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September 30, 1999

Russia Asks U.S. to Expand Joint Efforts to Safeguard Nuclear Fuel

By JUDITH MILLER

SITE 49, SEVEROMORSK, Russia -- Russia has asked the U.S. Energy Department to expand joint projects aimed at securing dangerous materials, including nuclear fuel, that could be turned into weapons, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said Wednesday on a visit here.

Richardson said the proposal incorporated an unusual provision that would provide the United States greater access to highly sensitive sites to which Moscow has barred foreigners or permitted only limited entry.

The offer, which Russian and American officials said was approved by Defense Minister Igor D. Sergeyev, was made by Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov, commander in chief of the Russian Navy, at a private meeting Wednesday with Richardson and his senior staff.

The meeting followed a rare tour of Site 49, where the Russian Navy stores all the nuclear fuel for its vast Northern Fleet, near Severomorsk, the fleet headquarters, a restricted area. Richardson's entourage was the first senior American delegation granted permission to visit what is one of Russia's largest, most sensitive nuclear naval bases.

The Energy Department has just completed a 16-month $10 million security upgrade at Site 49 and at the Murmansk Shipping Co., which operates atomic-powered icebreakers that are powered with highly enriched fuel rods that can also be used in nuclear weapons.

Six experts from several Energy Department laboratories have spent 18 months advising the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow, the former Soviet Union's premier research center on nuclear weapons, on improving security at the navy's nuclear-fuel storage centers. Most were run-down and protected by little more than barbed-wire fences and lightly armed guards.

The Energy Department has been working to improve the accounting and security of such dangerous materials in Russia since 1994. But its activities here in the Northern Fleet area began only 18 months ago, after a deranged 19-year-old Russian sailor had seized control of a nuclear submarine in Murmansk and held the ship for eight agonizing hours.

The head of the press office at the base, Capt. Sergei Anoufriev, said the sailor, who had passed a psychological test, had lied about his mental history. The sailor shot and killed five crew members before committing suicide.

That case, Russian and American officials agreed, awakened the navy to the security threat posed by insiders, rather than foreign foes. As a result, the Russian Navy began what American officials called a crash program to consolidate its numerous nuclear-fuel storage centers into a single complex.

Site 49, with 11,000 square feet of storage, can hold up to 55 tons of highly enriched uranium. Wednesday, Navy officials showed off double fencing with electronic sensors, bright lights, foot-thick steel doors, closed-circuit television monitors, emergency alarms that connect to the headquarters in Murmansk and response forces in case of a terrorist attack. The giant center, built into a hill and painted in camouflage, is to begin receiving fuel next week, officials said.

On Tuesday, Richardson began a weeklong tour of Energy Department projects at several of the most sensitive military installations in Russia. The agency spends more than $300 million a year on projects aimed at bolstering the safety and physical protection of nuclear fuel and other material that could be used in bombs. It has projects in 10 of the once-secret nuclear cities at 53 sites throughout the former Soviet Union, 30 of which are in Russia.

"This project," Richardson said at Site 49, "came in on budget and under the planned time."




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