WASHINGTON — Over a two-year period concluding in early 2012, the Department of Energy secretly removed enough highly enriched uranium from Ukraine to make nine nuclear bombs — some of it from parts of the country now wracked by violence and lawlessness.
The six shipments, which took years of behind-the-scenes coordination, were executed with help from Russia, which agreed to safely dispose of the material. Ukraine was one of seven countries where the United States and Russia have joined forces to remove dangerous nuclear material since 2009.
But such cooperation aimed at preventing terrorist groups from obtaining the ingredients for a nuclear weapon is jeopardized by the diplomatic showdown over Moscow’s support of Ukrainian separatists, according to senior US officials and a range of international security analysts.
The implications, they say, could be catastrophic at a time when the two nations are discussing removing more vulnerable weapons material from former Soviet clients Poland, Uzbekistan, and Belarus, and as Russia’s own nuclear facilities still require security upgrades.
“Effective nuclear security for all stockpiles worldwide will be almost impossible to achieve without Russia and the United States working together,” warns a report released last week by a special Department of Energy task force.
Yet the political will in both countries to keep cooperating appears to be at an all-time low.
Both houses of Congress have proposed legislation calling for a freeze in such cooperation, and the Russian government is undertaking a reassessment of its nuclear security efforts with the United States, which have long been unpopular among more hard-line military and political figures in Moscow.
Also in jeopardy is a pact the two nations signed last year to expand reciprocal visits to their nuclear weapons facilities and advance scientific cooperation.
The situation is cause for alarm for nuclear proliferation specialists, who are trying to convince leaders on both sides that keeping the momentum is in their interest despite serious disagreements over a new round of US and European Union sanctions over Russia’s aggressive behavior in Ukraine.
“Despite the situation in Ukraine, despite the political winds in both Moscow and Washington, we need to work to sustain nuclear security cooperation with Russia,” Matthew Bunn, of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Project on Managing the Atom, said at a briefing in Washington last week hosted by the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative.
At the end of the Cold War two decades ago, the United States and Russia initiated projects collectively known as “cooperative threat reduction” that sought to use American funds and expertise to help Moscow destroy long-range missiles and secure nuclear material in Russia as well as several former Soviet states.
That cooperation has expanded over the years to include adding better security equipment at Russian facilities, providing training for guards, and setting up detection systems at key border crossings across Asia and the Middle East. But while officials say much progress has been made there are still key vulnerabilities that could be exploited by terrorists or smugglers seeking to sell nuclear material.
“The risks these stockpiles posed to US, Russian, and world security have been greatly reduced,” according to a recent report co-authored by Bunn. “But important vulnerabilities remain that a more sophisticated conspiracy might be able to exploit to steal nuclear material.”
For example, the Harvard study says, more needs to be done to address what is called the “insider threat” in Russia, citing a 2012 case in which two senior officials at one of Russia’s largest facilities that processes highly enriched uranium and plutonium were arrested on corruption charges.
The Department of Energy report said that while it is “a legitimate question as to why Russia should not be paying for its nuclear security itself” the reality is that Moscow is not making the necessary investments on its own.
“The work of securing these stockpiles will not get done to the standards necessary unless the United States continues to invest – while simultaneously working aggressively to persuade the Russian government to increase its own investment and strengthen its own rules,” the task force said.
A key area of cooperation between the United States and Russia over the years has been removing weapons-grade nuclear material from other countries — most recently Ukraine.
One of the facilities, in the eastern Ukraine city of Khartiv, “had more than 75 kilograms of fresh weapons-grade” uranium, said Andrew Bieniawski, a former top Energy Department official who oversaw the effort. “What would be the dynamic with that material still left given the conflicts that are going in that part of the country? It would in my opinion change significantly that whole dynamic.”
Overall, the United States has overseen the removal of nuclear material from 27 countries over the past two decades. Since 2009 alone, it has undertaken removal of a total of 5,060 kilograms of highly enriched uranium in a dozen countries, enough to produce more than 200 atomic bombs.
And in seven of those countries the material was handed over to Russia for disposal — the Czech Republic, Hungary, Libya, Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, and Vietnam.
“Ending nuclear security cooperation with Russia will only add to the list of dangerous consequences of Russian aggression,” said William H. Tobey, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, “increasing the danger of nuclear proliferation.”
“Whether the two governments will come to that view and be able to overcome their differences remains quite uncertain,” he added.
The fears are compounded by the fact that the Obama administration is proposing significant cuts in its own nuclear security budgets for next year that are bound to slow or even freeze some joint projects — from about $700 million in fiscal year 2014 to roughly $555 million in fiscal year 2015. The biggest cut, amounting to 25 percent, would be in the program that oversaw the removal of nuclear material from Ukraine.
Patrick Ventrell, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that President Obama believes his nonproliferation and nuclear security priorities are protected in his budget proposal.
“The decreased budget reflects natural and predictable declines based on project completion,” he told the Globe. “The US commitment and capacity to support global nuclear security activities remains strong and unparalleled.”
One of those priorities is working with Moscow; the administration is still requesting about $100 million from Congress for nuclear security programs in Russia.
“The United States and Russia have the world’s largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons and weapons-usable materials, and more experience in coping with the challenges of securing and accounting for these stocks than any other countries in the world,” concluded the Harvard Kennedy School report. “They bear a special responsibility for nuclear security.”
But former senator Richard Lugar, one of the original architects of the US-Russia cooperation, predicted the work will now be far more haphazard — “a month-to-month deliberation at this point. ‘’
He held out hope the cooperation could weather the storm over Ukraine. “I would hope so,” Lugar said in an interview, “in terms of Russian security as well as world security.”