Could Russia emerge as a nuclear security leader at two-day US weapons summit?

Publish date: April 11, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK – A two-day, 47 nation nuclear security summit beginning Monday in Washington opens a door for Russia to promote itself as an international leader on the critical issue, but many non-proliferation experts have insisted Moscow must do more to guard its own enormous and disparate stocks of bomb-grade nuclear material and asserted the world's second nuclear superpower does not have the resources to do it.

But even if more security is added and more materials made safe on paper, Bellona experts assert that Russia’s active pursuit of big nuclear business with all comers, and its unabated interest in continuing to do so, is the one of the world’s biggest threats to non-proliferation, and at cross purposes with the intentions of the US summit.

US President Barack Obama convened the summit, and it is likely to test his pledge for a nuclear weapons free world that he made in Prague last year against international political realities. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters the nuclear security gathering would be the largest assembly of world leaders hosted by an American president since the 1945 San Francisco conference that founded the United Nations

But sweeping or bold new strategies were unlikely to emerge from the two-day gathering that begins in Washington today, White House officials and diplomats told Bellona Web.  

Obama invited the cohort of world leaders as an important step to intensify global focus on one of the most serious nuclear proliferation threats: a world in which non-state actors — like the al-Qaida terrorist organization — obtain nuclear materials.

“The single biggest threat to US security, both short-term, medium-term and long-term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon. This is something that could change the security landscape in this country and around the world for years to come,” Obama told reporters at a briefing after he conducted a series of meetings with world leaders who had arrived early for the summit on Sunday.

The president has set a goal of ensuring all nuclear materials worldwide are secured from theft or diversion within four years.

For this, he will have to depend on Russia’s help, one diplomat close to the proceedings told Bellona Web. Bellona experts remain dubious that Russia’s non-proliferation strategies will be of much help.

Russian nuclear industry killing the world softly

“It’s odd that the international community doesn’t see the double standard,” said Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin, a nuclear expert and the director of Bellona’s St. Petersburg offices. “While speaking notes of nuclear non-proliferation, Russia has actively offered its own nuclear technology and materials to different countries.”

Nikitin cited Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s recent talks with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to build Russian nuclear reactors there, the plans of Russia state corporation Rosatom to build and sell floating nuclear power plants, and its openness to selling nuclear know-how to nations of questionable diplomatic credentials.

“One gets the impression that for Russia ‘non-proliferation’ is not a priority,” said Nikitin. “What is most important for Rosatom is business and making money by selling nuclear technology and radioactive material,” he said, adding that, “Russia is  formally covered by the International Atomic Energy Agency and other international regulations that loudly explaining to everyone that they are formally not doing anything wrong, when in fact the world is getting nuclear headaches in North Korea and Iran.

Though talks on Iran are unlikely to be a focal point of the gathering, said White House officials, and will instead be discussed in sideline meetings, Bellona Russian nuclear industry expert Igor Kudrik said the Washington summit will allow Russia to puff itself up diplomatically.

“The US is giving incentives to Moscow to be more cooperation friendly to make sure that Iran does not get nuclear fuel for their Bushehr reactor this summer,” said Kudrik.

“One of the biggest incentives (to be offered by the summit) is that Moscow feels important. But Moscow has to demonstrate its leadership by acting responsibly and to not block initiatives to actually preventing the proliferation of nuclear materials, which has not been the case with Iran,” said Kudrik.

Post-Soviet nuke security still a sore spot

Almost two decades after the Soviet collapse spawned nightmares about the seizure of nuclear materials from poorly guarded facilities or theft by desperate employees, Russia insists its nuclear materials are reliably protected.

To that end, it has attempted to recast itself as a champion of nuclear security worldwide, initiating an international treaty against nuclear terrorism that came into force in 2007 and joining the United States in creating a global grouping to set strategies.

Yet through the 90’s and into the early new millennium, security breaches were still being documented. Further, millions of dollars set aside by the US Government for security upgrades under American-Russian joint non-proliferation programmes, like the Defence Department’s Cooperative Threat Reduction programme and others run by the US Energy Department, had been bilked by Russian’s nuclear authority Mintaom, now Rosatom, when it was headed by Yevgeny Adamov.

Adamov was eventually handed a suspended five-year sentence by a Russian court in 2008 for his involvment in defrauding the Russian government and diverting the US non-proliferation funding into American shell companies. But Energy Department officials still complained throughout the 1990’s and well into the first decade after the turn of the century that money earmarked for nuclear security in Russia was being squandered.

Indeed, a Bellona reporter and a group of environmentalists were able to penetrate a weapons-grade plutonium storage facility in the closed Siberia city of Zheleznogorsk, near Krasnoyarsk, in 2002 via holes in the walls surrounding the supposedly secure city. Once inside, guards from the 12th Directorate – the Russian military’s group responsible for guarding nuclear material, ignored the reporters, and in one case even gave them directions.

Other bilateral Energy Department plans to dispense of Russia’s estimated 50 tons of weapons grade plutonium also stalled in 2003 against walls of bureaucracy, scientific incompetence and the Kremlin’s extolling of plutonium as a source of energy, participants in the Energy Department’s plutonium disposition programme told Bellona Web.

The cornerstone of the plutonium disposition plan, signed by former US President George Bush and Former Russia President, now Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin was for Russia and the US to convert 34 tons of surplus weapons plutonium into mixed oxide, or MOX fuel to be burned in commercial reactors – a plan vehemently opposed by Bellona as an effort for Russia to revitalise its ailing and contaminating reprocessing industry, as well as pursue plans for a closed plutonium fuel cycle.

At the end of last month, Prime Minister Putin announced that the Russian government would be investing $2.2 billion in the development of the Russian nuclear industry’s the construction of a100MWe lead-bismuth-cooled fast reactor called the SVBR by 2015.
Putin told reporters this would be followed by further pursuit of the Russia’s lead-cooled 300MWe BREST fast reactor by 2020 – a sort of holy grail in the Russian nuclear industry that has so far only existed on paper. The March announcement drove a silent nail into the coffin of most bilateral plutonium disposition plans, and will put more weapons plutonium in play and on the road in Russia, where security will be lax. 

Obama hopes to bring clout to the table

Obama’s credentials in nuclear weapons negotiations are largely underplayed, even though he maintains close ties with Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, co-author of the Nunn-Lugar legislation tha made CTR possible. In 2005, as Illinois’ junior senator on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Obama travelled with Lugar to Perm, Siberia on a weapons destruction verification trip.

Last week, Obama signed a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev – something that has given Obama clout to bring to the two day summit, and an opportunity for Medvedev to portray his country as necessary to international nuclear security, despite past bungles and corruption.

“Russia wants to be seen as a leader, with the US and other countries, of the global effort to prevent nuclear terrorism,” Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at Harvard University, told Reuters. “And they are a leader, in important ways.”

But despite dramatic improvements securing Russia’s arsenal that have been made in more recent years – courtesy of the US taxpayer – gaping holes still remain.

“To say this problem was left behind in the 1990s would be wrong,” said Vladimir Chuprov, Greenpeace Russia’s energy projects chief. “Russia remains a risk zone in terms of the physical security and physical protection of nuclear materials.”

Security upgrades wont stop an inside job

“You don’t have gaping holes in fences anymore,” Bunn said, or “no detector at all to set off an alarm if someone is carrying plutonium out in their suitcase.”

But the potential for theft by insiders – who have been involved in all explained thefts of highly enriched uranium or plutonium –  is still a concern, particularly in a country where corruption is widespread, Bunn said.

Imperfect accounting for nuclear materials is a related weakness, he said, and many sites are guarded by inexperienced and poorly paid Interior Ministry conscripts.

Passage through Georgia

Official complacency and under- or non-reporting of theft is also a problem, authorities in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia have told Bellona Web.

Prior to the conflagration that broke out between Tbilisi and Moscow over Kremlin control of Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia, which both lie within Georgia’s borders, police authorities told Bellona Web that they themselves were interdicting most smuggling of nuclear materials – most of it traceable to sites in Siberia – through Southern Ossetia in the Georgian Caucasus
– a no-man’s’-land bazaar for trekking all manner of contraband to and from Turkey.

“To say that we are intercepting materials that come from Russia, and have the Russian’s admit it, means that the Russian sites are not as secure as they want the world to believe,” said a Georgian interior ministry spokesman, who, citing still strained relations with Moscow, requested anonymity.

“As a consequence, Moscow keeps its mouth shut and we deal with discovering the nuclear contraband,” he said.