24 April 1998
(US officials describe the cooperative operation) (570) By Jane A. Morse USIA Diplomatic Correspondent Washington -- Senior Administration officials have hailed the successful move of weapons-usable uranium from Georgia as an important achievement in the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program with countries of the former Soviet Union. Speaking on background during a press briefing April 24, officials from the State, Energy, and Defense Departments described the move "as an important achievement in our continuing effort to control nuclear materials and prevent the spread of nuclear weapons around the world." Under "Operation Auburn Endeavor," five kilograms of uranium -- enough for one nuclear weapon -- was moved April 24 from a nuclear reactor used for research in Georgia to the United Kingdom. It will be stored permanently at a secure site in Scotland. The project began in early 1996 when the government of Georgia approached a visiting team of experts from the United States, United Kingdom, and the International Atomic Energy Agency requesting assistance in securing the fuel from the reactor which had been closed since 1988. The operation was made possible under the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program -- also known as the "Nunn-Lugar" act -- of 1991. Department of Energy (DOE) experts first secured the site in Georgia and were responsible for the packaging and transport of the uranium. Defense experts provided overall security, airlift, communications, and other logistical support. The State Department coordinated diplomatic contacts and negotiated the technical agreements. It also reimbursed the Georgian government for the "fair market value" of the uranium. The Administration officials declined to disclose the cost, but press reports out of Georgia say officials there said the Americans paid about $100,000 for the material. According to DOE calculations, about 650 metric tons of weapons-usable nuclear material exists at 53 sites across the countries of the former Soviet Union. This material is enough to produce more than 40,00 nuclear bombs, DOE says. According to the DOE official, by the end of Fiscal Year 1998, the agency will have completed upgrades to the material protection, control and accounting systems at 27 of the 53 sites. DOE funding for the program was $137 million in Fiscal Year 1998 and will peak in Fiscal Year 1999 at $152 million. The entire program for securing all the sites is expected to be completed in 2002. US officials say the greatest concern is that the material could be stolen and fall into the hands of rogue states. In its "Strategic Plan" report for 1998, DOE noted that Russian officials have reported two dozen incidents of theft and attempted theft of nuclear-related items, including several cases involving small quantities of weapons-usable nuclear material. In addition, US officials have confirmed seven smuggling incidents involving small amounts of weapons-usable nuclear material. While the material involved in each of these incidents was recovered, the fact that such material could be stolen demonstrates the real and continuing danger to global security. The CTR program, according to the DoD official, focuses on securing nuclear weapons and material and destroying delivery systems. Department of Defense (DoD) has funded $2,300 million ($2.3 billion) over the past six years to these purposes. So far, some 305 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) have been destroyed in the former Soviet Union along with 252 ICBM silos, 37 heavy bombers, and 117 nuclear test tunnels.