WASHINGTON — The United States has agreed to buy tons of weapons-grade uranium from Russia's nuclear arsenal to keep the material from falling into the hands of unfriendly countries or terrorists, the White House announced Monday.
The agreement, the first of its kind, is also aimed at pumping additional hard currency into Russia's deteriorating economy and helping the Moscow government pay for safety improvements on nuclear reactors in the former Soviet Union, a White House statement said. But no dollar amount was given.
"This agreement will help ensure that nuclear weapons-grade material does not fall into the wrong hands," President Bush said in the written announcement.
Under the pact, the Energy Department will buy at least 10 metric tons of highly enriched uranium from dismantled Russian weapons each year and will dilute the material for resale as commercial reactor fuel.
"This is a good idea that has been under discussion for some time," said Matthew Bunn, a researcher at the private Arms Control Assn.
Uranium can be used both to fuel nuclear power plants and as the explosive material in nuclear weapons, but the form used in weapons is more "enriched"--more radioactive and more volatile.
Russia has been dismantling about 1,500 nuclear weapons each year, mostly short-range and medium-range weapons eliminated under arms reduction agreements, and storing the nuclear explosives, according to the CIA.
Russian officials have said that they hold "well over 500 (metric) tons" of highly enriched uranium, including fuel for weapons that will not be dismantled under current agreements. American officials have estimated Russia's stockpile as high as 700 tons.
Under the agreement announced Monday, the United States will buy at least 10 metric tons each year for five years, and at least 30 metric tons a year after that. A metric ton is about 2,200 pounds.
The deal is one of several arrangements the Bush Administration has been pursuing to reduce the danger of Russian nuclear weapons falling into the hands of countries like Libya or Iraq.
The U.S. government has also been dismantling weapons but has rejected proposals to dilute its nuclear explosives.
One problem with the deal is that reactor fuel, the product that the United States plans to sell, is already in oversupply.
"The price is at a record low, and this is just going to dump more uranium on the market," Bunn said. "But that may be a reasonable price to pay for the sake of security."