Rebuilding U.S.-Russian Nuclear Security Cooperation

By Matthew Bunn

As the Boston Globe reported Monday, Russia has put a stop, for now, to most U.S.-Russian nuclear security cooperation.  Russian, U.S., and world security will be in more danger as a result.  But some small pieces of cooperation continue – and with creativity and effort, it may be possible to rebuild a robust nuclear security dialogue of equals, rather than a donor-recipient relationship.

Given the crisis in U.S.-Russian relations over Ukraine (and the many other disagreements before the fighting in Ukraine broke out), none of this is surprising.  Russia had phased out cooperative work with the Ministry of Defense (MoD) when the Nunn-Lugar umbrella agreement expired in 2013.  While substantial security upgrades for nuclear warhead sites and Russian naval fuel were completed before that cutoff happened, a variety of planned work on sustainability, training, testing, and maintenance never happened.

Now Russia has also ended most of the work that had been planned under the protocol to the Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Program in Russia (MNEPR) agreement that was negotiated to partly replace the Nunn-Lugar pact.  U.S.-funded work will no longer be done at:

  • Any of Russia’s nuclear weapons complex.
  • Any of Russia’s facilities that process nuclear materials in bulk – reprocessing plants, enrichment plants, fabrication plants, and so on.
  • Any but a few of Russia’s facilities with substantial amounts of weapons-usable nuclear material.

U.S.-funded work on converting Russian reactors fueled with highly enriched uranium (HEU) to low-enriched uranium is also stopped for now, along with work on radiation detection.

But U.S. experts are still working with Russian counterparts to:

  • Bring back Russian-supplied highly enriched uranium (HEU) for secure storage and disposal in Russia.
  • Strengthen nuclear security and accounting regulations (with Russia’s civilian nuclear regulator, Rostekhnadzor).
  • Improve security at a handful of sites not controlled by either the MoD or Russia’s state nuclear corporation, Rosatom.  (The largest of these is the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow, where hundreds of kilograms of HEU is located.)
  • Finish a last few projects with Rosatom organizations, including three facilities with small amounts of weapons-usable nuclear material.

U.S. and Russian experts had accomplished a great deal together already; nuclear security in Russia today is dramatically better than it was in the 1990s.   But the threats in Russia are substantial, and some important nuclear security weaknesses remain that thieves could potentially exploit.  (See these slides for a brief summary of what got done and what the remaining dangers are.)

Russia and the United States should use these last pieces of cooperation as a base from which to rebuild a more robust and fully equal approach to working together on nuclear security.  As the countries with the world’s largest stockpiles and most experience in securing them, we still have much to learn from each other.  (As just one example, in the 1990s, Russian experts found a critical bug in U.S.-supplied software for keeping track of nuclear materials, which could cause material to just disappear from the books; the Russian work benefitted both countries.)

What might a genuinely equal approach, incorporating ideas and resources from both sides look like?  Key elements might include:

  • Intensive workshops to explore the best approaches to key nuclear security problems – from protecting insider threats to building an alert and proactive nuclear security culture.  (Both are outstanding problems in both Russia and the United States.)
  • Joint R&D to develop new nuclear security and accounting technologies – which might be more cost-effective.  (The two sides have worked together on a variety of joint R&D over the years.)
  • Helping other countries improve their nuclear security – and laying out good security practices that all countries with weapons-usable nuclear materials should have in place.  (The two sides might, for example, work out packages of nuclear security help that each would offer when their companies build a nuclear reactor in a country that never had one before.)
  • Exchanging visits to nuclear facilities, to compare approaches and offer confidential advice on improvements.

It’s critical to keep a dialogue among technical experts going.  Often, the personal relationships among scientists and engineers built up over years of joint work have provided a back channel of communication that has helped the U.S. and Russian governments overcome problems.  The two governments need to find ways to let their technical experts work together.  The problem of nuclear security is too important to let political disputes get in the way.

Matthew Bunn is a Professor of Practice at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.