By Glenn Kessler and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; 9:10 PM
ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN - In a surprise victory for President Obama's campaign to secure nuclear material worldwide, the government of Belarus announced Wednesday that it will give up its stock of highly enriched uranium, a critical component of nuclear weapons.
The deal was disclosed in a joint statement issued after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Belarusan Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov on the sidelines of a security summit here. The U.S. government had been trying for years to persuade Belarus to give up its highly enriched uranium and seemed to have hit a roadblock last spring.
But U.S. officials told The Washington Post that a pair of classified operations were carried out with Belarus in the past two months to remove 187 pounds of weapons-grade uranium from a research facility in the Belarusan city of Sosny. That set the stage for Wednesday's agreement to remove the rest of the material - about 500 pounds' worth, according to one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The agreement appeared to be one of the most important results of Obama's 47-nation Nuclear Security Summit in April, which excluded Belarus. And it was apparently good enough to secure the former Soviet republic's invitation to the follow-up summit, in 2012.
"I was really fascinated by the fact they want a seat at the  Nuclear Security Summit. That proves to me this process is working," said Ken Luongo, president of the Partnership for Global Security, a group promoting nuclear security.
Clinton called the agreement "a very significant, important step" by Belarus.
Obama pledged in Prague in April 2009 to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years. Since then, the U.S. government has helped six countries get rid of all their highly enriched uranium. Belarus would be the seventh. A dozen countries did so under the George W. Bush administration.
At the time of Obama's Nuclear Security Summit, Belarusan President Alexander Lukashenko had declared that the nation would never give up its uranium.
"We have kept highly enriched uranium - hundreds of kilograms of what is basically weapons-grade and lower-enriched uranium," Lukashenko said then. "This is our commodity. . . . We are not going to make dirty bombs, and we are not going to sell it to anybody. We're using it for research purposes, is all."
Belarus approached the United States a few months ago, however, indicating interest in reaching an agreement.
The first undertaking to remove Belarus's uranium, in October, was especially complicated because the material had been slightly irradiated, officials said. It was loaded onto a special train that traveled more than 1,300 miles to a Russian facility for storage and disposal, officials said. The operation involved inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, and a special decree issued by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, they said.
The second operation, which concluded Monday, was done by plane, according to the officials. The U.S. government spent $13 million on the efforts, much of it to supply Belarus's research facility with low-enriched uranium, which is not suitable for nuclear weapons. The uranium that was removed was enough to make three nuclear weapons, according to U.S. officials.
"This was very carefully coordinated and orchestrated to build up the trust" that led to the agreement signed by Clinton, said Andrew Bieniawski, an Energy Department official working on Global Threat Reduction.
The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies estimated this year that Belarus had at least 88 pounds of weapons-grade uranium, as well as hundreds of pounds of highly enriched uranium. Belarus will aim to eliminate its stockpile by 2012, according to the joint statement.
Relations between Belarus and the United States have been strained for years, primarily because of Lukashenko's harsh repression of human rights. But Wednesday's statement suggested a potential thawing.
"Welcoming progress on these global security issues, the United States and Belarus acknowledged that enhanced respect for democracy and human rights in Belarus remains central to improving bilateral relations, and is essential to the progress of the country and its citizens," it said.
Sheridan reported from Washington.