Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 100

One of the greatest fears spawned by the implosion of the Soviet Union is that Russian nuclear weapons, or the fissile material necessary to build them, might fall into the wrong hands. While the American government has provided a considerable amount of money and technical assistance to forestall such an outcome, two recent reports indicate that much more needs to be done. Last month the General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report covering the U.S. Defense Department’s effort to assist the Russians in building a secure storage site at the Mayak facility, near Chelyabinsk, for the nuclear material from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons (The report also gave a gloomy assessment of the program to build the pilot plant to destroy Russia’s vast arsenal of chemical weapons.). Earlier this month, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences issued its report on the programs of the U.S. Department of Energy to help the Russians account for, protect and control the part of the stockpile of bomb material–plutonium and highly enriched uranium–not in weapons.

While the Russians publicly bridle at any suggestion that their nuclear weapons and material are not adequately protected, they have to admit in their negotiations with the Americans that they simply cannot pay their share of the costs of these programs. The Mayak facility, for example, was to have been able to store 50,000 containers of fissile material and to have been put in operation this year, at a cost of US$275 million to the U.S. government, to cover only the design and construction of the buildings. With the Russians unable to come up with their agreed share of the funding, the program has been scaled back to half its original size and will not be operational until 2002. The United States will now contribute US$636 million to the program–a sum which could grow to nearly US$1.3 billion if a decision is made to go ahead with the original plan. Washington wants to ensure that the fissile material stored at Mayak has come from dismantled weapons and will not be weaponized again in the future. Here, the traditional Soviet/Russian paranoia about secrecy has caused a problem. The Russians still have not agreed to the transparency measures the U.S. Congress demands. This hurdle might not be cleared any more easily in the future, given the current Russian interest in new tactical nuclear weapons and renewed nuclear testing at the “sub-critical” level.

The National Research Council report urges the Department of Energy to sustain, and possibly even increase, its current annual support of US$175 million over the next five years. As tensions between the U.S. and Russia increase, however, many in Congress might think that American money provided for these projects would allow Russia to divert scarce funds to programs inimical to American interests–such as nuclear weapons design and testing. The Russians have certainly tried to milk the U.S. cash cow for as much as they can. In 1998 the U.S. Department of Defense balked at paying US$76 million for such nonessential items as a car wash, bus station and heating plant in Mayak. Washington finally agreed to pay for a fire station and said they might reconsider the heating plant. The Department of Energy, on the other hand, agreed last winter to provide US$600,000 in emergency funds to clothe and feed the guards at remote nuclear storage facilities to ensure that they would stay on the job (Russian and international media, May 18-20).