It is the dawn of the 21st century, and after treaty after treaty of nuclear non-proliferation, we may feel complacent that nuclear war will never occur again. However, the impossibility of total accountability of nuclear weapon components by the IAEA and other nuclear non-proliferation organizations may result in nuclear weapons possessed by terrorist organizations.
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Nowadays, the fear arises not from the potential deployment of a nuclear bomb by another nation, but by non-governmental terrorists groups. The importance of conflict between states has declined, and the role of nonstate actors, especially transnational terrorist organizations, has grown in the 21st century. For many citizens of the United States, the fear of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union has been replaced by the nightmare of a terrorist attack involving biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons.
It has been confirmed that the USSR did indeed develop portable nuclear devices during the Cold War era, and they were intended for use by the SPETSNAZ (Special Forces of the Ministry of Defense). Two versions of tactical nuclear weapons were developed by the USSR: the RA-155 for the army and the RA-115-01 for the navy. One such device weighs 30 kilograms and can be armed by one person in 4 minutes. The expected yield of the weapon ranges from 0.5 to 2 kilotons and it could radiate areas of up to 10 square kilometers. However, these weapons were kept at two secret storage facilities and were never released to troops.
In May of 1997, Alexander Lebed, former Russian National Security Adviser, stated at a private briefing to a delegation of US congressmen that 84 Soviet tactical nuclear weapons were unaccounted for. This was publicized in an episode of Sixty Minutes on September 7, 1997, Alexander Lebed claimed that over one hundred tactical nuclear weapons were unaccountable by the Russian military:
"I'm saying that more than a hundred weapons out of the supposed number of 250 are not under the control of the armed forces of Russia... I don't know their location. I don't know whether they have been destroyed or whether they are stored or whether they've been sold or stolen, I don't know." - Alexander Lebed on Sixty Minutes
However, Alexander Lebed has changed the total and unaccounted numbers many times, stating the total number to be between 100 and 500.
Alexei Yablokov, Russian scientist and former environmental advisor to President Yeltsin, confirmed the existence of Russian tactical nuclear weapons. He stated that since the weapons were controlled by the KGB, they were not accounted for by the Ministry of Defense. However, other Russian officials have denied this claim and since most of the evidence for proliferation of Russian tactical nukes come from late 1997 to early 1998, it is skeptical whether the available information is credible.
Most of the evidence for the possible proliferation of Soviet tactical nuclear weapons dates from around late 1997 to early 1998. Since and before that time period, there has been silence surrounding the subject. The lack of evidence, sources, and credibility for Soviet tactical nukes provides no definite conclusion for the possible proliferation of these weapons.
Furthermore, Soviet tactical nuclear weapons have short maintenance intervals. Sources mention that they require component replacements every six months (particularly tritium gas and the neutron generator, which both contain radioactive materials). Without sufficient tritium, the yield of such a nuclear weapon would drop significantly and eventually cease to exist.
Permissive action links (PAL) were introduced around the late-1970s, and by the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union, most nuclear weapons in the Soviet arsenal have gone through one major maintenance operation due to their short service life (reportedly, the service life of a Soviet nuclear warhead is about 15 years). It can be inferred that during this maintenance operation, nuclear weapons produced before the late 1970s were later retrofitted with PALs to prevent unauthorized detonation. PALs render tactical nuclear weapons extremely difficult to detonate, although not impossible.
In the rare event that such a tactical nuclear weapon is stolen, it would be unlikely that it can be detonated and achieve its maximum yield. It could be used to extract weapons-grade plutonium in order to produce a cruder nuclear weapon ("dirty" bomb), but without certain key components, the yield of a "dirty" bomb would be significantly less than the yield of the weapon from which the plutonium originated.
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