U.S. Nuclear Agency Reviewing All Russia Projects, Given Ukraine Crisis

The final shipment of former weapons-grade uranium from Russia is off-loaded in December at the Port of Baltimore in Maryland, as part of a 1993 U.S.-Russia nonproliferation accord. The U.S. Energy Department has said it is reviewing nuclear-security assistance to Moscow amid continuing bilateral discord over Russian actions in Ukraine.
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Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
April 1, 2014, 7:59 a.m.

The U.S. En­ergy De­part­ment’s nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity arm is re­view­ing its as­sist­ance to Rus­sia amid con­tinu­ing ten­sions with Mo­scow over Ukraine.

The Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion as­sess­ment is part of an En­ergy-wide “on­go­ing in­tern­al re­view of Rus­si­an-re­lated activ­it­ies,” de­part­ment spokes­man Bill Gib­bons said in a state­ment last week. The re­view comes against a back­drop of West­ern con­cerns that Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin’s forces might seek to fur­ther en­croach on former So­viet or Warsaw Pact ter­rit­ory fol­low­ing the an­nex­a­tion of Ukraine’s Crimean Pen­in­sula.

It was not im­me­di­ately clear to what ex­tent the En­ergy re­view would con­sider the nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity and non­pro­lif­er­a­tion work con­duc­ted by NNSA of­fi­cials. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in the past has tried to in­su­late such U.S.-Rus­sia co­oper­a­tion from any for­eign policy dis­agree­ments with the former Cold War rival.

However, at least one nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity as­sist­ance-re­lated pro­ject already has been can­celed. Gib­bons said the agency had de­cided to drop a re­quest in its fisc­al 2015 budget pro­pos­al for fund­ing train­ing equip­ment that would be used by Rus­si­an se­cur­ity forces as they prac­tice re­sponses to pos­sible at­tacks on nuc­le­ar-ma­ter­i­al trans­ports or sites hous­ing these sens­it­ive ma­ter­i­als.

“The [fisc­al 2015] budget re­quest was de­veloped long be­fore the cur­rent situ­ation with Rus­sia un­fol­ded,” said Gib­bons, adding that the de­part­ment had already de­cided to res­cind the fund­ing pro­pos­al be­fore two U.S. law­makers raised ob­jec­tions to the pro­ject in a re­cent let­ter sent to En­ergy Sec­ret­ary Ern­est Mon­iz.

Rep­res­ent­at­ives Mi­chael Turn­er (R-Ohio) and Jim Briden­stine (R-Okla.) warned in their March 24 let­ter that it would be a “mis­take” to con­tin­ue provid­ing Rus­sia with the Mul­tiple In­teg­rated Laser En­gage­ment Sys­tem equip­ment. “It is dif­fi­cult to ima­gine a worse time to provide mil­it­ary-grade tech­no­logy” to Rus­sia, the law­makers wrote.

At the same time, Briden­stine ap­peared to mock the pur­pose of the tech­no­logy trans­fer, call­ing it “laser tag” in a March 24 blog post.

The two House mem­bers also re­ques­ted the de­part­ment provide to them by the end of April a list of all fisc­al 2015 NNSA fund­ing re­quests for tech­no­logy or ser­vice sup­port to Rus­sia. They ad­di­tion­ally asked for an in­tel­li­gence as­sess­ment of wheth­er any of the tech­no­logy in­ten­ded for use in Rus­sia could be util­ized for pur­poses oth­er than nuc­le­ar non­pro­lif­er­a­tion.

The laser equip­ment was to be used at a Ros­atom train­ing fa­cil­ity and at a Rus­si­an in­tern­al af­fairs min­istry train­ing cen­ter, where se­cur­ity per­son­nel are in­struc­ted on how to pro­tect ci­vil­ian atom­ic sites in the coun­try. The tech­no­logy was meant “to sup­port ef­fect­ive pro­tect­ive force per­form­ance test­ing,” ac­cord­ing to the En­ergy De­part­ment’s fisc­al 2015 budget pro­pos­al. The de­part­ment had been seek­ing $1.9 mil­lion for the gear, ac­cord­ing to an NNSA of­fi­cial who re­ques­ted an­onym­ity, lack­ing au­thor­iz­a­tion to be pub­licly named.

It was un­clear wheth­er Turn­er and Briden­stine were sat­is­fied with the En­ergy De­part­ment steps to stop trans­fer of the laser sys­tem. The law­makers’ of­fices said they were un­able to of­fer com­ment on the mat­ter by press time.

King­ston Re­if, a policy ana­lyst with the Cen­ter for Arms Con­trol and Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion, said in an email that the de­cision to res­cind the re­quest for the laser tech­no­logy “raises ques­tions” about wheth­er Pentagon and NNSA of­fi­cials are re­con­sid­er­ing mov­ing for­ward with oth­er non­pro­lif­er­a­tion pro­jects in Rus­sia.

Over the years, En­ergy’s semi­autonom­ous Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion has provided bil­lions of dol­lars in mon­et­ary, in-kind and tech­nic­al as­sist­ance to Rus­sia. The pro­jects in­clude a range of nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity and non­pro­lif­er­a­tion-re­lated activ­it­ies. A num­ber of ef­forts to lock down and re­duce vul­ner­able stock­piles of So­viet-era atom­ic and ra­di­olo­gic­al ma­ter­i­als have been con­cluded or are wind­ing down, al­though some co­oper­at­ive work has con­tin­ued.

NNSA of­fi­cials earli­er this month ac­know­ledged the situ­ation in Ukraine likely would have an ef­fect on ef­forts to ham­mer out lan­guage with Mo­scow on a new bi­lat­er­al ac­cord that would re­place an ex­pired nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity co­oper­a­tion um­brella agree­ment. However, the agency said it did not an­ti­cip­ate that any on­go­ing con­tract­or work in Rus­sia would be not­ably in­ter­rup­ted by the up­tick in ten­sions with the Krem­lin.

A sampling of some of the U.S.-Rus­sia nuc­le­ar non­pro­lif­er­a­tion col­lab­or­a­tion planned for fisc­al 2015 in­cludes wrap­ping up work on con­sol­id­at­ing the re­mainder of Rus­sia’s most sens­it­ive cat­egor­ies of atom­ic ma­ter­i­als at a new high-se­cur­ity in­stall­a­tion in the coun­try; boost­ing phys­ic­al pro­tec­tions at mul­tiple sites that pro­cess bulk nuc­le­ar sub­stances; and fin­ish­ing se­cur­ity up­grades at entry points for two ma­jor weapon-design fa­cil­it­ies.

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