Don't Let Furor From Cox Report Undermine U.S.-Russian Cooperation

Kenneth N. Luongo

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The China nuclear spying furor has led to calls from some in Congress for major changes in U.S. collaboration with foreign scientists on non-proliferation and arms control activities. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, for one, has even called for the application of a legislative "tourniquet" to cut off foreign scientist visits to America's pre-eminent national laboratories. However, this tourniquet could become a noose that will strangle collaborations that are vital for U.S. national security, particularly if applied to the numerous laboratory-to-laboratory collaborations that the United States and Russia have initiated.

The U.S.-Russian cooperative nuclear security agenda evolved from rocky beginnings, but it has become an important foundation of U.S.-Russian relations. While this cooperation has survived the initial scrutiny and animosity of Cold War bureaucracies and the recent U.S.-led NATO bombing of Serbia, it may not survive the suffocating new security rules that result from the Cox Report.

Since 1991, the United States and Russia have been working together to address the nuclear proliferation dangers that resulted from the collapse of the former Soviet Union. The agenda started with the so-called Nunn-Lugar security assistance legislation that provided $400 million in Department of Defense funds for work with several former Soviet republics and now has expanded to include funding from the departments of State and Energy and other agencies. The overall yearly budget for this work now exceeds $600 million.

Early Progress

In the early years of Nunn-Lugar, significant strides were made in facilitating the consolidation of the Soviet nuclear arsenal onto the territory of Russia; in promoting the non-nuclear-weapon-state status of Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus; and in funding the destruction of former Soviet offensive ballistic missiles.

From 1994-98 major progress was made in improving the security of fissile material in Russia. By 2000, it is estimated that close to 100 metric tons of Russian fissile material that is not contained in weapons will be secured through this collaboration (about one-sixth of Russia's total stockpile).

At present, the partnership has moved to address the central issue underlying the nuclear proliferation danger in Russia: the need to downsize Russia's massively oversized and severely underfunded nuclear weapons complex. This new program is the Nuclear Cities Initiative.

The threat of proliferation from the Russian nuclear weapons complex is real, and it is acknowledged by senior Russian officials. The basic dangers are as follows:

• The complex currently supports approximately 127,000 workers and 600,000 dependents in 10 "closed" cities spread around the country. It has been officially declared that 30,000 to 50,000 of these employees are excess labor.

• Government funding for nuclear weapons activities has dropped significantly over the past 10 years, perhaps by as much as 50 percent or more.

• Workers are often paid months late. Current projections put the salary shortfall at around $400 million, and the depreciated ruble has made the wages that are paid worth much less.

• It is difficult for nuclear workers to move and find new jobs because of Russia's depressed economy and the holdover Soviet system of subsidizing apartments and services. The August 1998 economic collapse in Russia exacerbated this situation.

• There are 650 metric tons of non-weaponized plutonium and highly enriched uranium spread over about 40 locations and in 300 to 400 buildings.

• There is another 700 metric tons of fissile material in weapons, and more than 1,000 of these weapons move through the complex yearly for dismantlement and refurbishment.

• Russia retains the capability to produce thousands of nuclear warheads per year.

• There have been cases of attempted smuggling of weapon- grade fissile materials from Russian nuclear facilities.

• Countries of proliferation concern are seeking access to key Russian nuclear weapon ingredients, including nuclear material, scientists and technology.

• The Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM) has signed a number of contracts to perform work in countries of proliferation concern (including Iran, India and China) in an effort to generate cash. This has caused concern in the West and irritated U.S.-Russian political relations.

• New concerns are arising about the ability to ensure adequate numbers of trained custodians for the nuclear complex in the next century, and about the nuclear consequences of a possible regional breakup of Russia.

U.S.-Russian Cooperation

Given the dangers presented by the Russian nuclear complex, the objectives of U.S.-Russian cooperation are to prevent proliferation by theft and diversion of materials, technologies and scientists; to irreversibly eliminate excess fissile materials and warheads; and to downsize the complex in a rational manner. To accomplish these objectives, the United States and Russia have engaged in five categories of activity:

• Securing nuclear weapons, weapon-usable fissile materials and technologies;

• Limiting fissile material production and use;

• Instituting irreversible nuclear reductions;

• Disposing of excess fissile material; and

• Stabilizing nuclear custodians and downsizing the complex.

To execute these programs effectively, hundreds of laboratory-to-laboratory visits have been required. Before the U.S. and Russian laboratories commenced intensive cooperation, when only government-to-government dialogue was permitted, little progress was made with Russia on many of these issues. Years more work, and likely many hundreds more foreign scientist visits, will be required if the major proliferation challenges posed by Russia are to be resolved.

There has been no charge by the Cox Committee or other openly available official reports that visiting Russian scientists gained access to U.S. nuclear weapons secrets while on official business at the laboratories. In fact, virtually all of these visitors are confined to unclassified areas of the labs during their stays. Still, the threat of foreign spying at U.S. labs is real, and the current focus is on China's spying efforts at U.S. labs and the role of a U.S. lab scientist in China's acquisition of sensitive information. But efforts to improve a flawed laboratory security system should not smother activities that are in the vital interest of the United States.

Yet, there are already early indications that important work is being slowed by tightened security. For example, the newly required intensified checks of foreign visitors have resulted in at least one senior Russian scientist with no foreign intelligence ties being uninvited to a laboratory meeting. Also, a Russian military officer was excluded from the Washington offices of a national laboratory. And one major meeting of U.S. and Russian laboratory specialists was postponed because of background-check bureaucracy. And this occurred in just the first few weeks after the Cox Report was released. Panic-driven Department of Energy efforts to enhance security and pending congressional legislation which calls for months-long cooling off periods and greater security scrutiny could worsen this situation. At the very least, it will further embolden the ascendant anti-U.S. forces in Russia that have already crimped cooperative security collaboration with U.S. laboratories because they believe it is a cover for U.S. spying.

The establishment of U.S.-Russian cooperative programs entailed calculated risks for both sides because progress requires access to the nuclear crown jewels of each nation. The security apparatuses in both countries have never been fully comfortable with these efforts because of the sensitivity of the facilities involved and decades of mutual mistrust. Political skepticism from nationalists and unreformed Cold Warriors in both countries have fueled these security concerns. But these programs have been identified as being among the most important for international security by the political leadership of both nations. And they have helped create a level of trust, flow of information and non-proliferation consciousness that will make it difficult to return to an era when U.S. and Russian nuclear scientists work only to perfect new bomb designs.

In the wake of the nuclear spying reports, President Clinton ordered an independent panel of nuclear experts to review the findings of the damage assessment recommended by the Cox Committee. Led by former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral David Jeremiah, and including President Bush's national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, the panel concluded that contacts with Russian and Chinese nuclear weapons specialists have value to the United States and that this "should not be lost in our concern about protecting secrets." The panel called for a special assessment of these cooperative efforts. This is a prudent action that may help further strengthen security surrounding foreign visits while allowing their benefits to continue.

The nuclear spying allegations contained in the Cox Report are clearly alarming and must be rapidly addressed. But the remedies should be directed at the real problems. U.S.-Russian laboratory-to-laboratory collaborations are choking off proliferation dangers to the United States and the world community. Applying a tight tourniquet to limit these activities will impede the required rapid response to a clear-and-present danger to our security future.

Kenneth N. Luongo is the former director of the Department of Energy's Office of Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and senior advisor to the secretary of energy for non-proliferation policy (1994-1997). He is currently the executive director of the Russian-American Nuclear Security Advisory Council and a visiting research collaborator at Princeton University.