Boston Globe, July 22, 1999, p. A19

Fixing a bad deal with Russia

By Alan Kuperman

WASHINGTON -- When Al Gore meets Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin next week in Washington, the vice president will have an opportunity to rectify one of the biggest blunders of his tenure. At issue is an ''arms control'' agreement Gore negotiated with Stephashin's predecessor, Viktor Chernomyrdin, that is actually opposed by Washington arms control groups on grounds it will increase risks of loose nukes.

While the upcoming minisummit may be intended to showcase Gore as presidential, he will demonstrate that quality only if he emerges with an improved nuclear deal.

The goal of the Gore-Chernomyrdin pact is worthy: to stop production of weapons-grade plutonium. Despite the end of the Cold War, three Russian nuclear reactors still produce such plutonium, one of two radioactive explosives that can be used to make atomic bombs, such as the one dropped on Nagasaki. The reactors, located in Siberia, cannot simply be shut down because they also generate steam for electricity and heat. The solution, agreed by all, is to modify the fuel in the reactors so that they cease producing such plutonium while continuing to generate energy.

The problem is Russia's disastrous choice of a new fuel - highly enriched uranium, or ''HEU,'' the radioactive explosive used in the Hiroshima bomb. Bizarrely, Moscow proposes to reduce the proliferation threat from one nuclear explosive by increasing that of the other.

This cure is worse than the illness. Over 10 years it would eliminate production of some 14 metric tons of bomb-grade plutonium but increase commerce in bomb-grade uranium by some 36 metric tons. Still worse, the bomb-grade uranium fuel would be fabricated, transported, and stored at Russian facilities that the US National Academy of Sciences recently warned are inadequate to prevent theft and diversion.

Minimum security upgrades are not due for completion until 2003, but Russia is scheduled to begin fabricating bomb-grade fuel in spring 2000 to convert the first reactor. Terrorists and rogue states would have their choice of vulnerable sites to target for the mere 50 pounds or so of such uranium needed to make a bomb.

The Russian plan also would undermine longstanding US nonproliferation efforts to reduce global commerce in bomb-grade uranium. Since 1978, such traffic has been slashed from about three metric tons annually to just a few hundred kilograms, en route to zero. Moscow's proposal would reverse these two decades of progress in a single blow, generating more such commerce than all other civilian reactors worldwide combined.

Fortunately, there is an alternate way to halt Russia's production of weapons plutonium without inadvertently raising proliferation risks. The reactors could be converted to low-enriched uranium or ''LEU'' fuel, which cannot be diverted to weapons. Similar fuel was used successfully many years ago in another Russian military production reactor, and Moscow's Ministry of Atomic Energy concluded last year that conversion of all three ''reactor cores to LEU fuel is feasible'' without any significant difference in the fuel-cycle cost of conversion. Final irradiation tests will be completed in 2001, delaying conversion by less than a year if at all.

Moscow, however, resists this safer alternative. Prideful, it denies there are any security failings at its facilities that necessiate such a change. Perhaps as important, Russian bureaucrats have ties to the company that would fabricate HEU fuel but not LEU.

Last year, a coalition of eight US arms-control groups urged Gore ''to ensure that no further funds are disbursed that could in any way facilitate HEU core conversion.''

Instead, the vice president acquiesced to Russia, agreeing to ''HEU fuel for the initial cores.'' Trying to appease the arms control community, he pledged to ''concurrently pursue the development'' of the alternative LEU design. However, this promise is hollow. Once the United States converts the Russian reactors to run on bomb-grade uranium, Moscow will likely use its own stockpile of this proliferation-prone fuel in perpetuity, having no incentive to shut the reactors for a second conversion.

The simple fact is that Gore's subordinates originally negotiated bad terms, as some of them now admit privately. The vicepresident has been reluctant to pressure the Russians for better terms because he fears derailing one of his few major ''accomplishments'' in office, especially while running for president.

However, the vice president can and should use his ample economic leverage to insist that Moscow switch to the alternate, low-enriched fuel plan. Washington is paying virtually the entire $300 million bill to upgrade and convert the Russian reactors. If Gore makes switching to LEU a condition of this aid, Moscow hardly can afford to say no. In the unlikely event it does, Gore should insist on no deal rather than one that increases proliferation risks.

Alan Kuperman is a senior policy analyst for the Nuclear Control Institute.

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