Proliferation ahead of remidiation

Publish date: May 9, 2000

Written by: Thomas Jandl

In a newly released report, former Clinton Administration adviser Matthew Bunn says that whoever wins the presidential elections this fall, nuclear proliferation will remain a top U.S. priority. Environmental remediation of contaminated sites, by contrast, will continue to fall short of needs.

Washington, May 8, 2000 – Presenting his new report on U.S. policy towards Russia’s nuclear complex at the Woodrow Wilson Center, former Clinton Administration adviser Matthew Bunn argued that the issues surrounding nuclear materials management in Russia will remain on top of the U.S. priority list.

He said non-proliferation was a non-partisan issue as far as management of fissile materials was concerned. On the other hand, he did not see congressional interest in addressing the vast environmental cleanup needs in Russia’s Cold War nuclear complex, and said alternative funding sources need to be developed if this task is ever to be addressed.

Bunn, who is now the Assistant Director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy Program at Harvard University, authored the report, The Next Wave: Urgently Needed New Steps to Control Warheads and Fissile Material, for the Carnegie Non-Proliferation Project. The report can be accessed at

Bunn said that based on conversations with both Democrats and Republicans, he believes non-proliferation projects have a good chance to pass in the Congress. At present, the administration has not given Congress reason to believe that there is a coherent plan and, above all, leadership within the agencies carrying out Russia assistance projects.

Most importantly, Bunn said, the administration lacks a central coordinator of all Russia proliferation-related programs. A position should be created similar to former Defense Secretary William Perry, who was brought back to coordinate the U.S. North Korea policy. Absent such a central coordinator, Congress is not convinced that appropriating new money would have a lasting impact. Furthermore, Bunn said, Congress is often left out of the planning stages, and then rejects administration programs thrown at it in the budget process without prior consultation.

Debt-for-security swaps

While Bunn thinks Congress can be brought to commit resources based on proliferation concerns, he does not see the United States part with significant amounts of money to help Russia clean up existing contamination.

To obtain the billions of dollars necessary to even begin cleaning up contaminated areas, Bunn said innovative approaches outside the federal budget process are needed. The report describes his suggested approach of debt-for-security swaps. This mechanism has been tried out in debt-for-nature swaps, under which a certain amount of debt is cancelled in return for funding of prescribed amount of nature preservation. Under Bunn’s scheme, the G-8 countries, which hold most of Russia’s international debt, could forgive a part of Russia’s debt if Russia pledges to use the money in certain ways stipulated by the creditors for nuclear non-proliferation or cleanup.

Given the strong preference for non-proliferation over environmental cleanup, the scheme would be unlikely to yield significant environmental benefits.

International nuclear waste storage gets Helms approval

Bunn also mentioned the idea of building a nuclear waste storage site in Russia for money as one possible way of creating significant funding sources for environmental projects in Russia.

Importantly, Bunn said the controversial chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who has held up many an international project in his committee, found the waste dump idea terrific. According to Bunn, Helms had written a letter to the administration, with which he is not on friendly terms, pledging his support for any piece of legislation concerning this idea.

All Russia needs is U.S. consent to shipping U.S. origin fuel to Russia. Several of the potential customers of an international nuclear waste storage site use U.S. fuel.

A panel chaired by U.S. Energy Department Undersecretary Ernest Moniz and Atomic Ministry First Deputy Minister Valentin Ivanov are evaluating the idea.