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 will never 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 around the world. We need Russia's help to make it happen.
President Ronald Reagan is often 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 in Mr. Reagan's second term, he moderated his rhetoric and worked with Soviet leader Mikhail S. 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 must also maintain a working relationship with Russia to continue vital cooperation between Russian and U.S. experts to reduce nuclear weapons and keep them out of terrorists' 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 security doors no longer will be propped open for convenience or intrusion detectors turned off to put an end to their occasional false alarms). It 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 lead the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, an effort that 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 global effort still falls far short of the urgency of the threat, and Russia's help will be central to the accelerated 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, Mr. Nunn is the force behind a new organization, the World Institute for Nuclear Security, that seeks to bolster security at thousands of nuclear installations worldwide in an effort to prevent terrorists from getting access to atomic bomb materials.
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. Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama stressed the importance of continuing to cooperate with Russia in areas such as nuclear proliferation during their first presidential debate.
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 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that Mr. 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 stockpiles of nuclear weapons and materials is the most effective way to achieve this.
Russia has the world's largest stockpiles. The Bush administration and its successor should take a page from Mr. 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 Managing the Atom research associate.