President Boris Yeltsin yesterday transferred the long-serving head of the Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM), Viktor Mikhailov, to an unnamed research position. Sources in the ministry said that Mikhailov — who will soon be sixty-four years old — initiated the move. (Russian media, March 2) A change in the leadership of this important ministry could have a far-reaching effect on Russian-American relations. Mikhailov’s relationship with American officials and legislators was a rocky one. His ministry deals both with the civilian aspects of atomic power and with Russia’s nuclear weapons arsenal. He often ruffled more American feathers than otherwise in both of these spheres.
A former weapons designer himself, Mikhailov was a strong advocate for the development of new Russian nuclear weapons. Recently, he blasted the government plans to close one of the two weapons design laboratories. Last year, he tweaked U.S. noses by surreptitiously buying several high-powered American computers for one of these labs despite a ban on such sales. He was also tireless in his efforts to export nuclear technology and raw materials, sometimes signing agreements with countries on the Washington black list — such as Syria and Iran.
One of the highest U.S. priorities in international relations has been to curb nuclear proliferation. Here, Mikhailov has played a contradictory role. Russia’s large nuclear weapons stockpile falls under two jurisdictions: the military and MINATOM. Although the Ministry of Defense has been surprisingly cooperative in accepting U.S. help in protecting and monitoring its nuclear weapons, MINATOM has all too often been less so. Mikhailov did approve of the program in which the United States will eventually buy 500 tons of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium derived from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons, but he has often balked at the implementing negotiations. Much of his concern has been to protect and expand Russia’s role as an exporter of uranium for research and power-generation purposes. MINATOM is responsible for the storage and security of weapons components and fissile material. As more and more Russian nuclear weapons are retired and disassembled, the MINATOM transportation and storage infrastructure grows even more overloaded. Mikhailov has denied that there is a problem and has refused most Western initiatives to help. Officials in Washington are undoubtedly hoping his successor will be more cooperative.