Back to All Events

The Fall of the Soviet Union and the Rise of Nuclear Security

Carol E. Kessler

Brookhaven National Laboratory

During the Soviet years, fear, the KGB, lack of mobility allowed by the government and the isolation of nuclear and military facilities provided an effective deterrent against access to, much less, theft of nuclear materials and weapons. The balance of power between the Soviet Union and the U.S. had established a norm of security relations that encouraged countries to be aligned with one or the other superpower and a relative stalemate existed. The Soviet Union enforced security through its style of governing and the United States offered security through its style of governing and its opposition to Soviet practice. It may seem hard to believe, but there was calm in Americans’ daily sense of security relative to today’s disorder/chaos with the loss of the superpower balance and the emergence of many smaller insecurity balances.

With the dismantlement of the Soviet apparatus, fears in the outside world grew that the lack of protection of nuclear facilities and materials made them vulnerable to theft. When the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991, it reportedly possessed more than 27,000 nuclear weapons, and these weapons were deployed on the territories of several of the former Soviet republics. Adding to this were concerns over the desperate economic conditions that disgruntled nuclear, in fact, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), workers might be encouraged or self-motivated to sell nuclear material or weapons to the highest bidder. Reports of Russian nuclear materials for sale on the black market, when combined with evidence of weaknesses in the security systems raised concerns about the possible theft or diversion of nuclear materials from these facilities. Given the nightmare of illicit access to either, the U.S. began to collaborate with Russia on a program of technical assistance to shore up the physical security of nuclear facilities and to design and implement security regimes and practices for protecting them from outside and inside threats. The program began in 1993 after the U.S. and Russia reached agreement on the Cooperative Threat Reduction Treaty of June 1992. This Treaty was based in legislation created by Senators Nunn and Lugar, which is why the program became known as the Nunn-Lugar program.   This talk will describe what has happened in the years since 1992 to present to make nuclear security the most high profile international security topic.