U.S.-Russian Nuclear Program Expires

By Harrington, Caitlin | Arms Control Today, October 2006 | Go to article overview

U.S.-Russian Nuclear Program Expires


Harrington, Caitlin, Arms Control Today


Last-minute informal U.S.-Russian talks aimed at preserving an eight-year-old program appear to have come up short. The Nuclear Cities Initiative (NCI), designed to keep Russian nuclear weapons specialists from selling their secrets to rogue states, expired Sept. 22 with little hope that it would be revived.

The United States and Russia established NCI in 1998 as a unique program to rejuvenate 10 "closed" Russian cities that had held key portions of the Soviet nuclear weapons complex. At that time, many of them were reeling from the downsizing of the Soviet military machine and brimming with out-of-work nuclear specialists looking for a steady cash flow. The program provided jobs, English language training, small business loans, and other forms of economic relief to these unemployed nuclear workers.

Since these cities were founded, workers have essentially been isolated there by the Soviet and then Russian authorities because of their government's desire to prevent the spread of nuclear secrets.

But NCI appears to be drawing to an end because the Department of Energy and Rosatom, the Russian nuclear agency, failed to renew the partnership in 2003 after Russia rejected a U.S. demand for a blanket liability exemption for all Americans working on NCI projects or in a program to dispose of surplus plutonium from nuclear weapons. (see ACT, September 2003). Earlier this month, the United States meted out a compromise with Russia on the plutonium disposition program that they said would apply to all future such programs. But it may be too late to save NCI. In 2003 the two countries agreed on a three-year extension to wrap up ongoing projects, but that period is now coming to an end.

Indeed, current and former U.S. government officials say there may be good reasons to let the NCI project fade away. They point out that the economic relief program may have lost some of its relevance in recent years as the Russian economy has improved. Some Russian government officials have echoed that sentiment, saying that they no longer need to rely on U.S. help to keep workers in closed cities employed. With the Russian economy booming, people living in Russia's nuclear cities are doing much better than they were back in 1998 when guards at nuclear facilities were known to leave their posts to forage for food in the woods, according to former Clinton administration official Matthew Bunn.

But Kenneth Luongo, also a former Clinton administration official, said that the end of NCI is the latest harbinger of the decline of U. …

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