By Chief foreign affairs correspondent
NBC News
updated 9/10/2004 9:04:22 PM ET 2004-09-11T01:04:22

Krasnoyarsk 26 is a rusted Soviet nuclear plant, one of hundreds of Cold War relics that could lead to Homeland Security's worst nightmare — a nuclear bomb, hidden in a terrorist's backpack like the one depicted in the movie, "The Peacemaker."

Hollywood fantasy? Not hardly, say experts like former Senator Sam Nunn.

"The bottom line is our leaders have not focused and made this a top priority," says Nunn.

Government reports have repeatedly painted an alarming picture. Russia has enough nuclear material "in forms attractive to theft" to build 40,000 bombs. It's stored at hundreds of buildings in 40 sites around Russia.

But the Bush administration's top weapons expert says the Russians are doing a good job.

"The Russians themselves know their vulnerability to terrorist groups as the Chechens have proven again and again," says Undersecretary of State John Bolton.

But a nuclear watchdog group says fewer than one-quarter of Russia's nuclear weapons plants are secure.

Who would steal this stuff?

In 1998, Osama bin Laden said: "This is a duty on the Muslims to possess a nuclear bomb.  And Chechen rebels who took over a Moscow theater in 2002 said their first target was a nuclear facility.

Experts say there is an easy solution — buy Russia's loose nukes and bring them to the U.S.

"This is a preventable catastrophe," says nuclear expert Graham Allison of Harvard University. "There's a finite list of things that we could do, that if we did them — this wouldn't happen."

One successful operation in 1994 code-named Project Sapphire spirited 1,200 pounds of uranium from Kazakhstan to Tennessee.

But another "quick fix" is on hold — detectors to safeguard Russian warheads were bought, but never installed. Why? Arguments between Moscow and Washington over who will pay, and obstacles from congressional hard-liners.

"Until all the material is secure at every site, this is going to be a subject of worry for me, for our government leadership and for the president," says Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

And what if a terrorist did try to smuggle nuclear material into the U.S.? Congress has set aside $35 million to build a super Geiger counter that could detect it, even on a huge ship. But sponsors say, in spite of the continuing threat, that money still has not been spent.

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