News

New York Times January 5, 1997
Russia Thwarting U.S. Bid to Secure a Nuclear Cache
By MICHAEL R. GORDON

TBILISI, Georgia -- The United States has been making a quiet effort to have a cache of nuclear material moved out of this volatile region of the former Soviet Union, according to U.S. and Georgian officials.

But the operation to get the material out of Georgia, which is part of a broader program to stem the theft of nuclear-bomb ingredients from Russia and its neighbors, has thus far been thwarted by months of diplomatic impasse between Russia and the United States.

The effort, which was intended to be a model of three-way cooperation, has been the subject of intense negotiations between senior U.S. and Russian officials for much of the last year. The United States had wanted to keep the operation secret, but Georgian officials now openly discuss their predicament.

"Indeed we have several kilograms of uranium," President Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia acknowledged in a recent interview. "We need to get rid of it."

"But we can't do it independently," he said, alluding to financial and technical constraints.

Stored in an obsolete nuclear reactor outside Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, the highly enriched uranium and spent reactor fuel would give an aspiring nuclear power a significant amount of the material needed to make a nuclear bomb.

The cache has been of growing concern to U.S. officials, who fear it is vulnerable to theft by Iranian agents, terrorists from the neighboring secessionist Russian republic of Chechnya or arms traffickers.

Georgian officials disclosed that the material was virtually unguarded during the early 1990s, when war engulfed this newly independent Caucasian nation.

Roving bands of militiamen approached the reactor during that time. But officials said the marauders were apparently more interested in stealing cars than uranium.

"During the years of civil war in Georgia," said Peter Mamradze, "the physicists at the institute had many sleepless nights. They were afraid some paramilitary group would come and take it away." Mamradze, a physicist by training, is Shevardnadze's chief of staff.

It was such a scenario that prompted U.S. officials to seek tighter control over the hundreds of nuclear laboratories, power plants and institutes spread throughout the former Soviet Union.

During the Cold War the Soviet Union produced about 1,300 tons of highly enriched uranium, Western analysts estimate, and much of it remains scattered widely over the former Soviet republics in poorly guarded sites.

In recent years, several middlemen peddling nuclear material stolen from the former Soviet Union have been arrested in Europe. But there has been no confirmed case of countries or terrorist groups obtaining the ingredients for a bomb through theft.

The United States and Russia have publicly embraced the goal of controlling what some experts term "loose nukes." At a meeting on the subject last April in Moscow, Western leaders and President Boris Yeltsin pledged to work together to stem trafficking in nuclear materials.

[Such talks, in Washington's official view, have borne fruit. [In a statement late Saturday, Lynn E. Davis, Under Secretary of State for International Security Affairs, said: "The United States Government has been fully successful in its efforts to insure that the Georgian H.E.U., or highly enriched uranium, has not fallen into the wrong hands. There is still more work to do, and we will continue to engage closely with Russia and Georgia to find a long-term solution by moving this material to a secure facility in Russia." Russia refuses to accept the fuel.]

But the Georgian reactor is a case study in how good intentions can be snarled by bureaucratic politics, foreign-policy concerns and environmental regulations.

Crumbling Legacy of an Atomic Past

Housed in a weatherbeaten building a 20-minute drive from Tbilisi, Georgia's reactor is an eerie and decrepit monument to the lost days of Soviet science, when vast state resources were channeled into nuclear research.

On its inauguration in 1959 this research reactor was the pride of Georgia's Institute of Physics. Similar ones were built in other parts of the Soviet Union as well as in Bulgaria and Iraq.

In fact, Shucury Abramidze, the head of the institute's Center for Applied Research, which oversees the reactor, said he led the team that established the Iraqi facility.

After the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, Georgia's reactor was closed for safety improvements. The temporary shutdown became permanent after local environmentalists complained and the Soviet Union collapsed.

But the shutdown left Georgia with a troubling legacy.

Like other reactors of its generation, Georgia's reactors used highly enriched uranium, a tempting target for would-be nuclear powers or terrorists hoping to build a bomb. Even the reactor's spent fuel, which was stored in a cooling pond, posed a danger, because such material can be refined into bomb ingredients.

The physics institute has never had any desire to retain the nuclear material, its director, Giorgi Kharadze, said in an interview.

But Kharadze, who greeted visitors wearing a winter coat in an office heated by a small kerosene stove, said Georgia's economic collapse had forced his country to seek outside help in disposing of the uranium.

During the Soviet era, Georgia periodically sent its spent fuel to a Russian nuclear center at Chelyabinsk in the Ural mountains of Siberia. The last trainload -- 44 rod-shaped pieces of spent fuel -- left for the center in March 1991.

Five extra rod-shaped pieces containing spent fuel could not be accommodated on the train and were left in the reactor's cooling pond. It seemed a minor complication at the time, but it would emerge as a major headache.

A few months later, the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving the institute with the five rods, or nearly 2 pounds of spent fuel, and, more worrisome, an additional 22 pounds of highly enriched uranium.

Georgia fell into civil war, and after the fighting eased by 1994, the institute began again to whittle down its supply. It sent about 11 pounds of highly enriched uranium to Uzbekistan, which has a similar reactor. The material was shipped in August 1995 at a cost of about $6,000.

That still left Georgia with about 9.5 pounds of highly enriched uranium and the nearly 2 pounds of spent fuel.

Estimates vary about how much is needed to make a nuclear bomb; it depends on the skills of the bomb maker and the intended size of the explosion. One U.S. official said the material left in Georgia, while substantial, would not be enough to make a bomb. But some private experts said a proficient scientist could use it to do so.

"I would worry if it was in the hands of Iran or Iraq," said Thomas Cochran, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private research group. "They could amass a technically competent scientific team to fabricate a weapon with a yield of a kiloton." A kiloton is the equivalent of 1,000 tons of TNT.

'Bad Neighborhood' for a Nuclear Cache

Although the instability in Georgia had subsided, the cache of nuclear fuel began last year to attract the attention of U.S. officials, who worried about its proximity to Chechnya and Iran. Washington has asserted that Iran is in the midst of a determined effort to produce nuclear weapons.

"The problem was basically one of physical security," a U.S. official said. "The fuel was located in a bad neighborhood."

But as concerned as U.S. experts were, arranging the removal of the uranium and spent fuel would prove a long and painful diplomatic exercise.

In January 1996, specialists at the U.S. energy department sent the White House a classified letter proposing a simple solution: Strike a deal with the Georgians and move the highly enriched uranium to the United States.

There was a precedent for such a move, and it was a successful one. In 1994 the United States had carried out "Operation Sapphire," hauling more than half a ton of bomb-grade uranium from Kazakhstan to the nuclear complex at Oak Ridge, Tenn.

The U.S. envoy to Georgia, William Courtney, was the perfect man to oversee such an operation. He had served as ambassador to Kazakhstan during Sapphire.

The energy department's proposal left unresolved the issue of what to do with Georgia's spent reactor fuel. Although the United States has the technology to handle such radioactive material, officials said the Department of Energy was afraid that accepting Georgia's spent fuel would mean facing protests and lawsuits from environmentalists.

And there were foreign-policy concerns. The state department and the White House, with an eye on the broader relationship with the Russians, argued that Moscow should be given the chance to resolve the problem itself. By the spring of last year, U.S. officials decided to ask Russia to accept all of the spent fuel and enriched uranium.

Under the arrangement, the United States would pay Georgia about $100,000 for the material -- its market value, U.S. officials calculated.

Missed Meetings, Sluggish Progress

By all accounts, however, the diplomacy with Moscow was an exercise in frustration. In early summer, U.S. officials received the first indications that the Russians were not so eager to tackle the problem.

A meeting was arranged in Tbilisi for U.S., Georgian and Russian experts, but the Russians did not show up. Moscow later ascribed this to a simple mix-up.

Higher-level efforts to elicit Russian cooperation were no more successful. The Georgian reactor was discussed when Vice President Al Gore and other senior administration officials visited Moscow in July for talks with the Russian prime minister, Viktor Chernomydrin.

Russia's minister of atomic energy, Viktor Mikhailov, assured his U.S. counterparts during the visit that Russia would take the cache of Georgian fuel in August.

But August came and went, and instead of taking the nuclear material, the Russians voiced new concerns.

At first they insisted that the canisters to be used for transporting the fuel to Russia would need to be approved by Russian nuclear regulators. Washington offered to supply the canisters. The Russians rejected that offer and dropped the issue. Then they voiced a concern about money, expressing reluctance to advance any of the costs of moving the fuel.

Eager to carry out the operation, Thomas Pickering spent his last week as U.S. ambassador to Russia in secret negotiations on a compromise.

Eventually, officials said, a deal appeared to have been reached. The United States would advance Russia $1 million, to be returned minus any fees paid to Georgia for packing and handling the shipment.

Once again the operation hit a roadblock. Russian officials balked at accepting the spent fuel, saying they had their own environmental laws to worry about.

The officials said that under Russian law, spent fuel taken from foreign countries must be reprocessed and the waste returned to the nation it came from.

Even though the reactor had been built by the Soviet Union and its fuel supplied by the Soviets, the officials insisted that Georgia was now a foreign country. The waste would therefore have to be returned there after reprocessing.

That proposal was doomed from the outset. As Kharadze, the physics institute director, pointed out, Georgia has no place to store such nuclear debris safely.

U.S. officials said they hoped this issue would ultimately be finessed by having the Georgians sign over legal ownership of the nuclear material to Russia.

During the course of the three-way negotiations, the United States sent specialists to Georgia to improve the security of the reactors. An alarm system, television surveillance cameras and a brick barrier were installed to protect the highly enriched uranium.

Reactor guards now work in 24-hour shifts. They are armed but are not always at the highest state of vigilance. A foreign visitor who recently quizzed them about their defenses and schedules was never asked to identify himself. Instead he was asked for matches.

U.S. officials acknowledged that the new precautions were only a stopgap measure and said the only remedy was removal of the cache.

Today, a year after Washington began to focus on the Georgia reactor, when or how that will happen remains unclear. The Clinton administration, which says it has put control of nuclear proliferation at the top of its agenda, is still hoping to persuade the Russians to take the material.

"It has been a more deliberate, touch-all-the-bases approach," one frustrated U.S. official said. "The whole thing has been very bureaucratic."