One in 10 American light bulbs is powered with fuel from dismantled Russian nuclear bombs, which means the lights in your house represent, in a real sense, bombs that never will go off. Potential nuclear bomb material that once was stored in the equivalent of a high school gym locker, with a padlock that could be cut with a bolt-cutter, now is stored in secure vaults with heavy steel doors.
But there is much more to be done to control the dangerous legacies of the Cold War, not only in Russia but also around the world. We need Russian help to make it happen.
President Ronald Reagan often is remembered as the consummate Cold War hawk, describing the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." But as U.S.-Russian relations chill, we should remember that Reagan, in his second term, moderated his rhetoric and worked with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to negotiate unprecedented cuts in nuclear weapons.
Today, the United States and Europe must respond to Russia's military behavior in Georgia and elsewhere in its former empire. But they also must maintain a working relationship with Moscow to continue vital cooperation between Russian and U.S. experts to reduce nuclear weapons and keep them out of terrorist hands. Russia needs to act against nuclear corruption and insider threats, provide the necessary funding to sustain high levels of security after U.S. assistance phases out and build a stronger "security culture" among nuclear staff, so that security doors no longer will be propped open for convenience or intrusion detectors turned off to stop their occasional false alarms.
Russia also must strengthen nuclear security regulations and enforcement, and consolidate its stockpiles in fewer locations. Without U.S. and Russian experts working together, there is much less chance that Russia will take these vital steps.
U.S.-Russian cooperation also is vital for reducing nuclear terrorism risks in the rest of the world. More than 40 countries possess the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia already lead the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, which brings together efforts from more than 70 countries, and are working together to ship highly enriched uranium at poorly defended research reactors worldwide to secure sites. But the scope and pace of the effort still falls far short of the urgency of the threat, and Russia's help will be central to the needed action.
Former Sen. Sam Nunn, for example, has suggested that the United States and Russia establish joint teams of nuclear security experts to help countries beef up nuclear security and accounting systems, potentially achieving far more comprehensive nuclear security worldwide. Indeed, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which Nunn leads, is financing a new organization, the World Institute for Nuclear Security, which will create a forum for exchanging best practices to bolster security at nuclear installations worldwide.
The good news is that cooperation to secure nuclear stockpiles and stop nuclear smuggling is moving forward despite the post-Georgia tailspin in U.S.-Russian relations. Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama have stressed the importance of cooperating with Russia on nuclear proliferation.
The bad news is that growing hostility and suspicion between Washington and Moscow is likely to make it far more difficult to reach new agreements on new steps. And in many areas, from consolidating nuclear stockpiles to coping with Iran and North Korea to reducing nuclear weapons, new accords are likely to be essential soon. For example, the START nuclear arms reductions treaty that Reagan negotiated will expire next year unless action to extend it is taken, and with it the entire structure of inspections and transparency for strategic nuclear weapons.
Preventing nuclear terrorism must be a top priority of U.S. national security policy, and securing global nuclear weapons and materials stockpiles is the most effective way to achieve this.
Russia has the world's largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons and materials. The Bush administration and its successor should take a page from Reagan's playbook: While responding appropriately where U.S. and Russian interests diverge, Washington must work to build a genuine partnership with Moscow where our vital interests overlap -- especially in reducing and controlling nuclear arms.
Matthew Bunn, an associate professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, is the lead author of the annual "Securing the Bomb" series and co-principal investigator for Harvard's Managing the Atom project on nuclear policy. Andrew Newman is a research associate for Managing the Atom.