- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2000

U.S. efforts to help Russia protect its huge stocks of nuclear bomb-making materials have languished because of tight budgets, bureaucratic restrictions and a lack of focus from top-level Clinton administration officials, a new report concludes.

"This is an issue that should be at the top of the U.S.-Russian nuclear agenda," said report co-author Matthew Bunn, a former adviser to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and now a researcher at Harvard University"s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

"I suspect, though, that there's been more time spent at high-level U.S.-Russian meetings on trade in chicken parts than on nuclear material," he said.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought with it a severe deterioration in security controls on the plutonium and highly enriched uranium used to supply Russia's still-huge nuclear missile arsenal.

In the episode most recently made public, Russia's security forces in December 1998 arrested a group of conspirators trying to steal 40 pounds of weapons-usable materials from one of the country's largest nuclear weapons facilities.

Although a joint U.S.-Russian program to secure the weapons-grade material stocks has been in place for six years, the bulk of the work is still to be done, including a basic accounting of how much material must be protected and how many labs have been made secure.

But budgets for the Department of Energy (DOE) programs dealing with Russian nuclear stocks have not grown to match the expected new demands, the report concluded, while relations with Russian energy officials have deteriorated and access to sensitive Russian sites has declined since 1996.

With Russia set to decommission even more nuclear warheads in the coming years, the danger that unaccounted nuclear material stocks could be acquired by international terrorists or a rogue regime such as Iraq has only increased, the study's authors contend.

"If the programs today don't work and this material falls into the hands of terrorists, the next nuclear disaster coming out of Russia will be much worse than what's going on with the submarine in the Barents Sea," said Kenneth N. Luongo, a study co-author and former senior adviser to the secretary of energy on nonproliferation issues.

A DOE spokeswoman, speaking on background, noted yesterday's report praised a number of U.S. government nonproliferation programs, including one with Russia's naval nuclear forces.

"There's no higher priority for this department than securing these nuclear materials," the spokeswoman said, pointing out that funding for protection and control of Russian nuclear material had gone from $15 million in 1994 to $150 million this year.

Mr. Luongo said the joint U.S.-Russian program has had some successes but had lost much of the momentum built up in the program's early years. Experienced DOE personnel left the program, and the issue faded from the nation's newspapers, he said.

Diplomatic missteps including a 1999 DOE decision to cancel a number of new contracts under the program in a dispute over access to sensitive Russian weapons labs have also created resentment in Moscow.

Mr. Bunn called the cancellation of the contracts a "blunder of colossal proportions."

But the DOE spokeswoman said the cancellation reflected a "conscious decision to only spend our money on projects where we feel we have sufficient access to ensure the work is being done properly." Talks are under way with Russian energy officials about reopening the sealed labs and renewing the contracts.

The report, produced for the Russian-American Nuclear Security Advisory Council, recommends putting the control of Russia's nuclear material at the top of the U.S.-Russian security agenda; increasing the funds, personnel, and coordination of U.S. agencies involved in the effort; enhancing lab-to-lab contacts between U.S. and Russian scientists; and encouraging Russia to improve its regulation of nuclear facilities while consolidating stocks in a few well-monitored sites.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide