July 2003

Liability 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

[Posted 29/07/2003]

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:

•The plutonium 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 damage.

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 comment.

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, they say.

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.

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