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U.S./Russia: Plutonium Agreement Reduces Nuclear Weapons Threat

Russia is taking steps to ease U.S. fears of plutonium use for nuclear weapons. A top U.S. Energy Department official tells RFE/RL Senior Correspondent Frank T. Csongos of a new deal between Washington and Moscow. The accord is aimed at reducing Russian nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands.

Washington, 8 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The United States and Russia have reached an agreement aimed at reducing the threat of Russian nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.

The U.S. Energy Department says that under the accord Russia has agreed to stop making plutonium out of fuel from its civilian nuclear power reactors. The department says the deal is part of a $100 million joint research and aid package from Washington.

The agreement in principle, which still needs to be implemented and supervised, is the department's first major attempt to make secure Russia's civilian stockpile of plutonium. U.S. officials say that the stockpile would be enough to make 3,000 Russian nuclear bombs every year.

Rose Gottemoeller is an assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, the top official in charge of the department's nuclear non-proliferation policy. She spoke to our correspondent about the accord on Monday.

"This deal is important to the security of both the United States and Russia. It fills an important niche in the work we have been doing together to reduce the threats from loose nukes essentially that could get out into the black market (and) in the hands of terrorists."

U.S. officials say they are particularly happy with the deal because it comes at a time of strains with Russia over its war in Chechnya and its policy toward Iraq.

"We are just really pleased that the Russians are willing to look at establishing a moratorium on further separation of such plutonium from civil nuclear reactor fuel."

Since 1992, the United States has invested substantial resources to collaborate with Russia to secure and eliminate weapons-grade nuclear materials from Russia's military nuclear program.

Each year tons of plutonium are separated from spent fuel from Russia nuclear power plants. The department says to support the plutonium moratorium in Russia it will be necessary to design, license, and construct a storage facility for civil reactor spent fuel. In addition, the department says material protection, control, and accounting must be improved significantly for the existing stocks of separated plutonium.

The department says implementation of this program is being structured to help the United States address its continuing concerns over Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran. It says restrictions will continue on Russian nuclear entities that engage in nuclear assistance to Iran. Part of the agreement is contingent on Russia's ending sales and transfers of nuclear technology to Iran.

The administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton proposed in its new budget increased funding for a project aimed at helping to curb the loss of Russian nuclear scientists to rogue nations.

The U.S. is concerned that underpaid Russian nuclear scientists could be lured by rogue nations to design weapons of mass destruction for them.