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U.S. Official: Most DOE Nuclear Security Work in Russia Will Continue

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

A worker cuts into a ballistic missile submarine launch tube in a destruction effort supported by the Cooperative Threat Reduction program. While most Defense Department work in Russia will cease with the expiration of the program's implementing deal, many Energy Department security projects in Russia will continue, a senior Obama administration official said on Thursday (U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency photo). A worker cuts into a ballistic missile submarine launch tube in a destruction effort supported by the Cooperative Threat Reduction program. While most Defense Department work in Russia will cease with the expiration of the program's implementing deal, many Energy Department security projects in Russia will continue, a senior Obama administration official said on Thursday (U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency photo).

WASHINGTON -- Amid questions as to exactly what nuclear security work the United States can still conduct in Russia following the expiration a 20-year-old agreement this week, the Obama administration is maintaining that most projects led by the U.S. Energy Department in the former Soviet state will continue largely unfettered.

With the expiration early this week of the Cooperative Threat Reduction umbrella agreement, U.S. involvement with efforts to dismantle and secure weapons of mass destruction in Russia will be more limited than they had been during the past two decades, experts have noted.

Most U.S. Defense Department work related to the dismantlement of Russian missiles, bombers and chemical warheads will come to an end, given that the Russian Defense Ministry declined to participate in programs covered by the new, more limited agreement between the two countries that was announced Monday.

What had been less clear is what the new agreement would mean for the U.S. Energy Department, which through its Global Threat Reduction Initiative had been working to secure vulnerable nuclear materials in Russia.

These efforts included setting up security systems at sites where such materials are stored. Experts close to the program this week questioned whether U.S. officials would still be able to access those sites to ensure security systems were working properly.

In an interview with Global Security Newswire on Thursday, a senior administration official said the expired umbrella agreement contained certain clauses that do not expire with the rest of the document. These provisions allow the United States continued access to Russian sites where it has invested in security systems for the purpose of ensuring that those systems are being used appropriately, the administration official said.

“For most of the programs this is a continuity guarantee rather than a big shift, because the bulk of the program in Russia had been moving much more towards these DOE-led nuclear security type projects,” said the official, who asked to not to be named in this article, lacking permission to discuss the issue publicly. “The missile elimination work had been tailing down, the chemical weapons work had been tailing down, so a lot of those were already kind of reaching their logical programmatic endpoint.”

In addition to programs related to improving the security of nuclear and radiological material -- so-called material protection control and accounting projects -- the GTRI Second Line of Defense programs that aim to catch smuggling at the Russian border will also continue, along with “a range of recovery and security of radioactive sources in Russia,” according to the senior administration official. The official also touted efforts to consolidate and blend down excess highly enriched uranium into low enriched uranium, and to convert six Russian research reactors from using HEU fuel to LEU fuel, as among those efforts that would continue beyond the expiration of the old umbrella agreement.

The official acknowledged, however, that the reactor conversion projects are largely funded and executed by Russia, although the United States has been involved with conducting joint feasibility studies related to the efforts. The official did not specify whether any particular DOE projects would have new limitations under the new agreement.

“It really depends on the nature of the project,” the official said. “The projects that are already ongoing are going to have the same access they’ve had.”

One Defense Department effort that will continue is the dismantling of Russian nuclear submarines. According to the administration official, this is because this project is conducted with Rosatom, Russia’s atomic energy agency, and not the Russian Ministry of Defense. It was the latter that had refused to be party to any new agreement with the United States. Observers have speculated that Russian defense officials no longer wished to give outsiders access to their military installations.

The Defense Department could become involved in other future projects under the new pact, according to the official, but nothing specific has yet been planned.

“The value of this is it sets up for future work,” the official said. “I think this is evidence of how well Russia and the United States can work together when their interests align.”

The Obama administration has sought to present the agreement as a positive indicator of the state of its relationship with Moscow -- highlighting it as the one concrete development to emerge from recent talks over arms control and how to deal with the civil war in Syria.

Experts who have been close to U.S. security work in Russia have not been overly critical of the administration’s handling of the negotiations that led to the new deal, though some have raised concerns about the U.S. efforts that will no longer continue under the new accord.

Paul Walker, international program director of the environmental security and sustainability program of Green Cross and Global Green, called the Russian Ministry of Defense’s unwillingness to participate “a real bad sign.” Its relationship with the U.S. Defense Department had “been long and deep and very productive in many ways, so it’s probably a sign of how mixed the Russian-American relationship is” today, he said.

The end of U.S. involvement with chemical weapons destruction in Russia could make it difficult for the former Soviet state to meet its self-imposed deadline of eliminating all such weapons by 2015, Walker speculated.

“Most of us felt that if they were to have any chance in meeting that 2015 deadline they would have to keep bilateral relations with the U.S.,” said Walker, who estimated that “the Russians still probably have 15,000 tons of remaining nerve agent to destroy at five sites.”

Walker said Moscow could have difficulty completing the work safely on its own because much of the equipment involved was developed by Western nations and Russian officials will no longer have the direct support of those countries.

“I worry about the Russians going off on their own and making some unintentional mistakes, having some accidents,” he said.

Nonetheless, Walker said the new deal with Russia was a positive sign and preferable to the old umbrella agreement expiring without any replacement.

“I think it provides Americans some confidence that the Russians are following through,” he said.

NTI Analysis

  • Ten years of reducing global nuclear dangers

    June 3, 2014

    NTI Co-Chairman Sam Nunn writes on the anniversary of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative and warns against cuts to programs that reduce nuclear threats.

  • Give Nuclear Security a Chance

    March 19, 2014

    In a new Project Syndicate op-ed, NTI President Joan Rohlfing calls for leaders at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit to establish a global nuclear security system.

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