There is much attention given to North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons (See blog post, “Iran’s Perilous Path”, 11-25-11) and strategic arms reduction agreements between the U. S. and Russia (See blog post “Reducing the Deficit: A Nuclear Benefit”, 10-16-11). Unfortunately not enough attention is given to successful efforts of the U.S. to secure, reduce, and manage nuclear materials around the world. While there are numerous efforts underway, this article will touch on cooperation between the U.S., Russia, and former Soviet Union block states of Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. This cooperation with Russia is what may contradict the leading Republican presidential candidate who recently declared Russia “our number one geopolitical foe”.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated on December 25, 1991, the world was thrown into turmoil. Governments questioned what was going to happen to all of the nuclear weapons and materials that had been based in the former Soviet Union but were now in independent countries. Who owned the weapons and how would they be secured so they would not be sold on the black market to terrorists or rogue countries, was an open question. Who was going to be responsible for their safety? How would the world keep former Soviet Union nuclear scientists from selling their capabilities to the highest bidders.
Fortunately, the former Soviet Republics of Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan decided to be non nuclear countries and agreed to return all weapons to Russia and/or allow other countries to be responsible for security of materials on their sites. The United States provided security to many, if not all, of these sites including a nuclear testing site near Kurchatov, Kazakhstan.
The governments of Russia and the United States had to find a way to secure, reduce, and manage these excess nuclear materials. To this end in 1993, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin negotiated and signed the U.S.-Russia Highly Enriched Uranium Agreement. Both countries set up government owned corporations, the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC) and Tekhsnabeksport (Tenex) to execute the deal. The plan was to take surplus nuclear materials and weapons, decommission them, and down-blend their highly enriched uranium (HEU, weapons grade uranium is enriched to 90%) and reduce its enrichment to that needed for nuclear power reactors, or turning it into low-enriched uranium (LEU) which is enriched to only 4-5% U235. Generally under this agreement, Tenex down-blends the HEU to LEU which is then sold and delivered to USEC for resale to companies or countries running nuclear power reactors. The arrangement called for shipments over the 20 year lifetime of the agreement which ends in 2013. This 2013 termination of the program raises questions of whether a new agreement will be agreed to and ratified or whether the two countries will continue to provide the functions they now perform for each other but on the broader stage of the rest of the world without a formal agreement between them.
As of March 1, 2012 the U.S. has monitored the elimination of 442 metric tons of Russian weapons-origin HEU, the equivalent of approximately 17,680 nuclear warheads. This same down-blending process has been used to eliminate U.S. surplus HEU (some 127 metric tons by 2012) as a result of our own retirement of nuclear warheads. As of now, the Russian down-blending sites obtain excess HEU from around the world and convert it to LEU. This LEU is returned to the country of origin as a part of the U.S. Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA) Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI).
In addition, because the U.S. feared the former scientists of the Soviet Union might begin selling their capabilities around the world, the U.S. State Department manages the International Science and Technology Centers in Moscow and Kiev. These centers provide research grants to Russian scientists and engineers so that they will not sell their knowledge to other nations or terrorist groups. The U.S. Department of Energy funds programs that seek to provide these scientists and engineers with help to find employment in commercial enterprises around the world.
This kind of cooperation between Russia and the United States is all the more rare because the two countries have been constructively cooperating for almost two decades. The two countries working closely together for so long would indicate a constructive partnership to limit the spread of nuclear weapons and would contradict some Republican presidential candidate perceptions of rivalry between the two countries.
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