President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin plan to announce a package of measures today to counter the threat of nuclear terrorism, a threat highlighted in a recent U.S. intelligence report warning that Russian nuclear material could still fall into terrorist hands, according to U.S. officials familiar with the accord.
Under the planned agreement, U.S. and Russian officials would accelerate long-delayed security upgrades at Russia's many poorly protected nuclear facilities, jointly develop emergency responses to a nuclear or radiological terrorist attack, and establish a program to replace highly enriched uranium in research reactors around the world to prevent it from being used for weapons, the U.S. officials said.
Although details were still being negotiated last night, the joint statement to be released at the presidential summit in Bratislava, Slovakia, could be used as a counterpoint to the rising tension in U.S.-Russian relations over Putin's crackdown on domestic dissent. Bush has promised to challenge Putin on Russia's retreat from democracy during their meeting but has also stressed his continuing friendship for the Russian president and their ability to work together on mutual security issues.
"We're trying to demonstrate that we can make progress and move forward despite these other issues," a senior Bush administration official said. Securing Russian nuclear material remains at the top of the U.S. agenda with Moscow, the official said, and the Bratislava agreement is intended to "get better control over things to avoid the possibility that things fall into the wrong hands."
The White House declined to comment, citing ongoing talks. The officials who confirmed the pending agreement spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the joint statement before Bush.
The two sides were also working on an agreement to help stem the proliferation of shoulder-fired rockets, a particular favorite of terrorists and guerrillas. That agreement is to be signed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. U.S. and Russian officials were also drafting joint statements on economic cooperation, counterterrorism, exchange programs and the fight against AIDS.
But negotiators were unable to break an impasse that has held up a multibillion-dollar program to dispose of 68 tons of plutonium usable for nuclear weapons despite last-minute talks. U.S. and Russian officials rushed to London and met in Moscow in a bid to resolve a technical dispute over liability that has frozen the program, first announced by Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin in 1998 and still unrealized seven years later.
Barring an overnight breakthrough, negotiators will have to return to the table after the summit, hoping perhaps to find a compromise in time for Bush's next planned meeting with Putin in Moscow in May. If the liability issue is not solved, it could ultimately affect a broad range of programs designed to help Russia secure and dispose of nuclear arms when a bilateral Cooperative Threat Reduction pact expires next year.
Still, some security analysts said the agreement on track for announcement today represented a significant step forward, particularly because Bush administration officials began pursuing a deal only a couple of weeks ago and Russian officials were resisting out of pique over the short time frame and the criticism of democratic setbacks. The agreement also helps Bush respond to Democrats' criticism during last year's election campaign that he has failed to do enough to secure Russian "loose nukes."
"It is a coup for him," said Rose Gottemoeller, who negotiated nuclear security issues with Russia for the Clinton administration. "If he can get Putin to agree to this, it's a very important step."
The negotiations come in the wake of a U.S. intelligence report concluding that the Russians have been upgrading the security of their nuclear weapons at military bases and of their weapons-grade nuclear materials at production facilities, but that "risks remain" because of what occurred in the past.
"We assess that undetected smuggling has occurred, and we are concerned about the total amount of [nuclear] material that could have been diverted or stolen in the last 13 years," said the National Intelligence Council (NIC) report, completed in November and made available to The Washington Post yesterday.
The NIC, composed of representatives from the CIA, the Pentagon, the Energy Department and other intelligence agencies, noted in the report that the "risk remains" that terrorists could seize weapons or materials. It quoted Russian authorities as saying they "twice thwarted terrorist efforts to reconnoiter nuclear weapons storage sites in 2002." In addition, Chechen groups were reported to have been seen "at several major railroad stations in the Moscow region, apparently interested in a special train used for transporting nuclear 'bombs.' "
Under questioning by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) at a hearing last week, CIA Director Porter J. Goss said he could not rule out the possibility that Russian nuclear material has made its way into terrorist hands. "I can't account for some of the material, so I can't make the assurance about its whereabouts," Goss testified.
The NIC expressed doubt that Moscow could keep up to date the security systems being installed with U.S. help. "We are concerned that Russia may not be able to sustain U.S. provided security upgrades of facilities over the long-term, given the cost and technical sophistication of at least some of the equipment involved," the report said.
The agreement to be announced today would commit both countries to closer cooperation, including sharing "best practices" for security at nuclear facilities and creating a senior bilateral group to coordinate nuclear security issues, U.S. officials said. The two countries would develop a plan to provide low-enriched uranium for research reactors in other countries that now use highly enriched uranium that can be processed into weapons-grade fuel.
The centerpiece of the pact would speed up security measures at Russian nuclear facilities, setting a goal of finishing most of them by 2008, when both presidents will be finishing their second and final terms, instead of 2012, the current target.
With U.S. help, Russian facilities have been equipped with double electrified barbed-wire fences and monitors covering about 300 tons of weapons-usable material, said Charles B. Curtis, president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. But another 300 tons remain uncovered by new security measures, leaving them vulnerable.
"It only takes kilograms, handfuls of kilograms, to make a nuclear device, and so there's an enormous urgency to get this job done at a more rapid pace," Curtis said.
Concern over Russian nuclear security has risen in Congress. "There's been a lot of blowback from the Hill on this subject, and it's caught a lot of attention inside the administration," said William E. Hoehn, director of the Washington office of the Russian American Nuclear Security Advisory Council.