Wastes of War
Cure for Russia's Nuclear 'Headache' Proves to Be Painful
Fifth of an occasional series
By David Hoffman
The headache is not the reactor itself, but little round "tablets" or disks containing weapons-grade plutonium and uranium. They are used for tests carried out at the Institute of Physics and Power Engineering, a prominent and once secret nuclear research institute here, 60 miles southwest of Moscow.
In the building known as Fast Critical Facilities, there are 100,000 disks, or about 10 tons of bomb-grade fissile material, theoretically enough to make hundreds of nuclear bombs.
The disks, a dozen of which could easily fit into a pocket, are kept underground. But the old Soviet accounting system for them is a nightmare. About 6,000 disks have duplicate numbers. The Soviet-era records were kept in paper notebooks. The notebooks, some decades old, record the weight and the "price," an absurd measurement for bomb-grade material.
In short, there is no full record of the current physical condition of the massive pile of uranium and plutonium disks. Stashed in other underground warehouses here are barrels and vaults containing still more fissile material.
Today, an agonizingly difficult inventory of the disks is underway. In 1 1/2 years, specialists have managed to put new bar codes on a third of them. But the work of imprinting the bar codes is slow and painstaking since the disks are radioactive, and it may take years to complete.
The disks are at the heart of an enormously complex, costly and troubled drive to protect Russia's weapons-grade uranium and plutonium from theft and diversion. In this city, which has long been identified with nuclear energy and which boasts the world's first commercial nuclear reactor, the effort to control nuclear materials has already begun with help from the United States. But even so, the obstacles are large. And the difficulties have been aggravated by the Russian economic crisis.
"The problems of the entire industry are all here," said the institute's director Anatoly Zrodnikov. "Just as all the problems of water can be seen in a single drop, so all the problems of the nuclear industry are here, too."
The Soviet Union is believed to have produced more than 1,200 tons of highly enriched uranium and 150 tons of plutonium. More than half is in weapons, but an estimated 650 tons remain scattered across Russia and the former Soviet republics in 50 civilian scientific centers and military research facilities.
Experts have long believed that getting fissile material is the final barrier to building a bomb. The assumption was that it would take a would-be nuclear state a decade or more to create fissile material, and that factories to make enriched uranium or plutonium would be difficult to hide. But this barrier could be breached by purchasing or diverting existing material from Russia's warehouses. After the Soviet collapse, the United States began helping Russia secure its fissile materials through a $137-million-a-year program, undertaken along with Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy, known as "materials protection, control and accounting." The effort has made some headway, but there have also been alarming reports in recent months that it is faltering.
The progress is symbolized here by a simple piece of white tape over an emergency exit used to detect possible intruders -- and by the new radio in the hands of Vasily Drakin, chief of security. In the Soviet days, officers at closed cities were prohibited from using radio communications because it was feared that spies could detect the radio waves.
Another sign of progress is a host of laptop computers and measuring devices in a thick concrete-walled room here that once held a reactor but is now a training center set up with aid from the United States and the European Union. Andrei Mozhayev, in a white lab coat, demonstrated a garbage can-size device that can quickly measure how much bomb-grade plutonium or uranium is in a canister without opening it.
And at the entrance to the experimental reactor, every person goes through a complex security gateway that, among other things, examines their handprints, and takes their weight and compares it with a computer record. There are also plans, so far unrealized, to consolidate all the fissile material here into one well-guarded "security island," a building with extra fences and protection.
In the reactor hall, Matveyenko pointed out a television security system and a special piece of equipment used to scan a whole rod of disks to see what kind of fissile materials are inside. These were also the result of Western aid, he said, but the money ran out -- and neither is working.
Western experts say Russia's economic crisis has also dealt a heavy blow to the "human factor," the guards and other mid-level workers who oversee tons of fissile material across the country. Moreover, the economic crisis has raised questions about the ability of Russia and the West to finish the job and protect fissile material stockpiles that remain vulnerable.
According to U.S. officials with direct involvement, the devaluation of the ruble on Aug. 17 plunged many of Russia's nuclear institutes into a state of financial emergency. There were reports of shortages of food, clothing and housing for guards, widespread delays in paying workers who were operating safeguard equipment, and cases in which electric power to monitors was cut off.
A larger question is how Russia's far-flung nuclear facilities will survive, given the shrinking resources available from Moscow. Many institutes have been under pressure to seek contracts outside Russia in order to stay alive, including from countries with developing nuclear power and weapons programs such as India, China and Iran.
The Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy is also going through a tense debate about survival. The minister, Yevgeny Adamov, recently suggested splitting off some of the ministry's lucrative commercial activities, which generate cash, into a new state-owned company. Critics say it could starve the weapons and research complex, for which government subsidies have dwindled. Some also fear that the plan will only throw open the doors to even more aggressive global commerce by individual Russian nuclear institutes.
In the past, nations seeking know-how and fissile material for a weapons program have obtained it under the cover of civilian nuclear plants. A senior U.S. official said the greatest proliferation threat from Russia is not the possibility of leakage from military facilities, which tend to be guarded, but rather from the hundreds of civilian nuclear research facilities.
In the Soviet police state, it was practically unimaginable that someone would try to steal bomb-grade plutonium or uranium. But today, with the authoritarian state having vanished and Russia mired in desperate economic conditions, the threats -- and vulnerabilities -- have changed.
When police arrested three men in August 1994 at the Munich airport and accused them of trying to smuggle 13 ounces of weapons-grade plutonium into Germany, some experts contended that the material originally came from Obninsk. The source has never been identified, and the case has been described as an intelligence sting operation. Zrodnikov denied that the plutonium came from here. But he acknowledged that the new Russian market economy had brought temptations.
"Earlier the system of physical protection was based mainly on the person with the gun, the guards," he said. "The possibility of an insider was not taken into account. It could not even occur to anybody to take the material out. There was no one to discuss it with. Who would possibly purchase it?"
Now, he added, the prospect of insider diversion is real. "There is a very strong decline in the control over personnel," he said. "This selection used to be so strict, that this factor was a reliable element of protection. Now the reliability has declined considerably."
At the entrance to this town, a sign welcomes visitors to the home of the "peaceful atom." Spread across two campuses over nearly 300 acres, the institute, established after World War II, held a central place in Soviet nuclear power research. At its peak in 1988 the institute had 10,000 workers, but now there are only 5,580. The first commercial reactor in the world was started here in 1954, and engineers designed many civilian reactors, as well as liquid-metal reactors for Alpha-class submarines and the Topaz nuclear power plant for spacecraft.
For experiments, the institute received tons of bomb-grade plutonium and uranium. In the Soviet days, each shipment was accompanied by a paper "passport," listing the weight, year of manufacture, composition and price -- one of the more bizarre accounting practices of Soviet central planning.
"It was an artificial price," said Gennady Pshakin, director of the international department. "No one knows the price of plutonium."
Over time, it was not clear how much nuclear material had accumulated, nor what condition it was in. The Soviet numbers written on some of the disks were for use by the manufacturer, not the institute, and contained duplicates; sometimes up to five disks had the same number. Moreover, many of the disks needed to be re-covered with metal cladding, which is also painstakingly slow. The current pace is about a half-ton a year -- or 20 years to repair it all.
Now, Matveyenko said, the engineers have put most of the old notebook data into a computer system. They have special scales and devices to measure more precisely the composition of each disk.
But the institute is at the front lines of what looks to be a long battle across Russia to secure mountains of nuclear materials.
Zrodnikov said the institute was like a bank, but without the equivalent means to guard the weapons-grade plutonium and uranium in its stores. "This property has to be accounted for, controlled, and protected with far higher security than, say, what they keep in the banks," he said. "It is obvious what problems we are facing. If we take any bank of Russia, they made very serious investments into their system of security. They have the most modern equipment. But all this was at the expense of their business. Our situation is utterly different."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company