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Not everyone believes the danger is imminent. Last August, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov dismissed concerns about the security of Russian HEU as "just a myth." However big the threat, critics say President Bush has yet to tackle it head-on. "The Bush Administration has failed to declare war on nuclear terrorism," says nuclear expert Graham Allison, a former Clinton official. The Bush Administration is expected to earmark about $400 million this year for securing nuclear material in the former Soviet Union. Over the past two and a half years, international teams of nuclear experts have retrieved more than 230 lbs. of bomb-grade uranium from such countries as Uzbekistan, Bulgaria, Romania, Libya and the Czech Republic. But at its current pace, Allison charges, the effort to secure all Russian nuclear weapons and fissile material will not be complete until 2020. Critics of the Administration say the U.S. should pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin to get more aggressive about securing nuclear material in his country. "We're in a race between cooperation and catastrophe," says former Senator Sam Nunn, who helped create the 13-year-old U.S.-Russian program to destroy Russia's surplus HEU before it falls into the wrong hands.
The world may not have much time. In the months before Sept. 11, bin Laden and associates met in Afghanistan with a Pakistani nuclear scientist, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmoud. At one meeting, according to an account made public by the White House, a bin Laden associate indicated he had nuclear material and wanted to know how to use it to make a weapon. Mahmoud provided information about nuclear-weapons programs, the White House said. In an interview with the Associated Press, Mahmoud's son said his father had rebuffed bin Laden. The bad news is that he is surely still trying. --By Massimo Calabresi. With reporting by Timothy J. Burger and Elaine Shannon/Washington, Tim McGirk/Islamabad and Andrew Purvis/Vienna