A five-year-old U.S. program to help safeguard nuclear bomb-making material in Russia has suffered from inadequate oversight and spent some funds on facilities that have little to do with atomic weapons, according to an Energy Department internal audit.
The program has poured millions of dollars into Russian complexes that remain largely off-limits to U.S. teams, preventing American authorities from determining whether the money is spent appropriately, investigators found.
The probe, by the Energy Department's inspector general, comes at a time of mounting concern in Congress over U.S. aid to Moscow and the Clinton administration's management of relations with Russia. While the Energy Department program has been widely viewed as one of the administration's best-conceived attempts to limit the spread of Russian nuclear material, the new report indicates that even this initiative has faced bureaucratic obstacles in Russia and supervisory shortcomings in the United States.
"Programmatic improvements are needed to ensure that funds and equipment are used for their intended purposes," inspector general Gregory H. Friedman concluded. "The department needs to enhance its system of controls to address the matters noted in this report."
A copy of the unreleased report, dated Sept. 16, was made available to The Washington Post by a government official who said he was worried that taxpayer dollars were being misspent.
Established in 1994 to keep stockpiles of enriched uranium and plutonium that once belonged to the Soviet Union under tighter lock and key, the so-called Nuclear Material Protection, Control and Accounting program has expanded quickly to 77 projects and a budget this year of $137 million. Much of the money was intended to supply Russian facilities with the types of devices--security cameras, tamper-proof seals, portal detectors--that would reduce the potential for theft of weapons-grade material.
Surveying nine projects that spent $51 million this year, the Energy Department audit faulted three for focusing on securing low-enriched uranium, rather than the highly enriched variety used in nuclear weapons. In six cases, investigators determined that U.S. project teams lacked enough access to Russian facilities or inventory data to know if the equipment they provided was being properly used.
The audit also found that U.S. teams--comprised of contract personnel from the Energy Department's seven national laboratories--sometimes ignored departmental guidance in selecting projects. It said the program desperately needed more federal government supervisors, noting that the current four were overwhelmed.
Rose Gottemoller, who heads the Energy Department's office of nonproliferation, accepted the audit's criticisms without dispute. "We're working on them," she said.
She attributed many of the shortcomings to the difficulty of opening doors to Russia's weapons-making facilities that were long closed to U.S. authorities. Thanks to U.S. efforts, she said, 100 metric tons of Russian nuclear material--out of an estimated total of 650 tons--will be under improved control by this time next year. That's enough, she added, to make 6,000 nuclear warheads.