Russian Nuclear Facility May Be Vulnerable to Terrorist Attack

* A top Russian scientist has filed a complaint with the Russian Prosecutor General's office claiming that the U.S.-supported Mayak fissile material storage facility is vulnerable to terrorist attack. The facility would store 66 tons of plutonium and 536 tons of highly enriched uranium from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons.

Lev Maximov, who has worked in the Russian nuclear industry for decades, says in the complaint, "Plans by international terrorists have revealed a conspiracy to exterminate strategic storages of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium in Russia." Boris Gusakov, chief engineer of the project, calls Maximov's allegations rubbish.

A U.S. Embassy threat-reduction specialist claims that the facility meets both Russian and international standards. He says, "Mayak is a Russian-designed facility that has been vetted and approved by [Russia's Nuclear Power Ministry]."

Maximov is also concerned that the project has not been approved by Russia's nuclear safety watchdog. Vladimir Kuznetsov, formerly of the organization, claims that their lack of approval is the largest hindrance to the project currently.

The project has received more than $400 million in United Nations funding and is intended to consolidate Russia's nuclear materials, which are currently stored throughout the country. The project has been developed as part of the U.S. Nunn-Lugar initiative to reduce nuclear weapons. Former Senator Samuel Nunn, for whom the initiative is named, calls the facility "an immense concrete fortress designed to withstand even artillery fire and armor-piercing bombs dropped from aircraft."

Maximov is concerned because the fissile materials would be stored 56 feet aboveground in plain view of passing aircraft. Furthermore, the materials will be stored in containers prepared by the U.S. that Russians will not be able to open for inspection. He claims that an attack method could be hidden inside one of the containers.

Chief engineer Gusakov says that although the material will be stored 56 feet aboveground, the facility will have three shields able to withstand any type of attack. He also says that each container will undergo an inspection to verify its contents. Gusakov says, "All these allegations about the facility are dilettante. I would have advised these people to talk with us first."

The fission materials storage project has been plagued with problems since its inception in the early 1990s. Disagreements over facility design and budget stalled the project. Originally, the U.S. and Russia were each to contribute half of the project budget. Russia found that it could not afford its half; the U.S. has thus paid for the majority of the project. The U.S. expects to spend $1.3 billion.

Critics are also concerned that U.S. and Russian relations may not always be as stable as they are now, thus risking the facility. Vladimir Volkov, deputy head of the State Duma's defense committee, says, "The biggest international terrorist is America, and this facility is a monument to our stupidity. It should store no fissile materials whatsoever."

It is unclear whether the Russian Prosector General's office will pursue the claim, although Volkov says that he hopes the prosecutors "will conduct a proper investigation into the complaint."

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