The successful extraction of nearly one ton of nuclear material from Serbia last month is a prime example of the type of international cooperation that is needed in the post-Cold War world. The U.S.-Russian program responsible for performing the operation is vital to prevent terrorists from procuring the essential ingredients for a nuclear bomb. While the current initiative is bilateral in nature, other nations, including Japan, should look for ways to assist and facilitate such programs.
Recently, nearly 809 kg of highly enriched nuclear fuel and materials were removed from the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences and transported to Russia. The fuel had been given to Yugoslavia in 1976 for peaceful nuclear research; a decade later, the institute itself was closed and its reactors were decommissioned.
According to Russia’s Atomic Energy Ministry, there was enough fuel at Vinca to develop more than two nuclear warheads. The U.S. government organized and paid for the operation, which is part of a program to decommission the Vinca site. The Yugoslav government cooperated, and the Russians will process the uranium into a low-enriched form.
The Yugoslav operation is part of a broader initiative to safeguard vulnerable sites around the world. Although the security threat posed by nuclear weapons — sometimes called “loose nukes” — and nuclear materials has been recognized since the collapse of the Soviet Union, efforts to combat the danger have taken on a new urgency in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. According to U.S. government officials, the United States is focusing on 24 reactors in 16 countries that, like the site in Yugoslavia, were built and fueled with help from the former Soviet Union. Although these are “research reactors” that focus on peaceful applications of nuclear energy, such as medical treatments, they use highly enriched uranium that can be used to make nuclear bombs. Security at some of the sites is appalling. The U.S. officials say there are plans to remedy the situation at each of these facilities.
Solving the problem will require concerted international action. Funding is the chief concern, but the extraction of nuclear materials is a delicate operation, especially since it involves security forces. Moreover, convincing other nations to accept dangerous nuclear materials from other countries is a difficult task. Most governments have a hard enough time getting approval to deal with their own nuclear waste. Moscow’s willingness to assume the responsibility is to be applauded, but it is an expensive proposition. As Japan searches for ways to make an international contribution to international security, it might consider reprocessing such waste.
Although that is an extremely sensitive issue, there are other ways Tokyo — and other governments around the world — can contribute. At a minimum, tackling this problem will require more funds. The U.S. government’s nonproliferation program fund has only about $15 million; the operation in Yugoslavia alone cost the U.S. nearly 20 percent of that.
Incredibly, last year the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush proposed cutting $100 million from an $874 million nuclear nonproliferation budget — chiefly as a result of concerns about the administration of the program in Russia — but Congress restored the funds and added $226 million after Sept. 11. This year, the U.S. plans to spend nearly $1.2 billion, but that includes a variety of programs; a mere $3.1 million targets the safety and security of research reactors and other civilian nuclear sites. More help is needed.
Protecting those nuclear reactors is only part of the problem. The U.S. and Russia have agreed to make significant cuts in their stockpiles of nuclear weapons, but there are questions about what will happen to the materials in those warheads. In addition, there are vast amounts of nuclear fuels that have accumulated in Russian nuclear submarines. For over a decade, the U.S. has financed efforts to secure those nuclear materials. Earlier this month, Moscow unveiled a U.S.-funded facility for unloading spent nuclear fuel from decommissioned submarines.
Although Japan and other concerned nations have provided money to support these efforts, more can be done. And while the focus has been on nuclear weapons, similar concerns exist for chemical and biological weapons programs. The stockpiles must be safeguarded and the knowledge and technology that created them — the scientists that labored for decades to develop those horrific weapons — must be denied to terrorists. There are few greater dangers.
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