Global Reporting
Network Publications

After Mikhailov: Progress Report on U.S.-Russian Nuclear Cooperation

Global Beat Issue Brief No. 31
By Todd Perry Copyright 1998*, March 26, 1998

While the big nuclear story from Russia last month was the end of Victor Mikhailov's undisputed reign over the powerful Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom), a less noticed though potentially more far reaching set of events transpired days before his demotion.

In late February, an American delegation led by U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Director of Non-Proliferation and National Security Rose Gottmoeller, attended a series of ceremonies and visits in Russia commemorating the completion of joint U.S.-Russian efforts to protect and control Russian nuclear materials at three civilian research institutes.

The three institutes located in and around Moscow each operate one or more nuclear research reactors, and store small, hundred kilogram quantities of explosive or "fissile" nuclear weapons-usable materials on site for use in the reactors. Less than ten kilograms of fissile material is required to make a rudimentary nuclear explosive device, and less still is required to construct a radiological contamination device. An estimated 1,200 metric tons of fissile materials is spread across 50 sites in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Roughly half of this is believed to be in weapons form.

Joint nuclear material security efforts were initiated by Mikhailov and former U.S. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary in late 1993. Mikhailov had long understood the enormous nuclear proliferation risk posed by the storage of weapons-usable nuclear materials throughout Russia. But initial U.S. offers of government-to-government assistance foundered on attempts to link assistance to Russia's release of detailed information about its fissile material stockpiles. The Russian government balked at this demand, thereby preventing a range of cooperative activities from moving forward.

O'Leary offered Mikhailov a fresh approach. She proposed that U.S. national laboratory scientists, who are nominally independent of U.S. governmental agencies, make themselves available to assist in nuclear security upgrades. The offer required that the scientists obtain only that information about Russian nuclear materials required to scale U.S. assistance to the accountancy and physical protection needs of individual facilities.

Having participated in some of the very first U.S.-Soviet weapons laboratory scientific exchanges during the 1980's, Mikhailov warmed quickly to O'Leary's proposal. The collaborative relationship between the two secretaries soon formed the basis for a rapidly expanding "lab-to-lab" effort. The U.S. is slated to spend over $150 million on this effort next year, and expects to spend a total of $800 million by 2002.

Over the past several years, the lab-to-lab program has served, along with the work of the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission, as the backbone for expanding U.S.-Russian cooperation on a range of non-proliferation and nuclear safety projects. This approach was vital to the collaboration that culminated in a 1997 agreement between Minatom and the Pentagon's Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program to jointly convert the three remaining Russian military reactors to civilian use.

Despite the greatly expanded cooperation of the past several years, visits to the three institutes demonstrated that serious obstacles on both sides must be overcome to assure the long-term success of recently installed security and materials accountancy upgrades. The lack of Russian governmental funding for wages is of the most immediate concern. By procuring technologies and services in Russia where joint programs are underway, U.S. nuclear materials security assistance has helped mitigate some of the worst effects of Russia's economic crisis at sites where fissile materials are stored.

However, few facilities know where their funding will be coming from over the long-term; even fewer have the wherewithal to attract young scientists for the material protection tasks that must be performed indefinitely. Aging workforces at facilities like the Institute for Theoretical Engineering and Physics (ITEP) also place the integrity of U.S.-sponsored security upgrades at long-term risk.

These problems will be less acute at facilities that are able to attract or generate other, non-governmental sources of income. For example, a recent tour of the Karpov Institute revealed that an aggressive marketing plan for medical devices and other items produced on site has given institute officials the hope that they will be able to commit resources to their new and expanded security and accounting systems over the long-haul. A tour of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR), a research center with a history of international cooperation, showed that funds from outside collaborative research projects will undoubtedly serve a similar purpose.

American policy makers recognize the challenge of sustaining cooperative nuclear security efforts in Russia, but have so far been unable to fully focus on the problem. Two separate programs may provide some important levers to sustain security and accountancy systems now being installed. The Department of Energy's Incentives for Proliferation Prevention attempts to create joint economic ventures by matching Russian facilities with private U.S. companies. And many of the scientific research projects managed by the U.S. State Department's multilaterally funded International Science and Technology Centers are chosen for the longer-term, commercial potential.

Both programs were developed to prevent Russian scientists and technicians from selling their skills to countries or organizations intent upon acquiring weapons of mass destruction. By funding projects in and around facilities where nuclear protection is taking place, including technology development projects of direct use in nuclear materials protection projects, these programs have made an important contribution. With funding of only $45 million this year, though, it is quite unclear that the scale of these initiatives is adequate to the need.

There is no consensus within the U.S. government that support for nuclear materials security should become an explicit objective of these programs. Despite a U.S.-Russian agreement at the March 1998 Gore-Chernomyrdin commission to pay especially close attention to economic development in the large nuclear cities where the bulk of Russia's fissile materials are stored, the Clinton Administration's combined 1999 request for the IPP and the science centers has been reduced to $38 million.

The problem of policy coordination is infinitely more acute on the Russian side. Under Mikhailov, there was no clear Minatom policy to consolidate the Russian weapons complex or to otherwise size it to current weapons maintenance and materials protection needs. An effort by the Minatom-based Atominform to track nuclear materials throughout Russia is still in its infancy. With U.S. assistance, Atominform is preparing a pilot project to integrate information from several institutes into a centralized data system, but the configuration and requirements of this system are still very much in dispute within Minatom and other agencies.

On the positive side, the Russian nuclear regulatory agency Gostamadzor or "GAN" appears to be taking a more active role in assuring the safety of Russian nuclear activities. GAN officials attended two of the three February commissioning ceremonies, and noted that they expect a governmental decree to be issued sometime next year that will give them more access to Minatom's military nuclear activities in the nuclear cities.

The access enjoyed by the Russian media to the February commissioning ceremonies also represents a positive trend for joint materials protection and other non-proliferation activities. In some respects, Russian nuclear managers are living through a period similar to the one experienced by their U.S. counterparts during the late 1980's. Faced with mounting public concerns about the nuclear legacy of the Cold War, and with the prospects for ever-declining budgets, U.S. site managers opened their doors to the media and to non-governmental organizations in the hope of reversing negative public attitudes towards their work. This prompted sharp increases in budgets for physical protection and environmental remediation.

Prospects for such publicly-driven funding increases are far more remote in Russia. But it is abundantly clear that the directors and staff of the three institutes realize that openness and professionalism are prerequisites for attracting outside governmental assistance to support joint nuclear protection, scientific, and entrepreneurial projects. These officials cope with the stresses of doing their utmost to fulfill a wide range of responsibilities while facing great uncertainty about the relationship between their efforts and future pay-offs. Meanwhile they must worry about the on going, immediate risk of nuclear theft.

While Americans tend to worry about the potential theft or diversion of nuclear-ready materials to Iran, Russian institute staff repeatedly raised the concern that Chechen rebels would attempt to steal materials in order to commit acts of nuclear or radiological terrorism. The national security imperative of materials protection is therefore clear for both sides. The question remains how both can best organize their joint efforts to maximize their use of limited resources.

Todd Perry is Washington Representative for Arms Control and International Security at the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). For additional information on U.S.-funded non-proliferation assistance, see "Nunn-Lugar's Unfinished Agenda," in Arms Control Today, October, 1997

Todd Perry
Union of Concerned Scientists
1616 P St.,
N.W. Washington, DC 20036
Tel: 202-332-0900;
Fax: 202-332-0905

Return to Global Beat Home Page

Nuclear Watch | East Asian Security | Economic & Monetary Union |

NATO Expansion | Nuclear Weapons and Proliferation |

U.S. Defense Policy | Publications | Events |

Experts Directory | Links Directory |

About the GRN |