Experts give us their opinion about Russia’s controversial decision to ensure the safety and security of its nuclear weapons facilities without U.S. assistance.

A truck carries containers with low-enriched uranium to be used as fuel for nuclear reactors, on a port in St. Petersburg, on November 14, 2013. A 20-year program to convert highly enriched uranium from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons into fuel for U.S. power plants ended. Photo: AP

Concerns over the future of Russia’s nuclear weapons facilities are once again the subject of debates in the U.S. after a recent report in The Boston Globe on Jan. 20. The report suggests that “joint security work at 18 civilian facilities housing weapons material would cease” and that “another project at two facilities to convert highly enriched uranium into a less dangerous form also has been stopped.”

U.S. experts criticized the move. “I think it greatly increases the risk of catastrophic terrorism,” Sam Nunn, the former Democratic senator from Georgia and an architect of the cooperative threat reduction programs of the 1990s, told The Boston Globe.

However, in an official statement on its website, Rosatom (Russia’s largest state-owned nuclear energy corporation) assured that cooperation between Moscow and Washington in the area of global nuclear safety would continue in 2015. “Russia and the United States have special responsibility to ensure the safety and security of nuclear materials and their reliable physical protection to prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorist organizations,” noted Rosatom.

Russian media assessed the move by the Kremlin as the latest phase in the deterioration of relations between the two countries against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis.

Given the debate over the topic, Russia Direct reached out to experts for their take on the situation. Many of them see nothing worrisome about the current situation and explain that the U.S. knew about Russia’s position long before the current deterioration in bilateral relations.

Anatoly Dyakov, chief research officer at the Center for the Study of Arms Control, Energy and Environment

Back at the Nuclear Security Summit in 2010, Russia said that every country should be responsible for the safety of its own nuclear materials. That summit should be seen as the point at which the country decided to go it alone on safety at its own nuclear facilities.

In the early 1990s, when Russia was undergoing economic mayhem, the safety of nuclear materials was top of the agenda. Given that Russia had more weapons-grade nuclear materials than any other country, Western partners were greatly concerned about their safety.

One area of the Nunn-Lugar program, adopted in 1992, oversaw the strengthening of systems designed to protect and secure nuclear materials. I wish to stress that this cooperation implied not only U.S., but also Russian spending on the upgrading of systems to protect and take stock of sensitive materials. A colossal amount of work went into the program and nuclear plants got new equipment.

Today the Americans recognize that the Russian system of control and accounting of nuclear materials has improved significantly, facilitated by the improved economic situation in Russia in the 2000s and the efforts of the Ministry of Defense and Rosatom to improve protection at nuclear facilities.

As co-financers, the Americans were able to visit Russian nuclear facilities and control spending. Moscow never had access to U.S. nuclear facilities, which provoked indignation over the inequality of the partnership. By 2013 much of the work had been carried out, and the Nunn-Lugar program was wrapped up.

The United States understood that Moscow was in a position to finance the safety of its own nuclear facilities. Nevertheless, we were keen to continue cooperation with Washington, but this time on an equal footing. The U.S., after much hesitation, declined.

Taking into account the deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations over Ukraine, Moscow’s decision to independently ensure the safety of nuclear facilities on Russian soil seems perfectly logical.

But over the years of cooperation under the Nunn-Lugar program, Russian and American nuclear experts have established good professional and personal contacts, which is no less important than the results of their collaboration. It is essential to maintain these ties in the face of the present crisis in relations.

Anton Khlopkov, director of the Russian Center for Energy and Security, member of the Scientific Council under the Security Council of Russia

Russia has never guarded its nuclear facilities — either civilian installations or weapons complexes — jointly with the United States. It is correct instead to say that Moscow has collaborated with a number of countries, including the United States, on improving the safety of nuclear facilities.

The essence of this cooperation in the 1990s-2000s consisted primarily in foreign co-financing (given the economic hardships that Russia was experiencing at the time) and equipment. But it bears repeating that Russia has never guarded its nuclear facilities in conjunction with the United States or other countries.

American experts who say they were wrong-footed by Russia’s decision to wind up joint cooperation on the protection of nuclear facilities inside Russia are not telling the whole story. Signals to that effect were sent to the United States a decade ago.

One of the recent “signals” was delivered in 2013, when June of that year saw the expiry of the latest intergovernmental agreement to serve as the legal basis for all cooperation between the two sides in the field of nuclear safety. Russia decided not to renew the document.

Incidentally, that same article in The Boston Globe, which has been widely quoted by Russian media, contains a separate line that clearly states that the termination of projects in Russia came as no surprise to U.S. nuclear experts.

Still, the end of collaborative projects in Russia should not be seen as a sign of indifference on Moscow’s part towards cooperation with other countries, including the United States, on matters of nuclear safety. Implementation of a joint U.S.-Russian program for the removal of nuclear fuel based on highly enriched uranium from third-country research reactors is ongoing.

Under this project, nuclear material is still to be removed from research reactors sited in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Poland. From the program’s inception to its completion in 2016, a total of 2.5 metric tons of highly enriched uranium is due to be removed — enough, theoretically, to produce 100 nuclear warheads. This is an example of how, even at politically difficult times, Russia and the United States are ready to demonstrate pragmatism and cooperation where it is in the interests of both countries to do so.

It should be noted that shortly before the internal upheavals in Ukraine and the start of what is effectively a civil war, Moscow and Washington together removed almost 250 kilograms (551 pounds) of highly enriched uranium from the country. So once again, Russia’s long-standing decision not to continue joint projects with the United States on nuclear safety inside Russia should not be regarded as a rejection of nuclear cooperation in general.

It seems that Russia is interested in such cooperation. Therefore, it is necessary to seek out new places and ways to apply U.S.-Russian expertise in the field of nuclear safety. The two sides have accumulated vast experience that can be put to good use in future.

Andrei Baklitsky, director of the “Russia and Nuclear Nonproliferation” Program of the PIR Center

Not having seen the document itself, I find it hard to comment on the termination of cooperation between Russia and the United States in the field of nuclear safety. For the time being, we can only cite the article in The Boston Globe. My understanding is that it refers only to the termination of cooperation on specific Russian nuclear facilities, not cooperation in general.

The end of cooperation between Russia and the United States on the safety of nuclear facilities was in fact first mooted in the fall of 2014. The agreement between Washington and Moscow under the Nunn-Lugar program, which provided for joint actions with the United States to improve nuclear safety in Russia, expired in back in 2013, having fulfilled its main objectives. The new agreement signed that same year was substantially narrower in scope and not as critical for Russia, so it can be assumed that Moscow did indeed reject some aspects of cooperation.

Another reason for Moscow’s decision may stem from the desire to end what many in Russia saw as an unequal partnership. Cooperation began in the early 1990s, when the main concern was preventing material from Soviet nuclear facilities from getting onto the black market, so Russia was ready to accept assistance on practically any conditions. Since then, a tremendous amount of work has been done. Russia now has the technology and the means to secure its own nuclear facilities, and no longer wants to be a recipient of aid.

The Americans were ready to continue cooperation with Russia in ensuring the physical security of nuclear facilities. They earmarked around $100 million in the 2015 budget for that purpose. At the same time, before the conflict in Ukraine, they wound up some areas of scientific-technical cooperation with Russia, including in the nuclear sphere.

In general, measures to ensure the physical security of nuclear facilities are like counter-terrorism operations — if they are unseen, it means they are working. In Russia, there really have been no critical incidents related to the security of nuclear facilities, which means that everything can be said to be under control. However, one can never take too much care in matters of nuclear safety. I am sure that when U.S.-Russian relations improve, the two countries will find new ways to continue cooperation in this field, because together is better.