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Securing Fissile Material in the Former Soviet Union

Deputy Secretary of Energy Charles B. Curtis

Secretary Curtis is chief operating officer of the Department of Energy with direct responsibility for all defense, national security, energy, science and technology programs. These are his comments to the Roundtable on February 28, 1996.

February 28, 1996
The defense responsibilities of the Department of Energy (DOE) range from providing for the support of nuclear deterrence in the absence of testing, to being an effective advocate for the dismantlement of nuclear weapons, to fostering nuclear safety and, importantly for these purposes, to securing fissile materials anywhere in the world, particularly focused these days on the former Soviet states. Our activities to secure materials tend to group into efforts to secure them at the site and to make it possible to remove and dispose of them. We want to engage the Russians in cooperative agreements for the disposition of these dangerous materials. Such programs focus on:

  • Materials protection, control and accounting (MPC&A)

  • The U.S. purchase of weapons-grade materials from the former Soviet Union, which takes the present form of the Russian HEU deal

  • The plutonium production reactor shut-down to help the Russians conclude the production of weapons-grade plutonium at Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk

  • Disposal of surplus fissile materials.

In these informal remarks, I will focus particularly on the MPC&A activities.

First, I want to say, and clearly say, that the nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union are very, I mean very, vulnerable to theft and black market transaction. Our intelligence estimates determine that weapons-usable materials are located in 80 to 100 facilities (buildings) at some 40 sites, mostly in Russia, but also in the Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Uzbekistan and Georgia.

The analysis of known smuggling incidents identify the materials as probably originating from research-oriented activities in Russia, not from weapons activities. All of the facilities in Russia need major MPC&A improvements to replace what was a labor-intensive, surveillance-based system of materials control with a dependable technology-based substitute.

The Russians were highly dependent on guards, guns and gates. But the Russians added to these guards, guns and gates restrictions on movement and surveillance systems largely exercised through the Communist Party. After the break up of the Soviet Union, they lost both the restrictions on movement and the surveillance system of the Communist Party, an estimated (by some) 50 - 60 percent loss in their security system. We are trying to help replace that with a technology-based substitute.

Obstacles: Efforts under the earlier days of the Nunn-Lugar program to implement MPC&A in the former Soviet Union through government-to-government agreements were generally frustrated by a combination of factors.

First and foremost of these is the lack of trust between former adversaries trying to agree on matters critical to national security programs. Overcoming that lack of trust is a significant hurdle and a barrier to progress.

It was also a problem gaining government-to-government permission required for agreements for MPC&A. A big part of that is the lack of a declassification system in the former Soviet Union that parallels what we have in the U.S. So, all the cooperation and all the former Soviet Union participants in that cooperation were at risk of being second-guessed any time they provided sensitive information.

In the Spring of 1994, the DOE tried a different tack with the "Lab-to-Lab" program between Russian institutes and our national laboratories. The "Lab-to-Lab" program, run out of the DOE Non-Proliferation Office, was designed to build trust -- to overcome the old Cold War mistrust. The program has built a strong advocacy for cooperation in the scientific community. It is important to note that government permission was not required, only acquiescence. Russia and the former Soviet republics have willingly advertized this "Lab-to-Lab" program, and we celebrate the success of this collaboration together.

DOE's role in securing fissile material in the former Soviet Union is not to do it for them, but to help them develop indigenous capabilities based upon U.S. materials and technology. Funding is not the foremost problem, the problem is expanding the opportunities to work on securing their fissile materials. Trust is still the issue here. We are addressing the most urgent concerns based upon a joint plan.


  • Increased funding from $2 million in1994 to $26 million in 1995 and $70 million for 1996; a budget authority of over $400 million is requested for fiscal years 1996 - 2002.

  • Fissile material secured in the former Soviet Union increased from only kilograms in 1994 to over 8 tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium in 1995 with plans to secure hundreds of tons of HEU and plutonium at the Mayak and Obninsk facilities, where materials were very vulnerable to theft.

  • Expanding the scope of work from one facility in 1994, to 26 in 1995, to over 30 planned for 1996 following the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission (GCC) meetings in February 1996.

  • U.S. and Russian scientists have jointly developed MPC&A methods and technologies for use throughout the MINATOM nuclear weapons complex and progress is being made on Arzamas-16 and Tomsk-7 sites. Some of the more useful devices have been eveloped in the former Soviet Union.

  • The Arzamas lab developed a system that takes a "nuclear fingerprint" of the material in a container. If any part of that nuclear fingerprint changes, the passport system will reveal there has been some invasion of the integrity of the container.

  • At Kurchatov Institute in Building 116, there were thousands of plutonium and HEU pellets in storage rooms at the street level, locked with only a padlock, with no armed guards and with open doors. This building is now secured by a portal monitor.
  • Outside of Russia: Project Sapphire. The U.S. purchased, provided physical protection for, and exported 600 kg of fissile material from Kazakhstan. These materials are now being blended down in the U.S. into commercial-grade fissile material (LEU) under IAEA supervision. Part of the urgency of getting the material out was information suggesting that it was particularly at risk from Iran - the intelligence information pretty clearly indicated Iran.

  • Under the U.S.-Russian 1993 HEU Agreement, the U.S. will purchase 500 tons HEU from former Soviet nuclear weapons, including former Soviet weapons based in Ukraine. This agreement was central to Ukraine becoming part of the NPT.

  • The Industrial Partnering Program (IPP), sponsored in 1994 by Senator Pete Dominici, is a complimentary program to MPC&A efforts in the Lab-to-Lab program. It works to provide employment for former Soviet nuclear weapons personnel to prevent fissile materials diversion and a "brain drain" to rogue states nuclear weapons programs.

DOE's IPP efforts concentrate on providing employment for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons scientists, engineers and technicians. We are working through our IPP program on the problem of preventing former Soviet scientists from working for rogue states. IPP defense conversion plans include growth from 34 partnership agreements in 1994 with private industries and former Russian defense industries, to over 200 partnerships in 1996. Each dollar DOE invests is more than matched by the U.S. private sector, with the result that roughly 2,000 former weapons scientists are being employed for peaceful purposes.

Another proliferation concern is the Middle East. Energy demand projections to 2010 predict 25 billion barrels of oil per day will be needed. Fifteen billion of these barrels will be from the Persian Gulf. Accumulated, this will mean one to two trillion dollars of additional revenue going into that unstable region, likely accenting the future proliferation problem.

The threat of proliferation of nuclear materials is also from inside. Azamas-16 has 90,000 people still living in "closed-city" conditions without enough work to do or enough funding, and with access to easily portable fissile materials. Oblinsk, a site I visited, had thousands of discs which anyone could easily steal. Now we have portal monitors at all (DOE-assisted) secured facilities, up to 30 secured facilities by 1996. But we will still have to be lucky in the process to achieve our goals.

In the dismantlement process, we want to basically get a "chain of custody" so that we can show that this material is coming out of weapons. This potentially requires us to be in places they don't want us to be in and sometimes to see and confirm materials that have "classified shapes."

We've developed this program we call "pit in a pot." We basically take the pit from a weapon -- in essence the primary -- and put it in a 55-gallon drum. We've developed a system where we can gain mutual assurance that there is a disabled pit in there. We can easily do it knowing there is nuclear material in there without revealing the internals of the classified shape. We are trying to solve this problem through an exchange of classified information agreement to address those types of projects."

A journalist who has written extensively on this issue noted that: "Secretary Curtis conveyed to me what was the most striking aspect of this situation: the scale of the problem is so large in contrast to the resources available and the ability to put those resources into action. I am somewhat skeptical that, in the time frame we are talking about, we can prevent the leakage of some of these materials. The difficulty is that it doesn't take much leakage, but even some could have a big impact on someone's weapons program. I agree with Secretary Curtis: we must do whatever we can do, but we will still have to be lucky."

Secretary Curtis answered questions from the Roundtable:

  • There is reason to believe that these materials are at risk from certain usual suspects in the Middle East.

  • If naval nuclear propulsion materials are in institutes and laboratories, as opposed to fuel fabrication facilities, then we are getting a hold of it through the MPA&C program on Lab-to-Lab. We are, with the DOD, also engaged in a process to get access to the naval facilities to secure the materials there. That is a trickier issue that we are working on with DOD.

  • There is no evidence of support in the Russian Duma for these activities. The Duma's posture here is more one of stopping what we're doing than showing support. The program still works because it does not require their explicit permission, only their acquiescence.

Notes by Leigh Anne Miller


Department of Energy Reducing the Nuclear Danger: Inventory of U.S. Department of Energy Nonproliferation and Nuclear Threat Reduction Initiatives

R. Jeffrey Smith, "Nuclear Theft Potential Worries U.S. : DOE Plans $330 Million Boost in Security at Sites in the Ex-Soviet Union." Washington Post February 29, 1996, Sec. A p. 14.

Department of Energy, Office of Nonproliferation and National Security.

The Nuclear Roundtable with Dr. Ashton B. Carter, Department of Defense, Nunn-Lugar Efforts in Russia under DOD's Cooperative Threat Reduction Project, November 16, 1995, Washington, D.C.

The Nuclear Roundtable with Alexander Yereskovsky, Rodney Jones and Leonard Spector, US-Russian Relations After the Duma Elections, January 4, 1996, Washington, DC.

Soviet Nuclear Power Plant Designs from the International Nuclear Saftey Center Database. Includes a link to a map of the reactor sites

U.S. Department of State. Home Page on the Newly Independent States of the Former Soviet Union. Includes daily news updates.

Department of Energy, Office of Nonproliferation and National Security.

Department of Energy. Declassified Facts About the U.S. Nuclear Stockpile

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