Russia will halt all production of weapons-grade plutonium by the year 2000 and has assured U.S. Vice President Al Gore that it has strict control over its existing nuclear weapons, officials announced Tuesday after high-level negotiations between the former Cold War adversaries.
The subject of nuclear security dominated talks between Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, reflecting nagging concerns in the West that weapons of mass destruction could fall into the wrong hands and that some may have gone astray in the chaos of Russia’s post-Soviet transition.
But both leaders of what has come to be called the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission sought to emphasize the positive in heralding the plutonium shutdown as a breakthrough in nuclear nonproliferation.
“After much hard work, we took an important - perhaps even historic - step this week when we reached an agreement to halt the production of weapons-grade plutonium in both the United States and Russia,” Gore told reporters at a news conference after his meetings with Chernomyrdin and a courtesy call on Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.
U.S. Energy Secretary Federico Pena was more effusive, deeming the accord of vital important for world peace and complaining that it is being “under-recognized.”
“We have agreed to no longer use or produce plutonium,” Pena said in an interview after the session that drew together most of the Cabinet members of both countries. “There are only three reactors still producing in Russia, and now we’ve signed an agreement that ends that.”
He noted that plutonium produced at the reactors in the meantime will fall under stringent new monitoring controls, ensuring that the vital bomb component is not used for that purpose.
The three reactors - in Seversk, Tomsk and Zheleznogorsk - are to be switched over to civilian uses under the agreement. The United States expects to provide more than half the estimated $150 million conversion cost.
This week’s U.S.-Russian meetings coincided with fresh concerns about the Kremlin’s ability to keep tabs on nuclear weapons developed during the Soviet era. Alexei Yablokov, a prominent scientist and former Yeltsin adviser on environmental matters, said in a letter in the current issue of the weekly Novaya Gazeta that he considers it plausible that the Russian leadership lacks a full accounting of its nuclear arsenal.
Yablokov was responding to an accusation made earlier this month by former national security chief Alexander Lebed that perhaps dozens of suitcase-sized bombs capable of killing 100,000 people each are missing.
The Kremlin has dismissed the charge made by Lebed, who has said he hopes to replace Yeltsin as president, as irresponsible political posturing.
Pena said Chernomyrdin and Russian ministers responsible for nuclear security assured Gore there is no reason to fear the possibility of loose nuclear bombs landing in the hands of dangerous elements.
“I think they’ve been frank with us where they sense they need cooperation from us in these security issues,” Pena said, noting that Russia has asked for U.S. aid to dismantle weapons under disarmament agreements.