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Russia Vows Not to Make Plutonium for Bombs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Russia will halt all production of weapons-grade plutonium by 2000 and has assured Vice President Al Gore that it has strict control over its existing nuclear weapons, officials announced Tuesday after high-level negotiations between the former Cold War adversaries.

The subject of nuclear security dominated talks between Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, reflecting nagging concerns in the West that Russia’s weapons of mass destruction could fall into the wrong hands and that some may have gone astray in the chaos of the post-Soviet transition.

But both leaders of what has come to be called the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission sought to emphasize the positive in heralding the plutonium shutdown as a breakthrough in nuclear nonproliferation.

“After much hard work, we took an important--perhaps even historic--step this week when we reached an agreement to halt the production of weapons-grade plutonium in both the United States and Russia,” Gore told reporters at a news conference after his meetings with Chernomyrdin and a courtesy call on Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.

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U.S. Energy Secretary Federico Pena was more effusive, deeming the accord of vital importance for world peace and complaining that it is being “under-recognized.”

“We have agreed to no longer use or produce plutonium,” Pena said in an interview after the session that drew most of the Cabinet members of both countries. “There are only three reactors still producing in Russia, and now we’ve signed an agreement that ends that.”

He noted that whatever plutonium is produced at the reactors before 2000 will fall under stringent new monitoring controls, ensuring that the vital bomb component is not used for arms making.

The three reactor plants--in Seversk, Tomsk and Zheleznogorsk--are to be switched over to civilian uses under the agreement, with the United States expected to provide more than half of the estimated $150-million conversion cost.

While Gore and other U.S. officials proclaimed victory on the plutonium issue, they conceded that they made little headway in dissuading Russia from its plans to build a nuclear power station in the Iranian port city of Bushehr. Washington fears that export of sophisticated civilian nuclear technology could help the rogue state develop nuclear weapons.

“We have our obligations, and we will fulfill them,” Chernomyrdin stated at the news conference with Gore, confirming that Moscow will go ahead with the sale of as much as $1 billion in technology and assistance.

This week’s U.S.-Russian meetings coincided with fresh concerns about the Kremlin’s ability to keep tabs on nuclear weapons developed during the Soviet era. A prominent scientist, former Yeltsin advisor on environmental matters Alexei V. Yablokov, says in a letter in the current issue of the weekly Novaya Gazeta that he considers it plausible that the Russian leadership lacks a full accounting of its nuclear arsenal.

Yablokov was responding to an accusation made earlier this month by former national security chief Alexander I. Lebed that perhaps dozens of suitcase-sized bombs capable of killing 100,000 people each have gone missing. The Kremlin has dismissed the charge by Lebed--who has said he hopes to replace Yeltsin as president--as irresponsible political posturing.

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Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev insisted after Yablokov’s concern was revealed Monday that the Kremlin’s nuclear arsenal is under thorough control.

Pena said Chernomyrdin and the Russian ministers responsible for nuclear security assured Gore that there is no reason to fear the possibility of loose nukes landing in the hands of dangerous elements.

“I think they’ve been frank with us where they sense they need cooperation from us in these security issues,” Pena said, noting that Russia has asked for U.S. aid in dismantling weapons under disarmament agreements and in guarding repositories for sensitive materials but that it has made no such call for help in accounting for nuclear weapons.

The Russian and U.S. governments also claimed some progress in resolving disputes over conditions for U.S. investment in Russia’s oil industry. They have asked a committee of experts to report back within two months on how the two countries can reconcile conflicting policies on tax relief, pipeline access and barriers imposed by local governments to deals negotiated with federal authorities and private oil interests.

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But the Production-Sharing Agreement that has been grappled over for years remains mired in bureaucracy and subject to the whims of Russia’s opposition-controlled lower house of parliament.

Many had expected Gore or NASA chief Daniel S. Goldin to announce in Moscow whether the United States plans to send a relief astronaut to replace Michael Foale aboard the troubled Mir space station when the space shuttle Atlantis blasts off Thursday. But Gore said U.S. analysts were still weighing safety concerns against the desire to continue joint use of Mir as both countries prepare for the Alpha International Space Station.


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