US Opens Nuclear Doors to Russians Defense Officials Call Tour of Rocky Flats Plant the First Step to Better Global Weapons Control

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The guards here carry assault weapons and are authorized to "shoot to kill." Visitors must don goggles and yellow radiation suits after passing through metal detectors and soaring barbed-wire fences.

Getting into building 371 here at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant is a tense, hour-long process, reminiscent of a scene from Mission Impossible.

Few Americans have ever passed into the inner sanctum of this former bomb plant, where America once produced nuclear warheads and today where most of the plant's 14.2 metric tons of plutonium is stored. But on this day, the plant has some special visitors: 10 Russian nuclear scientists have come to see how "surplus" plutonium is stored and disposed of. There's something vaguely surreal about having America's one-time cold-war enemy tour the highest-security nuclear weapons facilities in the United States. But Department of Energy officials hope their open-door hospitality here and at the Hanford weapons site in Washington State will smooth the path for implementing a September nonproliferation accord between the US, the Russian Federation, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. The agreement calls for the two nuclear superpowers to place their "excess" weapons-grade material under IAEA monitoring to ensure that the stock won't be reused to build new weapons. Each nation will ultimately commit to safeguarding about 50 metric tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium from warheads dismantled since the end of the cold war. "This is just to get the ball rolling," says Ken Luongo, the DOE arms control chief. "As a first step, we said, 'Why don't you come to the US and see what we've done?'" The Russian visit also confirms sentiments that signing treaties is the easy part. The tough task will be in coming up with the money for implementation. Uncle Sam may soon be digging deep in his pocket to fund Russian compliance. For its part, the US has already placed 12 tons of plutonium into special vaults, fitted with fiber-optic and chemical alarms, at Rocky Flats, Hanford, and Oak Ridge in Tennessee. IAEA inspectors check the vaults monthly. To date, Russia hasn't dedicated any of its excess nuclear stock to IAEA monitoring - but not from lack of desire, Russian officials say. "There is not enough money," to achieve US security and safety standards, says Nikolai Khlebnikov, a Russian atomic energy official, after touring Rocky Flats. The situation is so desperate that the director of one Russian nuclear research center committed suicide earlier this month, reportedly in despair over the center's deep financial woes. …