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U.S./Russia: Experts Say Much Work Ahead To Secure Russian Nuclear Materials

  • Robert McMahon

A new report from independent experts says that despite progress, a large amount of nuclear weapons-grade material in Russia is still at risk for proliferation. The report says cooperation between U.S. government agencies and Russian officials helped bring hundreds of metric tons of nuclear material under control, but the concern over theft or diversion is still high. RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

New York, 19 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As U.S. and Russian leaders discuss possible changes in the Cold War arms control regime, cooperation at a lower level has begun to gradually bring under control nuclear material in the vast complex of storage sights in the former Soviet Union.

A new report from two prominent U.S.-based think tanks says significant progress has been achieved during the past decade in U.S.-Russian programs aimed at securing dozens of sites where nuclear weapons-grade material is stored.

Hundreds of millions of dollars from U.S. government assistance programs have helped improve security at nuclear storage sites in Russia and other former Soviet republics, where warheads or materials such as plutonium and highly enriched uranium were stored.

But according to the report -- released on 18 June by the Monterey Institute of International Studies and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace -- hundreds of metric tons of Russian nuclear materials remain in facilities without upgraded security.

Leonard Spector is deputy director of the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He tells RFE/RL that the U.S.-funded program has secured about one-third of the weapons-grade material so far:

"It's a substantial program under any circumstances, but many believe it needs to be moving faster and more funds are needed for that purpose."

About $150 million is allotted by the U.S. Energy Department annually for the program to secure nuclear materials. The proposed budget of President George W. Bush calls for some cuts in this funding. It also calls for deep cuts in a program that provides aid to Russian scientists who formerly worked on nuclear weapons in closed cities.

The U.S. government's National Security Council is currently reviewing the effectiveness of several of these U.S.-Russia programs.

The 200-page Carnegie-Monterey report provides a catalogue of all facilities in the former Soviet Union where nuclear weapons-grade material is stored. It notes a lack of progress at some sites in part because Russian officials refuse to provide U.S. experts direct access to those facilities.

The Monterey Institute's Spector says the former secret status of some weapons storage sites continues to pose a challenge for the U.S. Energy Department program:

"A lot of the facilities in Russia are quite sensitive. So we have to often work out special arrangements that allow [the United States] to be confident that [its] money is being spent the way [it] wants it to be spent on security equipment, and that the material equipment is being installed properly. But sometimes you cannot get actual access to these plants, because it is just too secret."

An example of such a site is a nuclear warhead production and dismantling facility in Sarov, about 400 kilometers east of Moscow. The site, known in Soviet times as Arzamas-16, received monitoring devices and other equipment from the United States in 1998, but installation has been delayed because U.S. experts have not been given access to the site. The Department of Energy says there are more than 1,000 kilograms of both plutonium and highly enriched uranium at the site.

In areas where U.S. experts have been allowed access, they have provided protection systems such as fences around buildings that contain nuclear material, metal doors for rooms where material is stored, and video surveillance systems monitoring storage rooms.

At the Mayak Production Association, for example, the Department of Energy has installed huge interlocking concrete blocks over trenches containing more than 5,000 containers of plutonium.

The General Accounting Office, which is an investigative body for the U.S. Congress, said in a report earlier this year that the concrete blocks were protecting more than 15 metric tons of plutonium. But the office said in the same report that it found security lapses during a random tour of three sites that were supposed to have been secured. At one site, the office said, it found a gate to a nuclear storage facility left open and unattended during the day.

Spector of the Monterey Institute says the work involved in securing a storage site can be exhausting and expensive:

"The Russians certainly have capable individuals and many of them are quite dedicated to this mission. The trouble is that it's very costly to upgrade all these different sites, put the fences in, put the sensors [in], upgrade the vaults, and so on -- and there's simply too much work to be done, in a certain sense, and not enough money."

The Department of Energy estimates that it will need until 2020 to complete the Material Protection, Control, and Accounting program, at a cost of about $2.2 billion. But continued cooperation with Russia is crucial to meeting this goal.

The Monterey-Carnegie report, meanwhile, cites clear progress in facilities in other former Soviet republics, saying it has removed Georgia from the list of countries storing weapons-grade nuclear material. It says the last five kilograms of highly enriched uranium were removed from the Institute of Physics near Tbilisi in 1998 and airlifted to Scotland as part of an operation involving the United States and Britain.

The majority of Kazakhstan's weapons-grade material has also been removed or secured. The report says Kazakhstan, as well as Ukraine, has benefited greatly from U.S. assistance in creating export control systems to help in nonproliferation. And it says Kazakh officials have worked to strengthen export control over military goods and technology since 1999, in part responding to the controversial export of MiG aircraft to North Korea.

The report says Belarus and the Baltic countries also have fairly well-developed export control systems in place, but adds that most of Central Asia needs help in creating more effective controls. There are concerns the region could serve as a route for the illegal trafficking of nuclear materials because of its location between countries that already have nuclear weapons -- Russia and China -- and those reportedly seeking nuclear technology, such as Iran, Iraq, India, and Pakistan.

Nuclear experts say as little as 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and eight kilograms of plutonium are needed to make a nuclear weapon.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, says that since 1993, there have been more than 370 confirmed incidents of illicit trafficking of nuclear material and radioactive sources. Most of these incidents have not involved material that can be used for making nuclear weapons, but they have led to increased efforts to prevent and combat trafficking.

IAEA general director Mohamed El Baradei said last month that broad international cooperation will be needed to upgrade security measures, improve capabilities for intercepting illicit trafficking and to strengthen the protection of nuclear facilities against terrorism and sabotage.