Despite Pact, Russia Lags on Plutonium Trickle of Nuclear Material Raises Alarms on Stalled Arms-Control Effort

Article excerpt

A SCRUBBY field in the provincial Russian town of Mayak, in the Ural Mountains, is fast becoming a symbol of frustration for United States officials worried about keeping plutonium and other dangerous fissile materials out of the hands of terrorists and thuggish dictators.

The field is supposed to be the site of a US-funded, state-of-the-art $70-plus-million storage facility for plutonium removed from nuclear warheads dismantled under a US-Russian disarmament program.

Construction of this crucial lockbox warehouse, however, has stalled because of bureaucratic delay and continued lack of cooperation by Russian authorities, in the US view.

Nor is Mayak an isolated incident. More than two years after it began, an overall US effort to help Russia account for and guard its fissile material has shown only halting progress, according to US officials. Slow US decisionmaking has been a problem, as well as poor communication and Russian intransigence.

"The program has not moved fast enough," says Harold Smith, assistant to the secretary of defense for atomic energy.

Meanwhile, evidence persists that a slow trickle of weapons-capable nuclear material is leaking out of former Warsaw Pact facilities. Two weeks ago, law enforcement officers in the Czech Republic announced they had recovered six pounds of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from a car parked in Prague. The dangerous package came complete with a certificate written in Russian.

Six pounds of HEU isn't enough to make a bomb. The size of this latest seizure, however, still worries US officials, as it represents a sharp jump upward from the gram-sized amounts turned up in previous "loose-nuke" investigations.

"There is a lively market for weapons-grade material. People are trying to buy it, and there are criminal elements trying to obtain it and sell it," noted Secretary of Defense William Perry in a broadcast interview last week.

Worried about stability in cash-poor Russia, Congress three years ago approved so-called Nunn-Lugar legislation authorizing US funds to help dismantle nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union and safely store the leftover plutonium and highly enriched-uranium warhead cores.

There are some subsidiary US efforts to keep ex-Soviet plutonium out of the wrong hands: Department of Energy nuclear labs, for instance, cooperate closely with Russian counterparts. But Nunn-Lugar is the main US "loose-nuke" program, and so far its weapons-dismantlement work has proceeded much more quickly than nuclear-material safeguard cooperation.

Nearly 8,000 warheads once pointed at the US have been dismantled since 1992, according to US officials. …