a "guest of the Russian president" on 15 June, the third day of her four-day visit, RTR and Press Trust of India reported. Putin reportedly said Russia joins China in supporting India's candidacy for permanent-member status on the UN Security Council, which is expected to come up for debate at the UN General Assembly in September. Putin and Gandhi reportedly discussed coordinated efforts to combat separatism and terrorism. Gandhi, whose mother-in-law Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Islamic extremist in 1984 and whose husband Rajiv Gandhi was similarly slain in 1991, said, "As victims of terrorism, both India and Russia accept the need to combat it without compromise," PTI reported. Putin and Gandhi also discussed bilateral cooperation in the energy sector, including Indian participation in the Sakhalin-1 project and Russian assistance in the construction of an Indian nuclear-power station.
1. Russia Checking Info on N. Korea's Potential Nuclear Arms - Lavrov
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Russia is thoroughly checking reports which claim that North Korea has several nuclear warheads, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in St. Petersburg on Tuesday.
After Russia finishes verifying this information, it will be able to assess the degree to which North Korea's possible nuclear weapons might threaten Russia's security, Lavrov said.
"We are carrying out a detailed check following a statement made by North Korean officials that this country has nuclear weapons. And we will not be able to assess any possible damage to security of the Russian Federation until this information is confirmed. But we are continuing to actively study this matter," the minister said.
1. Russian Nuclear Missile Trains to be Phased Out by Year's End
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By the end of 2005 Russia will no longer have any nuclear missile trains, RIA-Novosti has been told at the Strategic Missile Troops press service.
"Unfortunately missiles grow old, just like people, and their guaranteed service life runs out. It is precisely because the missiles' guaranteed service life has run out and cannot be extended (since series production was in Ukraine) that the removal from combat duty and scrapping of missile trains has been going on since 2001," sources in the press service reported.
According to the agency's source, on 14 June personnel of the Guards Red Banner Order of Suvorov Second Class Missile Division are sending the latest missile train to be scrapped.
As stated earlier by Col-Gen Nikolay Solovtsov, commander-in-chief of the Strategic Missile Troops, by December 2005 the last missile train will have been removed from combat duty and the division will cease to exist. "New systems of the Topol-M type, built in Russia, will replace the missile trains," the commander-in-chief said.
Sometime after visiting the ruins of the Polissia Hotel, the darkened Energetic theater and the idled Ferris wheel, the minivans stopped again. Doors slid open. Six young Finnish men stepped out and followed their guide through a patch of temperate jungle that once was an urban courtyard.
Branches draped down. Mud squished underfoot. A cloud of mosquitoes rose to the feast. The men stepped past discarded gas-mask filters to the entrance of a ghostly kindergarten. They fanned out with cameras, to work.
Much was as the children and their teachers had left it 19 years ago. Tiny shoes littered the classroom floor. Dolls and wooden blocks remained on shelves. Soviet slogans exhorted children to study, to exercise, to prepare for a life of work.
Much had also changed. Now there is rot, broken windows, rusting bed frames and paint falling away in great blisters and peels. And now there are tourists, participating in what may be the strangest vacation excursion available in the former Soviet space: the packaged tour of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, scene of the worst civilian disaster of the nuclear age.
A 19-mile radius around the infamous power plant, the zone has largely been closed to the world since Chernobyl's Reactor No. 4 exploded on April 26, 1986, sending people to flight and exposing the Communist Party as an institution wormy with hypocrisy and lies.
For nearly 20 years it has been a dark symbol of Soviet rule. Its name conjures memories of incompetence, horror, contamination, escape and sickness, as well as the party elite's disdain for Soviet citizens, who were called to parade in fallout on May Day while the leaders' families secretly fled.
Now it is a destination, luring people in. "It is amazing," said Ilkka Jahnukainen, 22, as he wandered the empty city here that housed the plant's workers and families, roughly 45,000 people in all. "So dreamlike and silent."
The word Chernobyl also long ago became a dreary, shopworn joke, shorthand for contaminated wasteland. But Chernobylinterinform, the zone's information agency, says its chaperoned tours do not carry health risks.
This is because, the agency says, radiation levels here have always been uneven. And most of the zone is far cleaner than it was in 1986, when radiation levels were strong enough in places to kill even trees.
A lethal exposure of radiation ranges from 300 to 500 roentgens an hour; levels in the tour areas vary from 15 to several hundred microroentgens an hour. A microroentgen is one-millionth of a roentgen. Dangers at these levels, the agency says, lie in long-term exposure.
Still, the zone in northern Ukraine has much more radioactive spots than those where tourists typically go. So there are rules, which Yuriy Tatarchuk, a government interpreter who served as the Finns' guide, listed.
Don't stray. Stay on concrete and asphalt, where exposure risks are lower than on soil. Don't touch anything. (This one proved impossible. Tours involve climbing cluttered staircases and stepping through debris. Handholds are inevitable.)
No matter its inconveniences or potential for medical worry, the zone possesses the allure of the forbidden and a promise of rare, personal insights into history. Its popularity as a destination is increasing. Few tourists came in 2002, the year it opened for such visits, according to Marina Polyakova, of Chernobylinterinform. In 2004 about 870 arrived, she said, a pace tourists are matching this year.
Tourists cannot wander the zone on their own. One-day group excursions cost $200 to $400, including transportation and a meal.
The tour on Saturday began with a drive through meadows, marshes and forest, belts of green broken by glimpses of gap-roofed houses and crumbling barns.
It is what Mary Mycio, a Ukrainian-American lawyer in Kiev and author of a soon-to-be released book, "Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl," calls a "radioactive wilderness," an accidental sanctuary populated by wolves, boars and endangered birds. Its beauty cannot be overstated.
Soon reminders of the grim history appeared. The tour stopped at a graveyard of vehicles and helicopters used to fight Chernobyl's fires.
Roughly 2,000 radioactive machines are parked here - fire trucks, ambulances, armored vehicles, trucks, aircraft. Two tourists slipped through the barbed wire and wandered the junkyard, taking pictures for a Web site they plan to make of the trip. The rest roamed the edge, awed. "I cannot find words," said Juha Vaittinen, 22.
The minivans then headed to Chernobyl proper for a briefing on the accident. Next stop: the nuclear plant and "sarcophagus," the concrete-and-steel shell built to contain Reactor No. 4's radioactive spew. Mr. Tatarchuk held up a radiation detector - 470 microroentgens per hour.
The Finns posed for a group shot.
Motivations for coming here are many. The Finnish tourists, all in their 20's, said they had an affinity for lonely, abandoned places, and the zone so far exceeded the forgotten homes, farms or industrial spaces in Finland that its draw became irresistible. They flew to Kiev from Helsinki solely for the trip.
Mr. Tatarchuk said others had turned up because they were curious about the disaster, or wished to enter an accidental preserve of Soviet life. Bird-watchers have visited to catalogue the zone's resurgent life.
One group came for a hoax. About two years ago, Mr. Tatarchuk said, a Ukrainian woman booked a tour, wore a leather biker jacket and posed for pictures. Soon there appeared a Web site in which the woman, using the name Elena, claimed that she had been given an unlimited pass by her father, a nuclear physicist and Chernobyl researcher ("Thank you, Daddy!" she wrote) and now roamed the ruins at will on her Kawasaki Big Ninja.
The site, www.kiddofspeed.com, billed as a tale "where one can ride with no stoplights, no police, no danger to hit some cage or some dog," was a sensation, duping uncountable viewers before being discredited.
The Finns said they had seen the Web site, and hoped their planned site would be as popular.
On the day of their tour, the most haunting destination came last: Pripyat, a city left behind. "Heralded as the world's youngest city when it opened its doors in the mid-1970's," Ms. Mycio writes, "Pripyat also turned out to be its shortest lived."
The city was encased on this day in a silence broken by breezes sighing through rustling trees. A heavier hush resided in buildings, where drops of water plopped loudly into puddles, and glass squeaked as it broke underfoot. Built on marshes, the place smelled of peat.
At the amusement park, near idled bumper cars, Mr. Tatarchuk's monitor registered 144 microroentgens an hour. He moved four feet away, to a mat of damp green moss. It read 823. "Stay off the moss," he said.
The moss is all around. Pripyat, both a time capsule of the Soviet Union and a monument to its folly and pain, is being consumed. What looters have not sacked or stolen succumbs now to the elements and time.
A cafe patio atop the Polissia Hotel, offering views to the reactor that ruined this place, has been colonized by birch trees. One stands roughly seven feet tall, climbing skyward from a crack in the high-rise's tiles.
Fine views of Pripyat are available from among these misplaced trees, including one in the direction of the reactor that reveals an empty clinic bearing an enormous sign. "The health of the people," it reads, "is the wealth of the country."
Mr. Tatarchuk, looking down over buckling rooftops, repeated those words in Russian, then allowed himself a knowing, head-shaking smile.
1. Russia Has No Real Enemies ï¿½ Defense Minister (excerpted)
(for personal use only)
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, in an interview given to the Profil magazine, talks candidly on what Russiaï¿½s military influence in the post-Soviet bloc, the CIS, really means, and whether the preemptive strikes his doctrine stipulates could have been used to quell the revolutions that have mushroomed in Russiaï¿½s backyard. But just who are this nuclear powerï¿½s real enemies?
Q: Is it possible that an agreement on mutual nuclear inspections will be signed, as the United States is insisting?
A: It cannot. Moreover, the question was never raised. There is a shift in understanding. Starting in 1993, there was the Nanna-Lugara program, which stipulated technical aid for Russia in physically guarding a number of objects where usable nuclear materials are stored. But the program never dictated visits to the objects. Each of the sides invites the other for a visit to the so-called outer perimeter. Where the latest talks are concerned, the reason for them is the mythology that nothing in our country is guarded, that you can easily steal a nuclear bomb, etc. We accept aid, but it does not go towards physically guarding the objects but towards utilizing nuclear carriers that are no longer in use, such as submarines, lowering the risk not so much of leaking nuclear materials, but the environmental risk.
2. Russian MFA Commentary Regarding the Re-Election of Mohamed ElBaradei as Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation
(for personal use only)
The session of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency that has opened in Vienna took a unanimous decision to appoint Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei as the Director General of the Agency to a new four-year term.
We believe that the consensus re-election of Dr. ElBaradei for a third term demonstrates the support which he deservedly enjoys among member states, including Russia. We expect that the Agency will continue at a high professional level and impartially to perform the tasks laid upon it in the conditions of the new challenges and threats with which the international community is faced today.
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