Jeffrey LewisUS-RF Nuclear Security Cooperation

Editor’s note:  I am holding to my commitment to make three blog posts a week, no excuses.  But my post today will be a short one.  So, to make up for that, here is the Managing the Atom’s Nick Roth answering the question …

What is the Future of Nuclear Security Cooperation between the US and Russia?

A guest post By Nick Roth, aka that guy ->

This week’s Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague was understandably overshadowed by the continuing international response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. One aspect of the Ukraine crisis that deserves more attention is how the current standoff will impact the future of nuclear security cooperation between the United States and Russia.

Although the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit achieved a great deal, the global nuclear security effort can only progress so far without Russia as an active participant. Russia was the most prominent of the handful of countries that didn’t sign on to a single “gift basket” at the summit. Did it commit to physical protection standards at least as strong as those recommended by the IAEA and to hosting a peer review of security practices?  Nope.  What about a commitment to securing Category I radioactive sources according the IAEA’s code of conduct for radiological security? Not at this time, thank you.

As my co-authors and I describe in our new report, Advancing Nuclear Security: Evaluating Progress and Setting New Goals, although Russia has made tremendous progress in securing its nuclear weapons and materials, because of the size and far-flung locations of Russia’s stockpile, Russia still presents one of the most significant challenges to reducing the global risk of nuclear terrorism. Russia has the most highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium of any country and the most HEU research reactors in the world. There is also a significant risk of insiders stealing nuclear material from its nuclear facilities. Not bringing Russia along in the nuclear security summit process is like trying to cure obesity in America, while ignoring fast food restaurants.

At the moment, Moscow does not appear to be ready to address outstanding questions about its nuclear materials and facilities. Russia’s nuclear security progress statement in The Hague ignores many major concerns. For example, it states: “There are no nuclear materials or facilities in Russia the level of physical protection of which gives ground to concerns. An effective nuclear safety and security system has been built and is maintained in Russia.”

We know, however, of numerous nuclear security shortcomings at Russian facilities. For instance, there are questions about whether security at nuclear sites is adequately funded. We also know of cases of corruption where senior managers at Russian HEU and plutonium processing facilities embezzled millions of dollars; where a government official who was responsible for conducting nuclear security inspections was taking bribes; or where even the former Minister of Atomic Energy was stealing millions of dollars. Russia’s statement does not address the potential for a threat within nuclear facilities or provide any details about allocating resources for nuclear security.

The message from Russia that there is nothing to worry about has become increasingly common over the last several years and indicates a declining interest among its leaders in working with the US to secure its nuclear stockpile. This was evident when Russia welcomed the expiration of the old Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction umbrella agreement last year. This attitude is also reflected in Russia’s statement in The Hague, which mentioned an interest in cooperating only on programs “aimed at supporting and strengthening the capacities of third countries in the field of nuclear security”—a welcome offer the United States should pursue, but only one element of nuclear security cooperation that should be much deeper and broader.

It is, perhaps, unrealistic to expect Russia to be a happy participant at an international summit when it is being isolated by much of the international community and branded a pariah. One could even argue that, despite its dispute with the United States and Europe, Russia’s participation in the summit is a positive sign that its officials understand addressing transnational threats like nuclear terrorism requires cooperation between states. The problem is determining how countries can work with Russia on this issue.

If they want to move the nuclear security ball forward, the United States and Russia need to find new and creative ways of recommitting to cooperation. The United States should move away from its paternalistic approach and engage with Russia as a true partner. We should be holding regular workshops to exchange ideas about how best to address problems that both sides face; regular visits to comparable key facilities in each country; and working together to minimize the number of locations where nuclear weapons, HEU, or separated plutonium ex­ist.

The United States must also recognize that cooperation is a two-way street, and our actions have an impact on how Russia and other countries perceive and portray US commitment on the issue–even if that portrayal is self-serving. Russia’s statement at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit noted that “the non-participation of certain States with large inventories of nuclear materials in these fundamental international legal instruments inhibits further steps on elaboration and adoption of new international legal documents and political commitments in the field of international cooperation on nuclear security and safety.”

The “certain states” here of course refers to us. When the United States does not take action on international initiatives, especially ones it spearheaded the negotiations of, it provides convenient cover for other countries to do the same. The United States has still not ratified the 2005 Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM) or the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT), which require parties to criminalize acts related to nuclear terrorism. The implementing legislation for these ratifications continues to languish in the Senate because of a policy dispute between two Senators that should be resolvable with high-level engagement from the White House.  Failing to ratify these two agreements undermines US leadership on nuclear security.

Finally, there is a real risk that current tensions could further erode the already diminishing US support for working with Russia on nuclear security. We are already seeing members of Congress opposing programs that help Russia protect its nuclear facilities. The US policymakers must try to resist the temptation of placing lasting security above short-term political gain. Reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism can only be achieved by maintaining and continually improving security systems over the long haul. If the US fails to sustain its cooperation on nuclear security with Russia, there is a real risk that progress made over the past twenty years could be undone.


Prospects for international cooperation on securing nuclear material in Russia look bleak right now, but there could be a path forward. The fact is that the United States and Russia were not cooperating on nuclear security for the past twenty years because they were close allies; they were cooperating because it was in both countries’ national security interests to do so. Despite current tensions, this dynamic has not changed. What needs to change is the way both countries approach nuclear security cooperation.


  1. Cthippo (History)

    “The implementing legislation for these ratifications continues to languish in the Senate because of a policy dispute between two Senators that should be resolvable with high-level engagement from the White House.”

    Can you elaborate on this? I’m not familiar with the issues at play?

    I think we may be moving into a period where the US and Russia need eachother more as enemies for domestic consumption than as partners for mutual security concerns. Despite the tensions, our core security interests are not in opposition to one another and so the de facto security climate will remain even if the war of words heats up.

    It should also be said that while Russia could do better on nuclear materials security, they’re probably not the biggest threat.