Russian uranium deal collapsing

June 12, 1995|By New York Times News Service

Three years after Russia agreed to provide the United States with uranium from scrapped Russian nuclear weapons, the deal is unraveling, prompting a quiet struggle to save the accord, federal and private experts say.

Russia was to get $12 billion in desperately needed hard currency, and the United States was to get 500 metric tons of bomb-grade uranium, which was to be diluted to make fuel for American nuclear power plants and ultimately electricity for consumers.

In addition to bolstering national security for the United States, the agreement was expected to strengthen the shaky Russian economy, reduce the risks of nuclear accidents and theft and, less explicitly, help disarm a former foe. Further, it was not expected to cost taxpayers anything, since revenues from the sale of reactor fuel were to offset the total $12 billion cost.

But efforts to carry out the three-year-old deal have been stymied by administrative missteps, disagreements over pricing for the uranium and trade disputes, the experts say.

Tomorrow, the Senate Energy Committee is to hold a hearing on aspects of the deal, which the Russians are privately threatening to drop.

The unraveling of the deal is on the agenda for Vice President Al Gore and Prime Minister Victor S. Chernomyrdin of Russia, who are to meet late this month in Moscow. The administration wants to resolve the problems, if only to give Russia a source of nuclear revenues other than Iran and rogue states interested in acquiring atomic weaponry.

Republicans have strongly criticized the Clinton administration for not pressing Russia harder to drop plans to sell Iran nuclear reactors, which could serve as the basis for an atomic-bomb program.

The innovative agreement was announced by the Bush administration in August 1992 and was carried forward by the Clinton administration, which negotiated a detailed contract in 1993.

The deal, a high point of nuclear disarmament at the end of the cold war, represents a substantial part of the Russian nuclear arsenal, but far from all of it.

Russia is estimated to have 1,200 metric tons of bomb-grade uranium, as well as 170 metric tons of plutonium, the other critical ingredient for making warheads. Even so, 500 metric tons is enough to build more than 30,000 bombs as powerful as the one dropped on Hiroshima -- and enough to run the 109 operating nuclear power plants in the United States for about about a decade.

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