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Date: May 18, 1999
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United States Should Continue
To Help Control Spread of Russian Nuclear Materials

WASHINGTON -- In response to heightened concern that plutonium and uranium could be stolen or diverted from facilities in Russia to create nuclear weapons, the U.S. government should continue supporting a cooperative program dedicated to improving the security of Russian nuclear materials for at least a decade, says a new report by a committee of the National Research Council. Russian nuclear materials that could be used in weapons are more extensively dispersed and inadequacies in security systems are more widespread than previously estimated.

Since a 1997 Research Council review of the joint program between the United States and Russia, the U.S. government has identified more facilities in Russia where nuclear materials are stored, and has determined that more extensive security upgrades are needed. Moreover, some Russian institutions do not have the funds to pay salaries or to ensure that security systems are installed and operated as intended. The recent decline in the Russian economy has resulted in financial hardship for many Russian government officials, nuclear specialists, and workers who have access to such material, the committee said, providing added incentive for materials to be stolen and sold illegally.

"Although joint efforts by Russia and the United States have strengthened security at many sites, we believe that terrorist groups or rogue nations have more opportunity to gain access to Russian plutonium and highly enriched uranium than previously estimated," said committee chair Richard Meserve, a partner of the law firm of Covington and Burling, Washington, D.C. "Given the current situation in Russia, reducing the risk of illicit transfer of nuclear materials will require years of steady work. Controlling the spread of these materials should be a high priority for U.S. national security."

The committee called on the U.S. government to continue funding the joint program for at least a decade. The government allocated $145 million to the program for the year 2000. That amount of funding should be maintained annually for at least the next five years, the committee said, and support for the program should continue at adequate levels thereafter. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which oversees the program, originally planned to have initial security upgrades completed by 2002. Substantial progress has been made in upgrading protection systems at several dozen buildings, consolidating hundreds of kilograms of material in fewer sites, and beginning a program to protect material for nuclear submarines. But work to strengthen security will need to continue for a much longer period of time. Adequate security systems have yet to be designed or installed at hundreds of buildings.

In addition, DOE should devote more resources to installing and operating accounting systems to track materials at Russian sites, the committee said. The program has not given adequate attention to these systems and has not completed inventories of existing material. Without a complete and accurate inventory of the nuclear material, there is no way to know for certain whether it has been lost or stolen. More funding should be devoted to maintaining and operating both physical protection and material accounting systems once they are installed.

Containing Material

About 1,350 metric tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium -- the building blocks of nuclear weapons -- are estimated to be located in many types of facilities and institutions in Russia. Roughly half of this material is incorporated in weapons; the other half is in various forms, such as metals, oxides, solutions, and scrap. A suitcase-full of plutonium or highly enriched uranium could provide enough material to make a nuclear bomb. The committee examined only the management of materials not contained in weapons.

Building upon the 1997 Research Council report, the committee identified several priorities that the program should address, including the following:

> Consolidating material into a fewer number of buildings. Storing materials at a few buildings on one site rather than many would improve security and reduce costs. In addition, more secure vehicles should be acquired for transporting material.

> Increasing Russia's capacity to manage and support nuclear security. U.S. funding should increasingly go to Russian -- rather than American -- organizations, and Russian enterprises should be encouraged to provide high-quality equipment and services. Moreover, a larger pool of Russian specialists should be trained to run security systems.

> Protecting large quantities of spent fuel once used for maritime purposes, research, and in breeder reactors. The extent of potential threats posed by such material from naval fuels and nuclear reactors needs more detailed investigation.

> Negotiating to remove political, legal, and administrative barriers that impede progress in the program. Security upgrades have been delayed because of difficulties in gaining access to sensitive facilities, poor understanding of tax and customs issues, and confusion about equipment certification requirements.

> Improving the management of U.S. personnel and financial resources. A clearer division of labor needs to be established between DOE headquarters and individual laboratories, which should design and implement the projects at the Russian sites. In addition, DOE should establish a Moscow office to address problems and coordinate activities with other DOE programs in Russia.

The study was funded by the Brookhaven National Laboratory. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit institution that provides independent advice on science and technology issues under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Read the full text of Protecting Nuclear Weapons Material in Russia for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).

National Research Council
Office of International Affairs
Office of Central Europe and Eurasia

Committee on Upgrading Russian Capabilities for Controlling
Highly Enriched Uranium and Plutonium