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– General John Shalikashvili
former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
U.S.-Russian Nuclear Program Expires
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Caitlin Harrington

Last-minute informal U.S.-Russian talks aimed at preserving an eight-year-old program appear to have come up short. The Nuclear Cities Initiative (NCI), designed to keep Russian nuclear weapons specialists from selling their secrets to rogue states, expired Sept. 22 with little hope that it would be revived.

The United States and Russia established NCI in 1998 as a unique program to rejuvenate 10 “closed” Russian cities that had held key portions of the Soviet nuclear weapons complex. At that time, many of them were reeling from the downsizing of the Soviet military machine and brimming with out-of-work nuclear specialists looking for a steady cash flow. The program provided jobs, English language training, small business loans, and other forms of economic relief to these unemployed nuclear workers.

Since these cities were founded, workers have essentially been isolated there by the Soviet and then Russian authorities because of their government’s desire to prevent the spread of nuclear secrets.

But NCI appears to be drawing to an end because the Department of Energy and Rosatom, the Russian nuclear agency, failed to renew the partnership in 2003 after Russia rejected a U.S. demand for a blanket liability exemption for all Americans working on NCI projects or in a program to dispose of surplus plutonium from nuclear weapons. (See ACT, September 2003). Earlier this month, the United States meted out a compromise with Russia on the plutonium disposition program that they said would apply to all future such programs. But it may be too late to save NCI. In 2003 the two countries agreed on a three-year extension to wrap up ongoing projects, but that period is now coming to an end.

Indeed, current and former U.S. government officials say there may be good reasons to let the NCI project fade away. They point out that the economic relief program may have lost some of its relevance in recent years as the Russian economy has improved. Some Russian government officials have echoed that sentiment, saying that they no longer need to rely on U.S. help to keep workers in closed cities employed. With the Russian economy booming, people living in Russia’s nuclear cities are doing much better than they were back in 1998 when guards at nuclear facilities were known to leave their posts to forage for food in the woods, according to former Clinton administration official Matthew Bunn.

But Kenneth Luongo, also a former Clinton administration official, said that the end of NCI is the latest harbinger of the decline of U.S.-Russian nuclear security cooperation. NCI’s downfall marks the abandonment of efforts to shrink the footprint of the Russian nuclear weapons complex, Luongo said, and of U.S. efforts to find jobs for scientists who, in the post-September 11 era, could cause security problems for the United States if they seek jobs in Iran, Iraq, or other countries of proliferation concern. Luongo, Bunn, and officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) also point to the important, albeit modest, successes of NCI. It created about 1,600 jobs and helped to close down one of the Soviet Union’s largest nuclear warhead factories in Sarov, turning it into a computer center.

Even as the NCI program appears to be coming to an end, however, NNSA officials insist that programs to prevent unemployed nuclear weapons scientists from smuggling parts and selling secrets are still a priority. Last year, NNSA wrapped NCI into a broader program, Global Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention, which still subsists today on a U.S. government budget that averages about $25 million a year. The program pairs former weapons scientists in countries such as Russia and Libya with U.S. businesses to pursue constructive, civilian commercial enterprises, such as producing antidotes for tuberculosis or influenza.

NNSA officials also still say there is a chance that last-minute talks between the United States and Russia could yield a new bilateral agreement to continue the kind of work pursued under NCI. It is too early to know whether those talks with yield results, and it is likely that any new efforts to help the closed cities will look different than NCI.

“Russia and we have had informal discussions about how and whether a new bilateral agreement could usefully advance our security interests, given changes in the security environment since the original NCI agreement was established,” NNSA spokesperson Julianne Smith told Arms Control Today Sept. 21.

Whether NCI is renewed, those focused on reducing the risks posed by Russia’s nuclear weapons complex have their work cut out for them. Over the next several years, Russia is scheduled to shut down its three plutonium-production reactors—two at Seversk and one at Zheleznogorsk—and the two processing plants that serve them in a move that will throw additional thousands of nuclear scientists and technicians out of work.