The United States has voiced its displeasure with Belarus' decision to halt participation in an agreement to send its highly enriched uranium to Russia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported on Saturday (see GSN, Aug. 19).
A bilateral deal struck last December would have seen Belarus divest itself of hundreds of pounds of Soviet-era nuclear material with "technical and financial assistance" from Washington.
Minsk said last week it was suspending the deal in retaliation for the U.S. State Department's imposition of sanctions targeting four Belarusian state-owned firms due to concerns over ongoing political repression in the ex-Soviet state.
The State Department said it was "disappointed" by Minsk's move and held out hope that the Eastern European government "intends to meet its stated objective of the elimination of all of its stocks of highly-enriched uranium." Moving ahead with the project would be a "responsible contribution to global security," the department added.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has said his government retains "hundreds of kilograms" of HEU material, which if enriched to 90 percent could be used in nuclear weapons (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Aug. 20).
Prior to freezing the uranium deal, Belarus had sent just 10 percent of its HEU stockpile to Russia, according to Interfax (Interfax, Aug. 19).
The total HEU stock had been slated to be shipped to Russia by 2012 to be blended down into lower-grade uranium.
Belarus is the sole ex-Soviet state besides Russia to retain significant quantities of HEU material, the New York Times reported.
On Friday, Minsk said it would still adhere to international nuclear security norms.
Obama administration officials said the Eastern European nation holds roughly 485 pounds of HEU material. Specialists, however, offer different estimates and it is not known how much of the uranium has been enriched to the level required to fuel a warhead.
Harvard University nuclear weapons expert Matthew Bunn said he did not see much reason to fear that the material in Belarus was vulnerable to acquisition by bad actors. However, he said, the matter should be resolved as the Belarusian uranium represents "one of only a few stocks that are enough for a crude terrorist nuclear bomb."
Minsk said it would resume shipment of the uranium to Russia after the State Department lifts the economic penalties (Michael Schwirtz, New York Times, Aug. 19).