U.S. Nuclear Security Efforts in Russia Stalled Amid Ongoing Ukraine Crisis

Troops under Russian command assemble before getting into trucks near the Ukrainian military base they are blockading on Wednesday in Perevalne, Ukraine. The Obama administration has been critical of the Russian action, and the crisis could further delay stalled U.S. nuclear security efforts in Russia.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
March 5, 2014, 9:43 a.m.

U.S. En­ergy De­part­ment ef­forts to se­cure vul­ner­able nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als in Rus­sia have stalled fol­low­ing the ex­pir­a­tion of a long-held agree­ment with Mo­scow last sum­mer, an agency of­fi­cial said on Tues­day.

The now-tenu­ous situ­ation in neigh­bor­ing Ukraine may fur­ther delay the ini­ti­at­ives, ac­cord­ing to Anne Har­ring­ton, deputy ad­min­is­trat­or for de­fense nuc­le­ar non­pro­lif­er­a­tion at the de­part­ment’s semi­autonom­ous Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The so-called Co­oper­at­ive Threat Re­duc­tion um­brella agree­ment ex­pired in June, in part be­cause Mo­scow was no longer in­ter­ested in ex­tend­ing a pact that shiel­ded the U.S. gov­ern­ment and its con­tract­ors from vir­tu­ally all li­ab­il­ity from in­cid­ents that could oc­cur dur­ing the course of work on Rus­si­an soil.

The 20-year-old-ac­cord is of­ten re­ferred to as the “Nunn-Lugar” agree­ment, due to the roles former Sen­at­ors Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) played in for­ging the pact as the So­viet Uni­on was col­lapsing.

Much of the work un­der the agree­ment was con­duc­ted by the U.S. De­fense De­part­ment and its con­tract­ors un­der the Pentagon’s Co­oper­at­ive Threat Re­duc­tion pro­gram. However, En­ergy De­part­ment non­pro­lif­er­a­tion pro­grams also played a sig­ni­fic­ant role in help­ing lock down vul­ner­able nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als leftover from the Cold War.

Fol­low­ing the agree­ment’s ex­pir­a­tion, Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials as­ser­ted last sum­mer that most En­ergy De­part­ment work in Rus­sia would con­tin­ue un­fettered. Har­ring­ton told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire in Au­gust that while im­ple­ment­ing lan­guage for a new pact with Mo­scow was still be­ing worked out, she did not ex­pect any sig­ni­fic­ant in­ter­rup­tions to En­ergy’s con­tract­or work in Rus­sia.

However, Har­ring­ton said on Tues­day that ne­go­ti­ations per­tain­ing to the im­ple­ment­ing lan­guage were tak­ing longer than ex­pec­ted. The cur­rent situ­ation in Ukraine — in which the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has cri­ti­cized the ap­par­ent pres­ence of Rus­si­an troops in the former So­viet re­pub­lic — could fur­ther hamper the ne­go­ti­ations, Har­ring­ton said.

“We are act­ively in the pro­cess of ne­go­ti­at­ing those changes to the agree­ment, but ob­vi­ously the cur­rent situ­ation between Rus­sia and Ukraine — and what de­cisions the White House and the pres­id­ent make on the fu­ture of our en­gage­ment with Rus­sia — is to be de­term­ined,” said Har­ring­ton.

In the in­ter­im, En­ergy De­part­ment ef­forts to fin­ish se­cur­ing vul­ner­able nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als have been put on hold, said Har­ring­ton, who was asked to ex­plain pro­posed cuts in the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fisc­al 2015 budget pro­pos­al.

“Un­til we have the con­tracts back in place, we had to sus­pend work at a vari­ety of sites and so the fund­ing and the teams of ex­perts are stand­ing eagerly ready to go back to work,” Har­ring­ton said dur­ing a con­fer­ence call with re­port­ers re­gard­ing the newly de­livered budget re­quest. “That just is one of those vic­tims — any­time you have a ma­jor agree­ment or con­tract change there are a lot of tech­nic­al is­sues that go in­to mak­ing everything work smoothly again.”

A sum­mary of the 2015 budget pro­pos­al, re­leased Tues­day, at­trib­uted a planned 27 per­cent cut to the In­ter­na­tion­al Ma­ter­i­al Pro­tec­tion and Co­oper­a­tion pro­gram in part on the ex­pir­a­tion of the Co­oper­at­ive Threat Re­duc­tion um­brella agree­ment.

Har­ring­ton said this was par­tially the res­ult of a freeze on work aimed at se­cur­ing build­ings in Rus­sia where sens­it­ive nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als are stored.

“Some of the fi­nal phys­ic­al se­cur­ity work at the build­ings in Rus­sia that we’ve been work­ing on has been sus­pen­ded,” Har­ring­ton said. “All of the build­ings have some per­cent­age of the up­grades — any­where between 40 and 70 per­cent of the up­grades at all of the build­ings were com­pleted — but we’ve had to wait to fin­ish the rest of build­ings.”

Arms con­trol ad­voc­ates are cri­ti­ciz­ing the Obama budget plan, which on the whole would cut En­ergy De­part­ment non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ef­forts by 20 per­cent, while at the same time boost­ing the agency’s spend­ing on nuc­le­ar weapons by nearly 7 per­cent. The nuc­le­ar-weapons pro­grams would re­ceive $8.3 bil­lion, while the non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ef­forts would re­ceive $1.6 bil­lion.

“Clearly, a con­trib­ut­ing factor is that Rus­sia has evolved in­to a re­luct­ant and in­creas­ingly hos­tile part­ner in this area,” the ad­vocacy group Part­ner­ship for Glob­al Se­cur­ity said in a Wed­nes­day state­ment, not­ing that the budget plan also calls for the Pentagon Co­oper­at­ive Threat Re­duc­tion pro­gram to re­ceive a 23 per­cent cut. “But, Rus­si­an reti­cence does not ex­plain all the cuts. In fact, throughout his term, the pres­id­ent’s budgets for key nuc­le­ar con­trol ef­forts have been de­clin­ing.”

Pres­id­ent Obama has flagged nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity as a ma­jor pri­or­ity of his ad­min­is­tra­tion. One out­growth of that pledge has been a series of glob­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mits, the next of which is to oc­cur in The Neth­er­lands later this month.

That sum­mit ef­fort is in part re­spons­ible for the re­mov­al of all weapons-grade nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als from 12 coun­tries in re­cent years. Har­ring­ton told re­port­ers on Tues­day that the fisc­al 2015 budget plan would en­able the re­mov­al of an ad­di­tion­al 125 kilos of plutoni­um and highly en­riched urani­um.

On the whole, however, the Part­ner­ship for Glob­al Se­cur­ity ar­gued that “the sig­ni­fic­ant im­pres­sion this new budget leaves is that the ad­min­is­tra­tion does not un­der­stand that without con­tin­ued and strong U.S. lead­er­ship and fund­ing, this agenda will fade from the glob­al stage and that this is a ma­jor in­ter­na­tion­al se­cur­ity threat,” the group said.

The En­ergy De­part­ment’s Glob­al Threat Re­duc­tion Ini­ti­at­ive would be cut by 24 per­cent un­der the fisc­al 2015 plan, as com­pared to what Con­gress ap­proved for the cur­rent year. The non­profit Cen­ter for Arms Con­trol and Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion said in a Tues­day state­ment that this would amount to a roughly 70 per­cent cut, as com­pared to the fund­ing the pro­gram re­ceived three years ago.

Arms con­trol groups, along with some law­makers, have raised con­cerns in re­cent months that the pro­gram could fall be­hind in its ef­forts to se­cure com­mer­cial fa­cil­it­ies around the world that house ra­di­olo­gic­al ma­ter­i­al po­ten­tially us­able in a dirty bomb. These con­cerns were amp­li­fied when a po­tent ra­di­olo­gic­al source went miss­ing for a time in a stolen truck late last year in Mex­ico.

NNSA spokes­wo­man Keri Fulton told GSN on Wed­nes­day that based on cur­rent budget pro­jec­tions, the agency’s goal is to com­plete this work by 2044. Sen­ate ap­pro­pri­at­ors have pre­vi­ously cri­ti­cized this date as be­ing too far in the fu­ture, say­ing the pro­gram had pre­vi­ously vowed to se­cure 85,000 build­ings by 2025. So far, work on only 1,500 build­ings, or about 18 per­cent, has been com­pleted, the law­makers said.

On the nuc­le­ar-weapons side of the budget, the ad­min­is­tra­tion in the spend­ing re­quest does plan to delay by five years a plan to con­struct a new in­ter­op­er­able war­head that had been cri­ti­cized by arms con­trol groups and some law­makers. At the same time, however, it is look­ing to boost fund­ing to con­tro­ver­sial re­fur­bish­ments to the B-61 grav­ity bomb.

The Cen­ter for Arms Con­trol on Tues­day cri­ti­cized the ad­min­is­tra­tion for look­ing to fund such weapons pro­jects “on the back of key non­pro­lif­er­a­tion pro­grams.”

Ed­it­or’s Note: Former Sen­at­ors Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn serve on the board of dir­ect­ors of the Nuc­le­ar Threat Ini­ti­at­ive, which is the sole spon­sor of Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire. The News­wire is pub­lished in­de­pend­ently by the Na­tion­al Journ­al Group.

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