After Two Decades Of Cooperation, Russia May Pull The Plug On Nuclear Security Contracts With The US

Russia vladimir putin sergei KirienkoREUTERSVladimir Putin listens to explanations beside Sergey Kirienko (L), head of Russia’s nuclear energy organisation, on March 4, 2009.

In the years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia’s former American rival has spent billions helping Moscow secure a sprawling network of nuclear infrastructure, in the interest of lowering the odds that weaponised uranium might fall in the hands of extremists or rogue states.

Now Russia may be planning to wind down those joint efforts, the New York Times reported. Sergey V. Kirienko, the head of Russia’s state nuclear company, told US Energy Secretary that no new contracts aimed at nuclear security for 2015 were envisioned “under current circumstances” — a concise reference to the ratcheting tensions between Russia and the West since its annexation of Crimea in March.

“Typically, the Energy Department signs contracts with Russian labs or other institutions on projects to provide security upgrades or training,” according to the Times.

These programs have included consolidating existing nuclear materials to fewer locations, converting reactors to operate on low (instead of highly) enriched uranium, and installing radiation detection hardware at border crossings with to help prevent smuggling of nuclear materials.

“It’s in everyone’s interest to keep nuclear materials out of the hands of criminals and terrorists,” Jonah Blank, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, wrote in an email to Business Insider. “Russia isn’t doing the US a favour by working together to prevent nuclear proliferation — and this ill-advised action puts every nation at slightly greater risk.”

Kirienko made the caveat that Russia was willing to cooperate on nuclear security issues in other countries, including its hope to repatriate highly-enriched uranium from former satellites Belarus, Kazakhstan, Poland, and Uzbekistan. But Russia’s own security infrastructure leaves much to be desired.

But despite improvements since 1991 (“No longer are there gaping holes in fences”), a report on nuclear security published in March by Harvard’s Belfer Center warned that “sophisticated conspiracies to steal valuable items continue to plague Russia.”

The Times suggests that the reduced cooperation could be a product not just of a chill in relations over Crimea, but the need for the country to distance itself from the impression that it is “is in need of outside help.”

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