The Wall Street Journal

Monday, September 26, 2005: 09:35

Closed Doors

In Russia, Securing Its Nuclear Arsenal Is an Uphill Battle

Despite U.S. Help, Program Faces Resistance, Delays Amid Chill in Relations

A Warehouse Sits Empty

By CARLA ANNE ROBBINS and ALAN CULLISON

OUTSIDE OZERSK, Russia—Twenty-one months after the U.S. turned over the keys to the Russian government, the Mayak nuclear warehouse near here sits empty.

Built with more than $400 million in U.S. funds, the fortress-like building was supposed to be a centerpiece of American efforts to lock up Russia's vast nuclear arsenal. It has room for more than 50 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium and 23-foot-thick walls designed to withstand earthquakes, fires and armor-piercing bombs.

U.S. officials say they've been told that a Kremlin budgeting glitch delayed personnel training but that loading of the warehouse should begin by mid-2006. A senior Russian official suggests that it might not be filled until there's an agreement on how the U.S. will monitor what goes inside. People living around this once-secret city, the site of some of the world's worst nuclear pollution, say they'd like to keep it empty forever.

The warehouse shows how the effort to secure Russia's vast arsenal remains an uphill battle even as concerns about nuclear terrorism have risen in the post-9/11 world. So far, the U.S. has provided state-of-the-art security for 48 of the 85 nuclear warhead storage and handling sites slated for upgrades, but there could be dozens more sites that the two sides may never agree to work on. With Russian nationalism and oil revenues on the rise, the relationship is increasingly uneasy. Russian officials say flatly that they will never allow the Americans near two huge weapons assembly facilities that are believed to hold a quarter of the country's highly enriched uranium and plutonium not already in warheads.

Since 1991 the U.S. has spent about $7 billion on Russian nuclear security and achieved some important successes. To help Russia meet its arms-control treaty commitments, the U.S. has paid to slice hundreds of nuclear-launch missiles, submarines and bombers into scrap metal. Thousands of weapons scientists have received at least temporary nonweapons work. In a separate commercial venture, 250 metric tons of highly enriched uranium taken from dismantled warheads have been blended down and burned as fuel in American nuclear-power reactors.

Still, with Washington's attention focused on the nuclear proliferation dangers posed by Iran and North Korea, many of the efforts to secure Russia's far larger arsenal have been mired in midlevel bureaucratic wrangling. The pace has picked up since President Bush pressed the issue at a February summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But U.S. officials say privately that a chill in U.S.-Russian relations and the growing power of Russia's security services make any gains fragile.

Throughout, the program has faced resistance from Russian officials who saw it as a way for the U.S. to steal military secrets and from members of the U.S. Congress who saw it as another foreign-aid boondoggle. One of the most difficult issues continues to be the U.S. demand that American officials get access to any site, no matter how sensitive, to ensure that U.S. tax dollars aren't being wasted.

In a scene reminiscent of the Cold War, border guards in the Russian city of Perm late last month briefly detained a U.S. delegation led by Sen. Richard Lugar, a father of the nuclear security program. The guards insisted on searching the delegation's plane, relenting only after Washington protested to the Kremlin.

In 1991, with the Soviet Union unraveling, Mr. Lugar and former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn began pushing for funding to help Moscow dismantle and secure its nuclear weapons. The main fear in those days, says Mr. Lugar, was of "Red Army privateers and maybe even high-ranking officials" trying to seize their own arsenals.

More Stability

Today, the Russian government is far more stable, and with oil over $60 a barrel, increasingly able to pay its own bills. But U.S. officials say the Kremlin has been disturbingly slow to react to the new threats it faces, even after a series of brutal attacks by Chechen terrorists. "I don't think they've internalized" the dangers, says Paul Longsworth, until recently a deputy administrator of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, which helps Russia secure its nuclear sites. He says it's worthwhile for the U.S. to pay for Russian nuclear security because "if we do the job we know that it's done."

The size of Russia's nuclear arsenal is a state secret. U.S. analysts estimate that Russia may have as much as 600 metric tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium stored outside of weapons and around 16,000 warheads stored at 100 to 150 sites of varying size.

During the Cold War the Soviet Union hid its nuclear design and production facilities in 10 secret cities, including Ozersk, site of the empty Mayak warehouse. The Soviets erased the names of these cities from maps, and they barred outsiders from entering and most residents from leaving.

Even today, rusting barbed-wire fences surround Ozersk, and the city is still off-limits to most outsiders. A sign on the road toward the city warns in English and Russian: "Entrance of the foreign citizens is strictly prohibited without special permission." Further down is a security post, gate and guards armed with assault rifles.

Once U.S. officials got beyond that perimeter they found security frighteningly lax. Rose Gottemoeller, then a senior official in the Department of Energy, visited Ozersk in 1999 and recalls being taken to an old warehouse where the wooden door was closed with a single, creaky metal lock and the glass windows had no bars. Inside, she says, "on the floor were rows and rows of little buckets with their handles sticking up and plutonium inside."

Ms. Gottemoeller says her guide asked her if she'd like to see what a bucket of plutonium looks like and then handed her one. While limited contact with plutonium isn't dangerous unless it is ingested, she says it was "pretty frightening" to think how easily those buckets could end up in the wrong hands.

Since then the U.S. has provided high-tech security and accounting systems for more than half of the buildings with nuclear material in Russia's far-flung research and development complex. They are believed to contain about 30% of Russia's stocks of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium.

Getting Russia's military brass to accept help at secret warhead storage sites involves particularly delicate wooing. In a nation where the military is cash starved and facilities are often rundown, the main attraction is the offer of free high-tech security.

A small training base in the town of Sergeev Posad outside Moscow—built with some $20 million in U.S. funds for the Russian Army's main nuclear security force-is a glittering showroom of all the Americans can provide. The grass along the three rows of concrete and barbed-wire fences is freshly mowed and the tree lines are trimmed to prevent aggressors from hiding. To gain entrance on a recent morning, a visitor had to pass first through a "mantrap"—a metal cage in which the gate to get inside the base opens only after the gate to the outside is closed.

Security Measures

Standing beside the thick metal door of a model nuclear bunker, base commander Col. Sergei Gruzdiev ticked off all the features that he says would make it "nearly impossible" for thieves or terrorists to steal a warhead. Key cards, code pads, motion detectors and three levels of video surveillance would all have to be disabled just to get to this point. lb then unlock the bunker door, three people with proper clearance must place their hands on a biometric scanner. "It has to be a live hand," the colonel noted.

Such enthusiasm is bearing fruit. The Pentagon is currently installing technology similar to the kind Col. Gruzdiev showed off at a dozen of the Russian army's nuclear warhead storage sites. And Moscow recently turned over a list of a further 18 for which it wants help. The Pentagon, which says it won't contribute to Russian military readiness by upgrading security at active military bases, is likely to approve 15 to 16 of those requests.

For all Col. Gruzdiev's enthusiasm, there was a noticeable chill in the air when a group from Raytheon Co., which had just won a Pentagon contract to up-grade security at several storage sites, arrived for its tour. They were left standing on the town road outside the base for more than 30 minutes—apparently a gesture to show who controlled the gate.

The U.S. is now pressing Russia hard to accept help securing its two largest nuclear sites: the warhead assembly and disassembly facilities in the secret cities of Lesnoy and Trekhgorny. But the Russian nuclear establishment is fearful of letting slip the closely guarded secrets of its warhead manufacturing and design. To calm those fears, last fall the U.S. took a group of experts from Russia's nuclear agency for a tour of its own top-secret nuclear-weapons assembly plant in Amarillo, Texas. U.S. officials say they hoped to show the Russians that the limited access the U.S. was seeking wouldn't endanger any secrets. Vladimir Kuchinov, who heads the international cooperation department at Russia's Federal Agency for Atomic Energy, wasn't impressed. "Have you any information about what the Russians saw?" he asks. "Just the fence and nothing more. We also can in the spirit of reciprocity show them the fence."

As for letting the U.S. help_ protect Lesnoy and Trekhgorny, Mr. Kuchinovwho Washington considers one of the more sympathetic Russian officials says flatly: "It's off the table."

Driven in part by new oil wealth, Russians increasingly bridle at being portrayed as a junior partner or a nation in need of handouts. Evgeny Avrorin, the scientific director at the closed nuclear city of Snezhinsk, says the Nunn-Lugar program was essential when the Soviet Union was collapsing. "It's all become more difficult," he says. A common view on the Russian side, he says, is: "We gave up too many of our secrets for too little money."

Even program boosters in Russia say the U.S. has sometimes made problems worse by appearing deaf to these sentiments. The two governments have agreed to jointly get rid of 68 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, each burning 34 tons as reactor fuel. But the project was stalled for more than two years after a newly assertive Moscow insisted that if U.S. government personnel or contractors committed an act of sabotage or terrorism while building a new fuel fabrication plant in Russia, they should be held liable.

Administration hawks including then-top State Department official John Bolton demanded the same blanket exemption from liability that Russia first granted in the early 1990s when Moscow was flat on its back. After becoming secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice reversed course and ordered her aides to accept the Russian position. But other issues, including who will pay to run Russia's fuel plant, need to be settled before construction begins in the two countries. Meanwhile, some U.S. officials say privately that if the program is delayed much longer, the White House—which is looking for cost savings in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—could pull the plug on the American plant. That would probably kill the entire project.

The effort to fill the Mayak warehouse has gotten caught up in a similar swirl of bureaucracy and mistrust.

Fears of man-made disasters and government malfeasance are all too familiar around here. In 1948 engineers from Ozersk dumped highly radioactive waste into the nearby Techa River, contaminating 100,000 people in farming villages downstream. When a nuclear waste tank exploded in 1957 it spewed radioactivity across a large swath of countryside. The Soviet government bulldozed entire villages, but only months and sometimes years after the accidents happened. Others were left standing, prompting some people to suspect they were being used as guinea pigs to test the effects of radiation.

Russia first raised the idea of a huge warehouse in 1991. It warned that to meet its treaty commitments it would need a secure place to keep all the nuclear material coming out of deactivated warheads. In December 2003, the huge concrete structure in Ozersk was finally completed after many delays caused by debates over location, design and funding.

`Transparency' Agreement

Washington and Moscow have yet to complete a "transparency" agreement. It would lay out how the U.S. will ensure the hermetically sealed stainless-steel containers being loaded into the warehouse are filled with weapons-grade plutonium—without learning the precise composition of the plutonium used in Russian warheads.

U.S. officials say the two sides have agreed in principle on the monitoring technology. The Pentagon has sent two letters in recent months to Russia insisting that loading can proceed even without an agreement. Mr. Kuchinov of the Russian atomic agency says that might be theoretically so but "nevertheless we are trying to have an agreement."

Another unsettled issue is how much plutonium the warehouse should hold. American scientists say it can safely store up to 100 metric tons. But the U.S. is also insisting that any plutonium stored there can only be removed if it's on the way to being destroyed rather than recycled into weapons. Under those conditions Russian officials say they're only prepared to store 25 metric tons, all of it slated to be burned if the fuel plant is ever built.

Meanwhile, political resistance to the facility is growing. Russian nationalists denounce it as a way to lure the country into storing all of its weapons stocks in one vulnerable basket, while environmentalists claim the massive building is so flimsy that a single intruder with a grenade could set off an explosion that would pollute half of Europe. The allegations have been trumpeted by members of parliament and in a recent Moscow television expose' by a popular tabloid journalist.

The history of nuclear accidents weighs heavily on German Lukashen, a member of Ozersk's city council. He says he considers the U.S. a friend but questions whether it has done all it can to make the warehouse safe. "If they had the security systems and the environmental controls, then it would all be different," he says. He wants to produce a Web site recounting the alleged problems including an online computer game in which people would try to defend the warehouse from attackers.

The U.S. and Russian governments have done little to allay those fears. A Pentagon-commissioned study completed last year pronounces the facility structurally safe from most accidents and disasters, but the study hasn't been released publicly. (The study didn't consider insider theft or terrorism.) On the Russian side, Mr. Kuchinov says "it's useless" trying to rebut sensationalist charges.