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.