Americans Given Rare Access To Russian Nuclear Warehouse

By David E. Hoffman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 1, 2007

YEKATERINBURG, Russia, Aug. 31 -- For the first time in 3 1/2 years, Russia on Friday allowed visiting American officials to look inside the world's largest fortified warehouse for nuclear materials, a graveyard for plutonium that Russia has tried to keep closed.

The Fissile Material Storage Facility, a hulking fortress with walls 23 feet thick that are designed to withstand earthquakes and airplane crashes, was built by the United States at a cost of $309 million at the Mayak nuclear plant at Ozersk, about 80 miles from here. Since it was finished in December 2003 and turned over to Russia, U.S. officials have been kept in the dark about what was happening inside.

Russia has balked at signing an agreement, which Congress has mandated, that would allow U.S. officials to conduct measurements of the plutonium held in special containers inside the colossal vault, larger than a football field.

"There is a disagreement over the amount of information we require and what they are prepared to give," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Lugar and former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), authors of legislation to secure dangerous materials left behind by the Cold War, were permitted a rare visit to the facility Friday.

Up to 100 tons of plutonium or 400 tons of highly enriched uranium could eventually be stored in the facility, but Lugar and Nunn were told that only about a sixth of the space is being loaded with material so far. Russian officials said they would probably fill only about a quarter of it. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has struggled to find a place for the fissile material from nuclear bombs that are being disassembled.

The warehouse was built as a kind of Fort Knox for the most dangerous nuclear materials, but U.S. officials have been puzzled about why Russia has been slow to use it and worried that the materials may be lying around elsewhere and thus be more vulnerable to theft or diversion. Officials say Russia has also been more secretive in recent years about nuclear facilities.

Lugar said he wrote to Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the Russian Federal Agency for Atomic Energy, on May 15, pushing for an agreement on transparency at the vault. The letter went unanswered, the senator said. In Moscow this week, Kiriyenko promised Lugar and Nunn that an agreement would be signed by the end of the year.

Journalists were barred from Mayak. A spokesman for the Russian atomic energy agency, Igor Konyshev, told reporters he could not provide basic information about the status of loading the facility, saying it was a state secret.

The Mayak plant also produces radioactive materials for medicine and industry, but Konyshev said he could "not confirm or deny" that one of its products is polonium, the substance used to poison and kill a critic of President Vladimir Putin in London last year.

In Soviet times, secrecy at Mayak covered up one of the worst accidents of the nuclear age. A tank containing radioactive waste exploded in September 1957, contaminating a wide area. The tragedy and its aftermath were concealed from the public for decades by the Soviet authorities.

Nonetheless, Nunn said he believed Russian officials were taking security more seriously than in the past, when it was under the purview of the Communist Party. Now, he said, Russian officials are trying to keep nuclear and other materials from falling into the wrong hands through technical methods rather than party control. "It is a major change for the better," he said.

The city of Yekaterinburg, then known as Sverdlovsk, was the scene of a biological weapons accident in 1979, when a military facility leaked airborne anthrax, killing dozens of people. Nunn and Lugar focused on chemical and nuclear weapons during a visit to Russia this week, not biological threats, but their program has poured money into securing bioweapons facilities. Biological weapons were outlawed by a 1972 treaty that the Soviet Union signed but later violated. (The United States abandoned biological weapons in 1969.) While much of the Soviet program has been dismantled, Russia's military biological weapons laboratories have never been opened.

"I think we have further to go with that area than any other area," Nunn said. "I think it is certainly lagging behind in terms of the kind of cooperation that is required and possible."

On a trip to Russia this week to mark the 15th anniversary of the start of the Nunn-Lugar program, both men confronted fresh examples of the slow pace of cleaning up the Cold War legacy. For example, there originally were to be two fissile material storage facilities, holding 200,000 canisters. Then one was dropped. Then Russia hit economic trouble in 1998, and the United States had to pick up the entire tab. Then the lone facility was reduced to 25,000 canisters. Now, it is not clear how many of those will actually be filled.

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