U.S. Energy Secretary inspects nuclear safety in Russia

Publish date: September 29, 1999

Written by: Thomas Nilsen

U.S. Energy Secretary inspects the U.S.-funded nuclear safety projects in Murmansk and Severodvinsk, while the department's programs are under fire of criticism.

This year, the U.S. has provided $137 million for 80 separate project in Russia for protecting nuclear materials that pose a proliferation risk. Next year, another $165 million might be provided. The U.S. Department of Energy manages the program.

Bill Richardson, the U.S. Energy Secretary, will visit Imandra, a service vessel at Atomflot base in Murmansk, which holds fresh fuel for nuclear powered icebreakers. Surveillance cameras and detector equipment were installed last year onboard the ship. At the submarine yard in Severodvinsk, he will inspect the PM-63, a naval Malina class service vessel that holds submarine fresh nuclear fuel. The PM-63 was outfitted with similar equipment as Imandra.

Established in 1994 to keep stockpiles of plutonium and enriched uranium under tighter lock and key, the Nuclear Material Protection, Control and Accounting program (MPC&A) is considered by the U.S. Congress to be one of the most successful aid programs for Russia. But even this program is criticised for inadequate oversight. An Energy Department internal audit, released last week even claims that some of the funds have been spent on projects that have little to do with nuclear safety or non-proliferation.

"Programmatic improvements are needed to ensure that funds and equipment are used for their intended purposes," said Energy Department’s inspector general, Gregory Friedman, in an interview with the New York Times.

According to Friedman’s report, three of nine projects examined, a total of $929,000 was spent "to secure materials of little proliferation risk." In a number of cases it was not even possible to know how money was spent because of limited access to the Russian facilities.

"Even worse," the report said, "significant amounts of the U.S. assistance that was supposed to go for upgrading security ended up being used to pay Russian taxes."