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Russia: U.S. Anti-Spying Measures Affect Nuclear Cooperation

  • Michael Lelyveld

Boston, 20 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. nuclear cooperation with Russia could be affected by congressional efforts to guard against spying by China, according to officials in both the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton and in Congress.

The link between concerns about Russia and China emerged this week after U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson complained Tuesday that a bill aimed at tightening security at nuclear weapons laboratories would endanger programs to safeguard Russian nuclear materials.

Although the legislation was written in response to reports that China has stolen U.S. nuclear secrets, Richardson made the case that a proposed moratorium on foreign visitors to U.S. nuclear laboratories would shut down cooperative programs with Russia.

"If adopted, it would literally mean the closure of our Russia lab-to-lab program," Richardson told the Associated Press. U.S. programs have helped Russia keep track of its nuclear materials and employ scientists in civilian pursuits.

Richardson prefers U.S. Senate legislation that would restrict visits to U.S. labs but would allow the moratorium to be waived if the administration certifies that adequate counter-intelligence measures have been taken.

A U.S. House of Representatives bill, sponsored by Congressman Jim Ryun, a Republican from the U.S. State of Kansas, would allow congressional committees to review the waivers for laboratory visits by citizens from 25 "sensitive" countries. The list includes China, Russia, India, Pakistan and Israel.

An aide to Ryun said Wednesday in an interview with RFE/RL that the congressman shares the concern that U.S.-Russian programs could be affected. But he also stressed the need to end lax security.

"It may be a consequence we have to live with," said the aide, who asked not to be identified.

U.S. concerns about nuclear cooperation with Russia were underscored this week in a study by the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences. The study said that the U.S. government should provide support to Russia for at least the next decade because the problems of nuclear materials were much greater than originally estimated.

So far, the furor over China's alleged spying has had little effect on Russia. But in the series of security scandals since 1997, issues related to both countries have been alternately joined and separated several times.

Reports in early 1997 that Russia diverted U.S.-made supercomputers to its nuclear weapons laboratories prompted a congressional review and changes in export rules. But much of the focus in the U.S. Congress soon turned to China and the suspected diversion of computers to the military there.

The concern about computers was followed last year by an investigation of U.S. satellite launches in China and the possible transfer of missile technology as a result.

But although some commercial launches in China were blocked, Russian launches were never affected. The reason for lesser fears about Russia stemmed from the fact that it is already a fully-developed nuclear missile power, analysts say. China has repeatedly denied allegations of spying.

Now, the worries about U.S. nuclear security appear to be bringing the issues of Russia and China together again, although the outcome is uncertain. Until now, the focus of U.S. sanctions against Russia has been on alleged transfers of missile technology to Iran.

Cooperative programs with Russia have also come under separate attack in Congress following a General Accounting Office report in February that much of the U.S. aid to Russian nuclear labs has been eaten up in overhead charges and taxes. But despite its heavy criticism, the U.S. Congress so far has been relatively cautious about injuring either China or Russia during the drive to tighten security.

Excerpts from a classified report by a congressional committee on technology transfer to China, released by the White House in February, contained several recommendations for legislation to limit exports and increase security. But so far, few bills have advanced.

The measures on restricting visits to U.S. nuclear labs are among the first to emerge from the recommendations of the China committee, headed by Congressman Christopher Cox, Republican of California. But even the tougher version of the legislation by Ryun does not actually halt foreign visits to U.S. labs.

Under the legislation, the administration may waive the moratorium on visits. Although congressional committees would be given power to review the decisions, the visits could proceed if Congress fails to act within 10 days of notification.