U.S., Russia, upgrade security at Russian nuclear weapons bases

The United States and Russia last month completed initial projects to help improve security at Russian nuclear weapons sites, a U.S. Energy Department official said Friday.

Upgrades at two Russian military bases are part of an effort by the National Nuclear Security Administration to improve security at 17 sites controlled by the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces. Work at the pilot projects, which were those Moscow felt "comfortable with starting off with," began in late-summer 2003, the Energy Department official said.

The NNSA program, set to be completed by fiscal 2008, involves installing "rapid" and "comprehensive" security upgrades at some of Russia's "most sensitive" nuclear weapons sites, according to the Energy Department official. The official refused to provide detail on what the upgrades entailed, describing them in general terms as "physical protection" improvements.

Russian contractors and NNSA teams design the security upgrade for a particular site; the measures are installed by Russian contractors and take about 28 months to complete, according to the Energy Department. Once the upgrade is complete, NNSA contracts with Russian firms for preventive maintenance, repairs and personnel training. Cost estimates for work at each of the 17 sites range from $10 million to $15 million "to do a complete job," the official said.

The Energy Department official said a "very positive working relationship" was established with Moscow in the program's early stages.

"We haven't experienced any difficulties," the official said. "I can't see any hurdles in the process."

All of the 17 sites where security upgrades are to be installed have been selected by Moscow, the Energy Department official said. No effort has been made to prioritize work at the sites, the official said, adding that the security level was "pretty uniform."

According to a report released in May by Harvard University's Project on Managing the Atom, U.S.-funded efforts to date have installed rapid security upgrades at about 50 percent of Russian sites containing nuclear weapons and comprehensive security upgrades at about 5 percent of those sites.

One of the report's authors, Matthew Bunn, said that the pilot projects were "a very promising development" and that they demonstrated that "a genuinely cooperative approach … can get the job done."

While noting that "on average," security at Russian nuclear warhead sites was considered better than security at sites housing nuclear materials, Bunn said that it was "very urgent" to install security upgrades at warhead-related sites. He added that Russian officials have confirmed that terrorists groups have conducted reconnaissance missions on such sites. Russian officials have not specified whether such sites included those controlled by the Strategic Rocket Forces, Bunn added.

The Energy Department official said that negotiations are under way on contracts to conduct security upgrades at Strategic Rocket Forces sites beyond the initial 17. In addition to Energy Department efforts, the U.S. Defense Department is conducting work at one Strategic Rocket Forces site, the official said. The official declined to say how many sites exist in Russia.

The work to improve security at Russian Strategic Rocket Forces sites builds on the "success" achieved in a U.S.-funded effort to install security upgrades at about 50 Russian Navy-related sites, the Energy Department official said. NNSA began work at Russian Navy sites in the late 1990s and is set to complete final security upgrades by fiscal 2006, according to the Energy Department.

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