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U.S./Russia: Experts Concerned About Russian Nuclear Materials

By Alexandre d'Aragon

Washington, 19 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A private U.S. study has concluded that delays in the American program in getting rid of surplus nuclear weapons-grade plutonium are stalling a similar effort in Russia.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) says slow implementation of the U.S. program increases the risk of Russian nuclear material falling into the hands of rogue nations or terrorists. The center is a Washington-based not-for-profit institute.

The CSIS released a study this week that examines the safe, timely, and effective disposition of surplus U.S. and Russian weapons-grade plutonium, a product of dismantled nuclear arms.

The report says the U.S. government is not devoting enough high-level attention and resources to the disposition of post Cold War-era surplus weapons plutonium. It urges Washington to speed up the process to serve as an example for Russia.

The problem is particularly acute in Russia, where physical security and accounting methods is a major concern, the study says.

It warns that surplus weapons plutonium poses a threat to global peace and security because of the risk of misuse, theft and proliferation.

With the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia have reached significant arms control agreements. As a result of dismantling aging nuclear stockpiles, the study says, the two countries are now finding themselves with sizable excess nuclear material.

These stocks are composed of highly enriched uranium as well as plutonium, both potentially deadly substances.

Highly enriched uranium can easily be converted to power-reactor fuel, a form making it difficult for reuse in weapons.

This is not the case for what experts call separated plutonium. Its disposal requires more complex and costly methods. And unless it is fundamentally altered, excess weapons-grade plutonium can easily be remade into nuclear weapons.

In 1994, the United States and Russia both agreed to dispose of at least 50 tons of weapons-grade plutonium. But so far, the study says little has been accomplished.

The United States and Russia reached an agreement in 1993 under which the U.S. would buy 500 tons of uranium derived from Russian nuclear weapons over a 20-year period. The idea behind the deal was to get rid of aging Russian nuclear missiles and use the material as fuel for nuclear reactors in the United States. The Russians shipped 18 tons of the fissile material in 1996 with more scheduled to come.

The study endorses the U.S. Department of Energy's "dual-track" approach to make weapons-grade plutonium as safe as spent nuclear-power fuel.

The first track of this approach entails fabricating the plutonium into mixed oxide fuel to be irradiated in commercial light-water reactors.

The second track entails mixing it with high-level radioactive wastes in an immobilized form (in ceramics) for eventual burial.

The study says disposition of weapons-grade plutonium should be undertaken as soon as practicable.

However, experts say the United States and Russia still have to come up with work plans and specific schedules for the conversion of their stock to the "spent-fuel" standard.

They say there is also a need to find ways in which the Russian plutonium-disposition program can be financed.

In 1997, the two countries reached an agreement to end production of plutonium, which called for the U.S. to provide 70 million dollars for the conversion of three Russian reactors to civilian use.