issues threaten nuclear security programs
USA TODAY, Washington, 27 July 2003
By Peter Eisler
Original address: http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2003-07-27-russia-usat_x.htm
The Bush administration has decided not to renew
two U.S.-Russian agreements that form the basis for cooperative efforts
to cut plutonium stockpiles and keep Russia's nuclear weapons material
— and expertise — out of terrorists' hands.
The administration wants stronger liability protections
than the 10-year-old agreements provide for U.S. agencies and contractors
that work in Russia on the security projects. It is trying to negotiate
new terms. The decision not to renew the agreements may provide leverage
to get the Russians to accept new terms.
The impasse threatens to derail two programs that
send Russia hundreds of millions of dollars to secure nuclear material
and employ weapons scientists in peaceful jobs. President Bush has hailed
those efforts as a key tool to prevent enemy states and terrorist groups
from obtaining nuclear arms — or luring cash-strapped Russian
scientists to help them.
"This is a big deal," says one administration
official who is involved in the negotiations. The affected programs
will continue to run at least through the end of this year even though
their agreements will have expired, he adds, but "this has to be
resolved for these programs to proceed" in the long term.
Officials at the White House and State Department
declined to comment on the record.
At issue are:
disposition program. This program aims to have Russia
and the United States convert 34 tons each of excess plutonium into
mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel for civilian nuclear power plants. The United
States has agreed to contribute $400 million to help Russia build storage
and conversion facilities, which will cost $2 billion to complete and
run over 20 years. A similar U.S. operation is to be built at the Energy
Department's Savannah River nuclear weapons facility in South Carolina.
The program agreement expired last week.
•The Nuclear Cities
Initiative. This program helps Russia shut down nuclear
weapons production sites that operated as closed cities during the Cold
War. The U.S. program spends about $20 million a year to upgrade infrastructure
at Russia's nuclear cities and shift weapons experts into new work.
It helped close the Avangard nuclear warhead plant at Sarov, Russia,
and is slated to help shutter another facility in coming years. The
program agreement expires in September.
U.S. officials want to ensure that Russia will not
take legal action against the United States or its contractors if something
goes wrong on one of the projects. This might include an accident in
handling nuclear material that could cause injuries or environmental
But there has been little headway in three years
of negotiations, according to several administration and congressional
officials. Russian officials could not be reached over the weekend for
Some supporters of the programs want the administration
to renew the legal agreements as they exist now. New liability protections
could then be negotiated later without risking a shutdown of the programs,
In a letter to Bush last week, Rep. Ike Skelton
of Missouri, senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee,
warned against setting up a situation in which the nuclear security
programs could collapse. "We urge your administration not to adopt
a position so rigid," said the letter, signed by four other Democratic
members of Congress.
The stakes are especially high on the MOX project,
perhaps the most ambitious and costly of the various "threat reduction"
initiatives run by U.S. agencies to help stop the spread of nuclear,
biological and chemical weapons technology from former Soviet states.
If an agreement isn't reached and funding stops for the Russian part
of the project, work on the U.S. MOX plant also would stall. It is supposed
to be built at the same time as the plant in Russia.
"That's precisely why we're continuing work
under these programs" while talks continue, says Bryan Wilkes,
spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which runs
the programs. "We believe these legal issues can be worked out."
The administration wants the programs covered by
the same liability terms that govern virtually all other U.S. threat-reduction
initiatives in Russia — language that gives U.S. agencies and
contractors blanket protection from lawsuits.
The two agreements in question allow Russia to take
legal action if there is a problem.