WASHINGTON -- Ukraine has pledged to get rid of its stockpile of highly enriched uranium, the material that can be used to make nuclear weapons.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych made the announcement April 12 at a meeting of the U.S.-Ukrainian Business Council in Washington following his first-ever bilateral with U.S. President Barack Obama.
"Ukraine has made the decision to join the worldwide initiative on nonproliferation and it will adapt its nuclear reactors from using highly enriched uranium to low enriched uranium," Yanukovych said, adding, "In a very short time, all the highly enriched uranium will be transported from Ukraine."
Yanukovych, who was elected in February, is in Washington to attend a summit on nuclear nonproliferation hosted by the U.S. president.
Obama hopes to elicit similar pledges from the more than 40 countries represented at the summit, with the goal of securing all of the world's vulnerable nuclear material by 2012.
Yanukovych agreed to meet the 2012 deadline for total removal of the country's weapons-grade uranium. A significant amount of the uranium will be disposed of this year.
A White House statement said Obama "praised Ukraine's decision as a historic step and a reaffirmation of Ukraine's leadership in nuclear security and
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the move is "something that the United States has tried to make happen for more than 10 years."
He added, "The material is enough to construct several nuclear weapons. And this demonstrates Ukraine's continued leadership in nonproliferation and comes in an important region where we know a lot of highly enriched uranium exists."
The United States said it will provide Ukraine with financial assistance for removing its stockpile, which will either be sent to the United States or Russia.
The White House also said the two leaders agreed to cooperate on nuclear safety, including efforts to safeguard the Chernobyl nuclear reactor site, where a devastating meltdown occurred in 1986.
The United States has contributed almost $250 million to this effort and the White House said it "reaffirms its commitment to...support Ukraine and others in restoring the Chernobyl site to a safe condition."
In his remarks before the business group, the new Ukrainian president said large-scale financial deregulation and further privatization of the country's industries will improve the climate for business.
He blamed the country's substantial debt and plunging GDP on the economic crisis and on the fiscal policy of the previous administration.
International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn met with Yanukovych earlier in the day on the sidelines of the summit to discuss conditions for a potential resumption of loan money to Ukraine.
In November, the IMF halted payments on a $17 billion loan to the debt-strapped country.
Strauss-Kahn in a statement said he "emphasized the importance of passing a well-grounded 2010 budget to strengthen fiscal sustainability and support the recovery."
In a joint statement by Yanukovych and Obama, the Ukrainian president said he was committed to making the reforms needed to resume cooperation with the IMF.
The statement said Obama "supports that commitment."