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Reducing Strategic Weapons Threats with Russia: Three Shortcomings

Testimony of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center Executive Director, Henry Sokolski, presented before The Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Sep 12, 2002
AUTHOR: Henry Sokolski
Reducing Strategic Weapons Threats with Russia-Three Shortcomings (PDF) 20.65 KB

Reducing Strategic Weapons Threats with Russia: Three Shortcomings

Testimony of Henry Sokolski
Presented before
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee

September 12, 2002

There are three big, avoidable problems with our strategic weapons threat reduction efforts with Russia:

1. In our zeal to dispose of surplus weapons plutonium to counter nuclear theft and terrorism, we've failed to recognize how significantly the plan we've adopted will actually increase these threats. By terminating this scheme, we could reduce these risks and free up $5.8 to $8 billion to support more worthy threat reduction efforts.

2. We continue to debate how much more we should spend to help Russia secure its strategic weapons assets but have overlooked how many billions of dollars Russia itself is willing and capable of raising to defray these costs. By supporting proposals the Russians have already agreed to, the US could conceivably reduce Congressional spending on threat reduction by as much as $8-9 billion dollars. 

3. We've paid so much attention to controversial, expensive cooperative programs that we've not focused enough on efforts that could reduce biological and long-term brain drain threats with little or no new spending. 

I. Our planned $5.8 - plus billion dollar cooperative program to dispose of surplus weapons plutonium is only likely to increase the risk of loose nukes

A. The current plan involves taking 68 tons (10,000-17,000 bombs' worth) of weapons-grade plutonium from a few guarded sites, transporting it thousands of miles to and from a larger number of different plants in the US and Russia (and likely Western Europe), and letting thousands of workers handle it continuously over the next 20 years. The goal is to irradiate the material to reduce its attraction for weapons. But the risk generated by multiple and prolonged handling outweighs any possible gain. 

B. The current plan also requires the US and Europe to supply Russia with the fuel fabrication facilities and light water reactor recycle know-how that would enable Russia to reprocess its own and other nations' spent fuel (as it says it wants to do). An agreement with Russia does ban such reprocessing but only while it is converting its declared 34-ton weapons plutonium surplus into civilian fuel. After this, Russia is free to use the fuel fabrication facilities it gained under the program to initiate commercial reprocessing. This, in turn, would undo whatever good the previous threat reduction effort accomplished, generating tons of new weapons-usable plutonium that must be secured against theft.

C. These efforts would effectively reverse US policy against civil use of nuclear weapons-usable fuels and indirectly encourage other nations' use of some 200 tons (25,000-50,000 bombs' worth) of separated plutonium in power reactors. In fact, the Energy Department's advanced reactor programs (which Energy plans to cooperate on with Russia) are predicated on reversing the current US ban on commercial reprocessing (established by President Ford). That is why Energy put language in the President's energy plan to have this policy "reviewed" and why it hopes that the recycling of surplus weapons plutonium will be the first step toward reversing the ban.

II. Too little attention has been paid to a proposal that has been on the US-Russian summit agenda for over a year and would provide billions of dollars for securing nuclear materials and nuclear environmental clean-up without increasing U.S. spending. 

A. Minatom and Putin have both endorsed the idea of importing spent reactor fuel from European and Asian power reactor sites, storing it in Russia, and using over $8 billion of projected revenues to help defray the costs of US-Russian nuclear cooperative programs. In fact, The Nonproliferation Trust, Inc. (NPT, Inc.), a private firm, has already signed a contract with Minatom. It provides that none of the projected revenues will be spent without the approval of an independent board. It also bans Russian commercial reprocessing for 30 years. All that is needed to proceed is (1) US consent to move spent fuel of US-origin from Europe and Asia to Russia, and (2) a limited US-Russian nuclear cooperative agreement that would permit Moscow to store the fuel. Both Russian and US diplomats have placed this matter on their summit agendas twice in the last year. Concerns about Iran, however, have prevented it from being taken up. 

B. A distinguished group assembled by NPEC studied and endorsed the Nonproliferation Trust, Inc. concept (see Beyond Nunn-Lugar: Curbing the Next Wave of Weapons Proliferation Threats from Russia). The group thought that this proposal could help promote better Russian nonproliferation behavior, but that it was too late and inappropriate to expect that it could prevent Iran from going nuclear. If under this scheme, Russia began receiving foreign spent fuel, though, the group believed the US government could leverage other aspects of Russian nonproliferation behavior though the case-by-case approval of spent fuel shipments. Rather than Russian assistance to Iran, the group recommended that this leverage be used to get Russia to cooperate with the US in getting a better fix on just what Russia's nuclear material inventories are. Currently, Energy believes our estimates of Russia's nuclear holdings may be off by as much as 30 percent - i.e., over 23,000 thermonuclear weapons-worth of material. As the

Cutler Report notes, it is impossible to know if we are reducing the Russian nuclear threat if we don't have a much better handle on what Russia's nuclear holdings are or what its annual production of nuclear materials is. Certainly, more should be done to detail how we might reduce these large uncertainties and to review how Russia might help defray the costs of threat reduction programs without producing or recycling more weapons-useable plutonium. 

III. Some of the most non-controversial, high-leverage programs aimed at reducing biological and long-term brain drain threats have yet to be fully implemented

A. The Chairman and the Ranking Member are to be congratulated for drafting the Global Pathogens Surveillance Act of 2002 and getting it passed in the Senate. One of the least expensive and most important aspects of this Act is its provision for syndrome surveillance and the communication of surveillance findings through the internet. This provision is almost identical to the first recommendation made last year by NPEC's study group after it received a series of briefings from Doctors Alan Zelicoff and Murray Feshbach. One can only hope that the House passes similar legislation quickly. It should be noted that the assistance that this Act provides does not have to be funneled through the Russian Ministry of Defense or its clinics (e.g., VEKTOR). Instead, it can be provided to local Russian hospitals and clinics or Russia's Ministry of Health. Finally, if the Act does not pass this year, this assistance is so affordable, mutually beneficial to the US and Russia, and safe it should be provided to local Russian health providers with existing Energy or Defense funds without being tied to other compliance issues.

The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), is a 501 (c)3 nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization
founded in 1994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues. NPEC educates policymakers, journalists,
and university professors about proliferation threats and possible new policies and measures to meet them.
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