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
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
"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. …