Victories Come Slowly in Cleanup Of Soviet Bloc Nuclear Materials

By David E. Hoffman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 30, 2007

PODOLSK, Russia, Aug. 29 -- Heavily guarded trucks rolled up to the Luch nuclear institute here on Tuesday night and unloaded five green reinforced containers holding a total of 21 pounds of uranium, about a third of it highly enriched, which had been quietly removed from a research reactor in Otwock, Poland.

The uranium shipment was the latest, small step in an ambitious but incomplete effort to clean up nuclear materials left strewn across the former Soviet bloc and beyond in the aftermath of the Cold War.

On Wednesday, as workers prepared to open the casks from Poland, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) got a firsthand look on a visit to Luch at the struggle to locate the fissile material and keep it from falling into the wrong hands, a program that they created more than 15 years ago and now faces new challenges.

The uranium inside the containers will be blended down to lower levels of enrichment so it potentially can be used as fuel for nuclear power plants.

The Poland operation, carried out in secret, cost the United States about $490,000 under an Energy Department program that has, overall, converted more than 9.2 metric tons of highly enriched uranium to lower levels at Luch and another site.

Lugar, ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, "People around the world would be reassured if they saw what we saw today." But the amounts shipped from Poland are tiny compared with what officials say are hundreds of tons of uranium and plutonium still in storage and in weapons in Russia.

By some estimates there was as much as 1,200 tons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium in the Soviet Union when it collapsed in 1991. The United States made a 20-year deal in 1993 to buy 500 tons of highly enriched uranium and blend it down into fuel for nuclear power plants. Yet, hundreds of tons are still scattered across Russia.

The Luch facility was the scene of one of the first post-Soviet uranium thefts. Between late May and September of 1992, chemical engineer and longtime employee Leonid Smirnov stole approximately 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds) of weapons-grade uranium, accumulating it in some 20 to 25 diversions -- taking the powder home in glass jars and storing it on his balcony, according to congressional testimony in 1996. He was arrested at the Podolsk train station on Oct. 9, 1992, with most of the uranium in three lead cylinders. He was planning to travel to Moscow to sell it but apparently had no ready buyers.

Back then, the facility, which worked on a project to build a space-based nuclear reactor, was surrounded only by wooden fences and protected by little security. Nuclear materials were spread across 28 locations on the compound. Valentin Deniskin, deputy director, said that in Soviet times, "no one thought it was even fathomable" that someone would steal fissile materials.

But the chaos that followed the Soviet collapse spurred Nunn and Lugar to push for the legislation, fearing that Russia, with chronic financial troubles, would be unable and unwilling to secure the materials and might become an inviting target for terrorists. Russia's economic troubles were so severe that guards around nuclear facilities were paid late, if at all.

Over the last decade and a half, the United States has invested about $15 billion in Nunn-Lugar and related programs aimed at securing the Cold War weapons.

Now, however, Russia is no longer a basket case. Customs officials have been quoted as estimating that the country's oil export duty revenue this year will be $48.7 billion. The country has salted away colossal budget and currency reserves.

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