By Joby Warrick,
30 November 2002
Threat of sales or theft of uranium in 40 countries worries U.S. officials
KHARKIV, Ukraine -- In 1994, a senior Ukrainian nuclear scientist offered U.S. officials a chance to buy a cache of weapons-grade uranium held by an obscure defense laboratory in this city. It was a significant cache -- 165 pounds, enough for three nuclear bombs -- and the scientist said Ukraine might be willing to give it up.
"It`s lightly guarded," the scientist said, according to two Clinton administration officials present at the meeting, "and I`m worried about it." The deal never happened.
Eight years later, with new concerns about nuclear terrorism, the U.S. government would like nothing better than to buy Ukraine`s uranium. But the opportunity appears to be slipping away.
Relations with Ukraine recently have taken a confrontational turn, and the laboratory, the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology, now insists the material is urgently needed for civilian research. Meanwhile, despite elaborate physical protections for the uranium, U.S. weapons experts see new reasons to worry about its safety: The lab is facing extreme financial pressure at a time when Iraqi officials have been openly pursuing trade deals with local companies and paying visits to Kharkiv`s Soviet-era weapons factories and research centers, including the institution where the uranium is kept. Iraq two years ago appointed an "honorary consul" in Kharkiv, a Ukrainian exporter who keeps an office not far from the institute -- and openly displays an Iraqi flag on the front door.
"We would be far better off today if we had just gotten rid of the stuff," said Matthew Bunn, a former White House nonproliferation policy adviser, who argued unsuccessfully for a U.S. purchase of the uranium eight years ago. "Insecure nuclear material anywhere is a threat to people everywhere."
The highly enriched uranium at Kharkiv is emblematic of a global proliferation threat that has now become a top priority for the United States: the vulnerability to theft or misuse of weapons-grade uranium kept in scientific institutions, such as research reactors. An estimated 20 tons of highly enriched uranium currently is stored at such locations in about 40 countries, from Russia and other former Soviet republics to Libya and Congo.
In the last decade, efforts to protect against the theft of nuclear materials largely focused on military installations. But weapons experts say that the research facilities are lightly guarded in comparison with military stockpiles. Some terrorism experts regard them as the most vulnerable repositories of nuclear material in the world.
"We are talking about the raw material of nuclear terrorism, stored in hundreds of facilities in dozens of nations," former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., a longtime arms control advocate, told a conference of nuclear terrorism experts this month. "Some of it is secured by nothing more than an underpaid guard sitting inside a chain-link fence."
In August, the Bush administration achieved a dramatic breakthrough when it persuaded Yugoslavia to give up 100 pounds of highly enriched uranium from the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences near Belgrade. But the deal required more than a year of complicated negotiations involving Yugoslavia, Russia and the State Department. As a clincher, the United States pledged million to be paid to the institute by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit group co-founded by Nunn and billionaire entrepreneur Ted Turner.
Afterward, the State Department announced it had targeted two dozen other research institutions as "priority sites," most of them in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. But while progress has been made in the negotiations, several countries have balked, refusing to give up what they see as a powerful bargaining chip that could be used to extract money, technology or other concessions, according to administration officials and weapons experts familiar with the talks.
Two of the countries most opposed to giving up uranium -- Ukraine and Belarus -- also happen to own some of the largest stocks of the metal. Both countries are under increased scrutiny by U.S. intelligence officials because of alleged attempts by local businesses to sell weapons or military supplies to Iraq or Iran.
"They were once willing to help us, but they may not be so willing anymore," said Bunn, now a senior researcher for Harvard University`s Project on Managing the Atom. "We can only hope that someone eventually can put together a package that will change the answer from `nyet` to `da.` "
The gravest nuclear threat in Ukraine is housed in a crumbling institution that struggles in most years to pay its heating bills. Two-thirds of its staff has been laid off, and the remaining workers scrape by on the equivalent of about 0 a month. Scientists with two Ph.Ds spend their days in freezing-cold buildings, sometimes as caretakers for such technological dinosaurs as the institute`s 40-year-old linear accelerator, once the world`s largest, but now permanently idled in a building that is kept dark to save on electricity bills.
By almost every measure, the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology, or KIPT as it is known, bears scant resemblance to the bustling weapons lab that existed here in Soviet times. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, the lab had 6,000 workers and a mission to develop special materials for the most advanced weapons in the Soviet arsenal -- from nuclear warheads to the missiles that carried them. The institute`s two campuses were part of a larger weapons-research complex in Kharkiv that collectively employed 50,000 scientists, giving this otherwise dreary city of 2.5 million the distinction of having one of the greatest concentrations of weapons expertise in the world.
Exactly how the institute came to acquire 165 pounds of highly enriched uranium is unclear. The lab has never owned a nuclear reactor and was never directly involved in weapons fabrication. In contrast with similar labs in other former Soviet republics, the Kharkiv institute has clung to a tradition of secrecy about many aspects of its past, and will not even discuss the amount of uranium it has.
This much is clear: More than a decade after the institute was converted to civilian research, the uranium remains one of the lab`s most significant and dangerous assets.
"The uranium at Kharkiv has at best little relevance to Ukraine`s peaceful nuclear energy needs, and has been untouched for over a decade," said William Potter, director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, a Monterey, Calif., weapons think tank that has studied the lab and its holdings. "It represents a major terrorist and proliferation target, and also poses a residual `breakout` threat, should Ukraine ever seek to repudiate its commitments" renouncing nuclear weapons.
Energy Department officials apparently shared those concerns, agreeing in 1995 to help the U.N.-chartered International Atomic Energy Agency build a multimillion-dollar security system for the uranium. In 1999, the agency completed work on a double vault -- an outer shell of concrete, an inner shell of hardened steel -- and installed security cameras and fences to guard against intrusion. Once a month, IAEA inspectors check the uranium to ensure none is missing.
Today, officials at the institute cite security concerns in refusing to allow visits to the storage facility, even by Ukrainian government ministers. They boast of a fail-proof system equal to the finest in Europe and North America.
"It is not possible to remove from our institute even one single milligram," deputy director Alexei Yegorev said in an interview at the lab`s main administration building, an office tower in a suburb of Kharkiv.
Energy officials familiar with the upgrades agree -- to a point. But they assert that there is no reliable defense against a future government decision to thwart the safeguards.
"It`s just like the bank manager who turns off the alarm and takes the money," said an official of the Energy Department`s National Nuclear Security Administration. "There`s no system in the world that can protect against that."
In 1994, a chance to eliminate the risks posed by the Kharkiv institute`s enriched uranium was briefly dangled before Clinton administration officials, some of whom had never heard of the facility. The possibility of a sale grew out of a meeting in Washington with a visiting Ukrainian nuclear scientist who mentioned the KIPT`s supply of weapons-grade nuclear material in a discussion of problems facing Ukraine`s nuclear industry. Security for the enriched uranium was a big worry, the Ukrainian scientist said, according to those who heard him. "But your people already know this."
Bunn, then an adviser on nuclear terrorism in the Clinton White House`s Office of Science and Technology Policy, made a few phone calls and learned that Energy Department officials had indeed visited the facility and had agreed to an IAEA plan that called for securing the material, not removing it. The notion of a deal to purchase the uranium was initially welcomed by State Department officials but ultimately went nowhere. At the time, Bunn explained, the administration was more concerned about removing the Soviet nuclear warheads still on Ukrainian soil.
"The wheels of bureaucracy failed to turn," Bunn said.
Today, much has changed. The former Soviet republics outside Russia have given up their nuclear warheads and delivery systems. The United States is spending billions of dollars to help Russia dismantle nuclear weapons. Now, fresh attention is being devoted to new threats, such as the fissile material in Kharkiv. The United States favors removing enriched uranium from dozens of research reactors around the world, using a combination of money, technology transfers and political pressure as leverage. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said in a speech Nov. 14 that a major factor in the new approach is that Russia has agreed to accept nuclear fuel returned from Soviet-designed reactors around the world.
"This fuel needs to be repatriated to Russia, where it will be safer from the risk of theft or diversion," Abraham said.
So far, such arguments have failed to sway the keepers of Kharkiv`s uranium. Top managers of the Kharkiv institute said there is no interest in selling the uranium because it is vital to the institute`s plans to develop a new line of commercial fuel for nuclear power.
"It is not possible for us to sell it," said Yegorev, the deputy director. "You would not only need a special order of the Ukraine government but special permission of the IAEA, because it is under their control. Without this we can do nothing."
U.S. officials aren`t convinced that this is the final word. Although relations occasionally have been rocky, Ukraine`s leaders have almost always sided with the United States and NATO in deciding whether to scrap weapons systems that are deemed proliferation threats. Earlier this month, senior Ukrainian officials stood with their U.S. counterparts to watch the destruction of the first of Ukraine`s 225 Soviet-built Kh-22 missiles, medium-range weapons that potentially can carry nuclear, biological or chemical warheads.
"You`ll hear mumbling now and then from the military, but ultimately the cooperation is always fairly good," said a U.S. official. "Ukraine doesn`t need these weapons anymore. And as the leaders know, if you let something lay around long enough, eventually it will disappear."