Friday August 31, 2007 7:31 PM
By DOUGLAS BIRCH
Associated Press Writer
YEKATERINBURG, Russia (AP) – Amid tense relations between the United States and Russia, two prominent American arms control advocates Friday toured a storage facility designed to hold tons of plutonium and enriched uranium from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and former Sen. Sam Nunn, co-authors of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, were escorted through the high-security Mayak Fissile Materials Storage Facility – built to withstand assaults from terrorists and a direct hit from a jet.
Russia plans to store up to 25 metric tons of plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons at the facility, completed by the Defense Department in 2003 at a cost of $309 million.
Nunn and Lugar came to Mayak, in part, to gently push Russian officials to conclude months of negotiations by the end of the year on American inspections of the facility.
Congress has required Russia to confirm that Mayak is being used for what it was designed for – to serve as a permanent storage center for nuclear materials that could be used to make bombs, and keep them out of the hands of criminals and terrorists.
Nunn and Lugar spent four days this week touring Russian sites – including Mayak and a massive U.S.-built chemical weapons destruction plant in western Siberia.
While nonproliferation topped their agenda, the pair said they also sought to help halt the drift in U.S.-Russian relations toward acrimony and diplomatic confrontation.
The United States and Russia face conflicts over the status of Kosovo, and the eastward expansion of NATO. Moscow is opposed to a U.S. missile defense system in central Europe, while the U.S. is concerned over what many in the West regard as Russia’s drift toward authoritarianism.
These concerns have resulted in harsh rhetoric from the Kremlin about U.S. dominance of global affairs, and fears in the U.S. of a new Cold War.
“I think we are at a very important crossroads,” Nunn said.
It has not yet become a crisis, he said, but there is danger of further deterioration.
“I think it’s more political than it is military now,” he said. “But over time, it will become more military if we don’t turn it around.”
The Nunn-Lugar program has helped deactivate 6,982 nuclear warheads, destroyed 653 intercontinental ballistic missiles, eliminated 485 ICBM silos, dismantled 101 mobile ICBM launchers, and improved security at nuclear, biological and chemical materials storage sites across the former Soviet Union.
Both Nunn and Lugar said their program has become a lifeline for maintaining Russia-U.S. relations.
“This is the strongest bridge we’ve built, because we’ve worked together and taken action together,” Nunn said. “We’ve formed working relationships at the laboratory level and at the military-to-military level. Those bridges are strong and I think they can withstand this turmoil in the relationship, this tension in the relationship.”
There is concern that the post-Soviet era of U.S.-Russia cooperation on arms control could be threatened if the rift between the nations widens.
Lugar called last week for President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin to extend the START strategic arms control treaty’s provisions for transparency and verification.
Nunn was part of a group of prominent Americans, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who met with Putin in Moscow in July to talk about Kosovo, Iraq, missile defense and other divisive issues.
Nunn said he believes the U.S. has been too eager to criticize Putin’s consolidation of power, pointing out that many Russians prefer the current political stability to the chaos of the 1990s.
“There’s no lack of Americans on the left and the right telling Russia that they’re concerned about the rollbacks of freedoms,” he said. But criticizing Russia’s domestic politics “can become very counterproductive,” creating hostility instead of encouraging reform.
“You don’t ever give up your values,” he said. “But there are times when you use judgment and discretion about how much free advice another country wants.”
At Mayak, Nunn and Lugar were escorted through the concrete storage facility, a hulking structure designed to be impregnable.
Reporters were barred from the site, but Nunn and Lugar described walking into a room the size of a football field, where plutonium-packed canisters are stacked into wells in the concrete designed to dissipate heat.
The facility replaces other storage sites, Lugar said, where plutonium and weapons-grade highly enriched uranium is stored in portable buckets that could easily be carried away.
As part of an effort to rebuild trust between the U.S. and Russia, Nunn and Lugar have suggested that the two nations create teams of nonproliferation experts to work in places such as North Korea, which has pledged to end its nuclear program.
Lugar called on both sides to disclose all of their defensive bioweapons work to each other, to allay concerns about that research in an era when the design and creation of dangerous new organisms is becoming possible.
Nunn, meanwhile, said the U.S. should seriously consider Putin’s offer to develop a joint missile defense program.
“Russians need to be partners and leaders and not just recipients of American assistance,” he said.