It is impossible to overstate the danger that nuclear proliferation posed to the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Throughout the newly independent states, nuclear weapons, as well as their components and storage sites, frequently lay unguarded—sometimes because starving interior ministry troops left their posts to search for food. Highly enriched uranium (HEU) was stolen from a submarine base in 1993. Managers of top Russian defense plants offered to sell enriched plutonium to visiting foreign scientists. And a visiting White House official once discovered that enough HEU to build several nuclear bombs was being stored in simple school-like lockers at an institute in Moscow. 

That's why the U.S. implemented the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, under which the U.S. spent billions of dollars to help Moscow secure its nuclear facilities and fissile material. From the removal of 600 kilograms of weapons-grade HEU from an unguarded warehouse in northern Kazakhstan to the construction of a highly secure storage facility near Chelyabinsk, Russia, that holds the equivalent of fissile material from 25,000 nuclear warheads, CTR has been an unambiguous post–Cold War success story. 

With relations chilly again due to the crisis in Ukraine, first the U.S. and now Russia have taken steps that threaten to undo decades of nuclear cooperation. We need to be firm with Russia over its incursions in Ukraine, but nothing should be done to jeopardize our cooperation over the greater risks of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. 

Our nation's safety is at stake. Here's what we should do to protect it.

In September 2013, following the conclusion of the CTR program, the U.S. Department of Energy signed an agreement providing for unprecedented cooperation between U.S. and Russian scientists in areas from civilian nuclear power to mitigating the threat from asteroids. The agreement allowed Russian scientists’ access to the Los Alamos and Livermore nuclear laboratories here in the U.S., while U.S. government scientists received permission to explore the most sensitive Russian atomic facilities. 

But this past April, barely six months after the agreement was originally signed, the DOE performed an about-face, banning Russian scientists from visiting any of its labs and denying permission for U.S. government scientists to attend meetings in Russia, effectively freezing implementation of this agreement. Most recently, the “Cromnibus” bill which Congress just past cut all funding for nuclear security in Russia. 

Moscow has taken its own steps to curtail cooperation on nuclear proliferation. In November, Russia announced it would boycott President Obama’s planned 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington aimed at preventing global proliferation. Russia then announced that no new non-proliferation projects would be undertaken in Russia "in the current environment.”

Make no mistake: cooperation remains essential. Though it has made tremendous progress in improving its nuclear security, “Russia continues to have the world’s largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons, separated plutonium, and highly enriched uranium (HEU), in the world’s largest number of buildings and bunkers—and a variety of vulnerabilities remain that a sophisticated conspiracy could exploit,” according to a recent DOE advisory report

Where might such a “sophisticated conspiracy” originate? Harvard professor Matthew Bunn, a longtime expert on nuclear non-proliferation and the co-principal investigator for the Project on Managing the Atom, recently directed a study which discovered that the Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation itself has seen hundreds of its directors and top managers dismissed for corruption, while the director and two deputies of the Seversk Chemical Combine—one of Russia’s largest plutonium and HEU processing facilities—were recently arrested for a massive corruption scheme. “Insiders seeking to enrich themselves plus weapons-grade uranium is a very dangerous combination indeed,” he told me. “I also know of one instance where a colonel in the Russian Ministry of Interior was actively soliciting bribes to overlook security weaknesses at a closed nuclear facility. At another nuclear facility I was told that it would cost $100 to bribe your way in." 

Insiders are not the only remaining threat. According to the DOE report, Russia has a much larger physical infrastructure of buildings and bunkers holding weapons-grade material than is needed. The more locations with fissile material, the higher the cost of nuclear security—and the more chances for security breaches. 

Simply sustaining the progress made under Cooperative Threat Reduction is even proving difficult, as some Russian scientists are concerned about the money needed to maintain the initial U.S.-funded security systems installed in the 1990s and 2000s. A 2013 Department of Defense report to Congress noted that the "issue of how to sustain nuclear security upgrades at Russian nuclear sites has not yet been resolved." Half of the eight metrics, including vulnerability assessments and maintaining configuration control of security at sites, "were all less than 20% of the way towards the goal of sustainably transferring responsibilities to Russia." As a result, according to the DOE advisory study, the ongoing work to secure Russia’s nuclear sites “will not get done to the standards necessary unless the United States continues to invest.”

The outlook is dire but not hopeless. While our influence over Moscow is limited, there are three ways U.S. policymakers can still mitigate the recent damage to nuclear cooperation. 

1. The U.S. should recognize that while our top concern may be nuclear terrorism, Russia’s is in the future of civilian nuclear power. “Rosatom has a $90 billion order backlog, and we should use Russia’s interest in exporting its technology to our advantage," said Bunn. "One way to do this is to embed our big concerns about nuclear terrorism and the security of the Russian nuclear complex within a broader framework of cooperation to promote nuclear power.” Bunn believes that this this will allow the U.S. to address remaining concerns about Russia’s nuclear security—including insider threats, sustainability and physical facility consolidation—in a way that enables Moscow to feel like an equal partner as opposed to an aid recipient.

2. The DOE should propose to its counterparts within Rosatom that the September 2013 agreement between the two sides be restarted, thereby resuming the extensive scientist-to-scientist collaboration envisioned in the original agreement. This would require a U.S. “climb down” from its April freeze of the DOE-Rosatom agreement, but as the former Los Alamos Director Siegfried Hecker has pointed out, continued progress on nuclear security is ultimately dependent on the relationships between Russian and American scientists, and curtailing these relationships jeopardizes the gains made in nuclear security over the past 20 years.  

3. If U.S. efforts to reinvigorate nuclear cooperation with Moscow are successful, politicians in Washington should be prepared to put aside partisan differences and fully fund U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperation going forward. Most critically, this means delinking nuclear security policy collaboration with Moscow from the crisis in Ukraine. Russia remains our key global counterpart on this issue, and working with Moscow is not a favor or concession but a strong U.S. national security interest. In a recent speech at West Point, Obama stated that “if nuclear materials are not secure, that poses a danger to American citizens.” 

He’s right—and that's why our deteriorating relationship with Russia poses a danger to American citizens, too.