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
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
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. …