Obstacles & Opportunities

US & Russian Academies Forge Ties for Nuclear Security

by Christopher A. Eldridge

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In response to the growing threats of nuclear terrorism and proliferation, the US National Academies (NA) and the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) initiated a series of joint projects in early 2002 that bring their concerted expertise to bear on the challenges of cooperation between their two countries on nuclear non-proliferation. The IAEA has lent its talent and support to this inter-academy collaboration by hosting workshops that were jointly organized by the NA and RAS with financial support from the US-based Nuclear Threat Initiative.

The two workshops, held at IAEA headquarters in September 2003, shed valuable light on both the obstacles and opportunities being faced. The first workshop explored ways of overcoming impediments to cooperation between the US and Russia on nuclear non-proliferation. Participants included current and former US and Russian government officials with responsibility for cooperative programs as well as experts from non-governmental organizations in the two countries. The second workshop convened a multinational group of experts on nuclear materials protection, control, and accounting (MPC&A) to discuss practices and procedures in light of the evolving threats of nuclear proliferation and terrorism.

Overcoming Impediments

Participants in the first workshop explored ways of strengthening the cooperative programs of the US and Russia that are central to the non-proliferation and counter-terrorism goals of the international community. The goals of these programs, which began soon after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, are to secure, consolidate, and eliminate nuclear weapons and materials that are the legacy of the Soviet Union's enormous nuclear complex. As the IAEA's Tariq Rauf pointed out in his opening remarks, US and Russia have been exemplary in their cooperation with the IAEA in support of its non-proliferation programs, but the two countries have a number challenges to work through in their own cooperation. In light of the fact that these two nations retain what are by far the world's largest nuclear arsenals, Rauf also argued that achieving significant progress toward nuclear disarmament is necessary if non-proliferation efforts are ultimately to be successful.

The first major theme to emerge from discussion was that the many successes of cooperative nuclear non-proliferation should be recognized as such and held up as positive examples. These include the Highly-Enriched Uranium (HEU) Purchase Agreement, dismantlement of decommissioned Russian nuclear submarines that carried nuclear weapons, and the International Science and Technology Center. Programs such as these epitomize the great potential of international cooperation for building peace and stability.

Despite these successes, however, a number of impediments to cooperation on nuclear non-proliferation between the US and Russia remain. Political hurdles are among the most intractable of these. They include the linking of continued funding for cooperative programs to broader political agendas in the US, refusal of access for US government officials to Russian facilities where US-funded work is underway, and the difficulties faced by Russian non-proliferation experts attempting to obtain visas to enter the US for scientific discussions or even official government business.

Another impediment to cooperation is the issue of liability protection for US contractors working on projects in Russian nuclear facilities. Based on the liability provisions initially negotiated with the Russians when cooperation began, the US government contends that US contractors should have blanket liability protection against any accident. The Russian government, however, argues that this level of protection is unreasonable and exceeds international standards. Political challenges like these reflect not only the differing political systems of the two nations but also the vestiges of mistrust built up over decades of Cold War hostility. Bureaucratic and organizational issues, such as communication gaps and disagreements over areas of responsibility, also create formidable impediments.

Agreeing that there is no single solution to these problems, workshop participants discussed a wide array of tools that officials from both governments might use to address the challenges of cooperative nuclear non-proliferation. Formal and informal interactions at multiple levels of responsibility, both inside and outside of government, for example, are valuable fora for providing decisive leadership, overcoming bureaucratic hurdles, identifying problems and solutions, and building trust through personal relationships. Additional scientific and technical cooperation, especially on the development of proliferation-resistant nuclear energy technologies, would also increase the opportunities for overcoming impediments to cooperation.

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