Nonproliferation
Policy Memo

International Nuclear Security Forum Country Update: Russian Nuclear Security

Russian nuclear security has evolved significantly over the past three decades, with international cooperation featuring prominently in its broader nuclear energy efforts
By Dmitry Kovchegin

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia inherited a vast nuclear complex, including facilities, nuclear material, and nuclear weapons scientists. New threats emerged, and international cooperation helped to resolve key nuclear security challenges. In the last decade, Russia has made significant strides in improving its nuclear security enterprise. Russia has a lot to share and a lot to benefit from participation, and their continued participation is critical for the success of future international cooperation in nuclear security.

Russian nuclear security has evolved significantly over the past three decades. Russia inherited most of the Soviet nuclear complex and Soviet nuclear security practices. The Russian nuclear complex now includes total a of 62 nuclear sites, including 11 nuclear power plants (NPPs), eight fuel cycle sites, 28 research and development institutions, 10 sites supporting the icebreaker fleet and nuclear Navy, two weapon assembly/disassembly enterprises, and three mining organizations.1Analysis by Dmitry Kovchegin based on published government documents. Numbers do not include Ministry of Defense sites. In addition, there are multiple infrastructure organizations supporting operations of nuclear sites. Over the more than forty years of its operation from the late 1940s until the early 1990s, the Soviet nuclear complex generated a vast amount of weapons-usable nuclear materials, including 145 tons of weapons grade plutonium (WGPu) and approximately 1,200 tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU).2International Panel on Fissile Materials, Global Fissile Material Report 2015: Nuclear Weapon and Fissile Material Stockpiles and Production, Eighth Annual Report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials (Princeton: International Panel on Fissile Materials, December 2015), http://fissilematerials.org/publications/2015/12/global_fissile_material_report_7.html (accessed April 26, 2021). This material was stored at dozens of nuclear sites, used in nuclear weapons, and powered propulsion in dozens of nuclear submarine and nuclear powered surface ships, as well as used in multiple nuclear research facilities. Thousands of people working at these sites and other supporting organizations had knowledge of classified information that could be used for development of weapons of mass destruction and/or had access to weapon usable nuclear materials.

While the Soviet Union did not use the best nuclear security practices, this does not mean it did not have nuclear security at all. In fact, taking into account its security posture and reliance on nuclear weapons in ensuring its security, the Soviet Union had extensive nuclear security arrangements that were adequate for the reality of those times. Nuclear security was based on a “closed society” model where movement between different regions and across national borders was restricted. The most important nuclear sites were located in those so-called closed cities – territories where even Soviet citizens could not get access without proper authorization. On the other hand, people working and living within these closed cities could not freely leave them. Security services imposed tight control over nuclear sites and nuclear personnel. This was reinforced by living standards of nuclear industry personnel that were substantially higher than average in the country.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to a set of nuclear security challenges. The new social, economic, and political environment made past approaches to nuclear security obsolete. New threats emerged and the foundations of the old security system were gone. This raised concerns about the security of accumulated stocks of nuclear materials that were now vulnerable and could fall into the hand of rogue states or violent non-state actors. This threat was exacerbated by the vast amount of nuclear materials that were scattered across multiple locations in Russia with a large share of them no longer needed for defense purposes due to mutual arms reductions between the United States and Russia.3Marco De Andreis and Fancesco Calogero, The Soviet Nuclear Weapon Legacy, SIPRI Research Report No. 10 (New York: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 1995), pp. 11-22, https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/files/RR/SIPRIRR10.pdf (accessed April 26, 2021). Growing domestic and international terrorism created a threat of sabotage against nuclear facilities leading to the potentially catastrophic release of radioactivity. Social and economic difficulties created a temptation for nuclear personnel—who lost their benefits and job security and found freedom of movement—to abuse their knowledge and access by selling sensitive knowledge to countries or non-state groups seeking to make weapons of mass destruction or by stealing nuclear material and trying to sell it on the black market. An additional challenge that Russian authorities view as even more important than nuclear security was the environmental remediation of the areas that were damaged by the work of the Soviet nuclear complex and safe decommissioning of unnecessary infrastructure.

While Russia acknowledged the need to transition to new nuclear security practices, it lacked the necessary expertise and resources to support this transition. Regardless of resource availability, such a substantial change could not happen immediately upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, necessitating a long and concentrated effort to rebuild Russian nuclear security.

International cooperation helped to resolve many of the nuclear security issues

International cooperation to resolve nuclear security challenges started in the early 1990s. Within the framework of this cooperation, Russia implemented a broad range of activities aimed at the improvement of nuclear security. These activities were funded by foreign countries, with these countries also providing the expertise necessary to improve nuclear security in Russia. The lion’s share of funding and expertise was provided by the United States, while additional support was provided by G-7, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and the European Union.

This cooperation focused on three main areas:

  1. Security of nuclear materials and sites
  2. Disposition of excess weapons-usable materials
  3. Support to personnel with weapons-related expertise

Cooperation to improve the security of nuclear materials and sites helped to upgrade security systems at nuclear facilities in Russia.  Bilateral cooperative projects included upgrading buildings where nuclear materials were processed and stored; building fences and installing security equipment aimed to detect, delay, and respond to unauthorized actions against nuclear materials and sites; and developing nuclear security procedures for these sites and training nuclear security personnel. This cooperation also helped improve national nuclear security governance infrastructure through developing regulations; improving nuclear security inspection capabilities; establishing and developing education and training programs, centers, and institutions; improving security of nuclear materials transportation; developing the Federal Information System for nuclear materials accounting and control; and improving capabilities of protective forces guarding nuclear sites. In general, cooperation in this area was instrumental in the establishment of “nuclear security” as an independent area of professional activity in Russia.

Cooperation to dispose, stop production, and limit the use of excess weapons-usable materials was aimed at decreasing the amount of nuclear materials that can be used for nuclear explosive devices, the number of locations where these nuclear materials are handled, and the elimination of material production capabilities. Cooperative efforts in this area included:

  • HEU-LEU (low-enriched uranium) Agreement (Megatons-to-Megawatts), when HEU from the decommissioned Russian nuclear weapons was downblended and sold to the U.S. for use as a fuel for NPPs.
  • Shutdown of WGPU production reactors
  • Disposition of excess WGPu (Due to the U.S.-Russian disagreements, this cooperation was suspended and failed to dispose of any substantial amounts of excess weapons plutonium.)
  • Consolidation of attractive nuclear materials at a fewer number of sites and conversion of these materials into less attractive forms
  • Conversion of reactors using HEU fuel and repatriation of this fuel – joint U.S.-Russian program focused on third countries.

Cooperation to support personnel with weapons-related expertise was intended to prevent these personnel from working for rogue states and terrorists. This cooperation focused on project-based activities to use available expertise for peaceful purposes, as well as facilitating local business development to allow personnel with weapons expertise to start new careers. The International Science and Technology Center is the most successful example of this type of program.4“International Science and Technology Center,” last modified July 31, 2019, https://www.nti.org/learn/treaties-and-regimes/international-science-and-technology-center-istc/ (accessed April 26, 2021). Several other limited scope projects were implemented (Nuclear Cities Initiative, Initiative for Proliferation Prevention, and Russian Transition Initiative) in the late 1990s to early 2000s. Many scientists received support through participation in other nuclear security cooperation programs outlined above. In general, the need for such programs decreased as the Russian economy improved.

Cooperation between the United States and Russia was largely suspended in 2014 through 2016 due to political reasons. Many cooperation goals had been achieved and many issues had been resolved by then, but still, there is room for further cooperation. Cooperation between Russia and several other countries, such as Norway,5Norwegian Regulatory Authority Evaluates Progress in Modernization of Physical Protection at Atomflot. http://russiannuclearsecurity.com/february-march2019issue#rec98601717. Japan,6Russia and Japan Continue Cooperating to Eliminate Soviet Nuclear Legacy in the Far East. http://russiannuclearsecurity.com/russia-and-japan-continue-cooperating-to-eliminate-soviet-legacy. and Italy,7Experts from Russia and Europe Discuss Disposal of Another Part of Russia’s Nuclear Legacy. http://russiannuclearsecurity.com/experts-from-russia-and-europe-discuss-disposal-of-another-part-of-nuclearlegacy. continues, though, at a much smaller scale.

After the collapse of cooperation, the international nuclear security community faced several questions regarding the future of nuclear security in Russia:

  • Can Russia maintain achievements of nuclear security cooperation of 1992-2014?
  • What are the chances of reducing stockpiles and use of weapons-usable nuclear materials now, when many relevant cooperative programs are either completed (HEU-LEU Deal) or terminated (Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement [PMDA])?
  • How do Russia and the United States facilitate mutually beneficial international cooperation?

The good news is that much more information about nuclear security in Russia is now available than ever before. Until recently, U.S.-Russian cooperation was the only source of reliable information, when joint teams reported on progress and achievements at regular professional events, such as the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management (INMM) Annual Meetings.8Dmitry Kovchegin, Olga Mikhaylova, and Alexandra Sitdikova, “History Of The U.S.-Russian Nuclear Security Cooperation In INMM Archives: A Primer,” (paper presented at the 61st Annual Meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, virtual, July 12-16, 2020), http://russiannuclearsecurity.com/inmm2020 (accessed April 26, 2021). While Russian attendance at the INMM Annual Meetings has substantially decreased since cooperation was suspended, the situation with nuclear security information, in general, has improved. Several factors contributed to this:

  1. There is a worldwide trend towards greater information availability.
  2. Russian authorities have published in the public record many regulations governing nuclear security at Russian sites.
  3. Government reporting on nuclear security issues has improved substantially, however, the reporting is still far from perfect and not as comprehensive as coverage of nuclear safety or general nuclear energy development issues.
  4. Nearly all nuclear sites in Russia regularly update websites, which provide some information about nuclear security.
  5. The publicly available procurements information system provides information about a substantial share of procurements made by Russian nuclear sites, including those aimed at supporting nuclear security.9Dmitry Kovchegin and Nickolas Roth, “Comparing Availability of Public Nuclear Security Information in the United States and Russia,” (paper presented at the 59th Annual Meeting of the Institute for Nuclear Materials Management, Baltimore, Maryland, July 22-26, 2018).

What can we learn from this information to answer the questions outlined above?

First, Russia can provide adequate funding to support nuclear security. This was one of the major concerns after the cooperation was suspended. The Russian economy now is much better than in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. This economic recovery may have slowed, however, marked by declines over the last few years. The nuclear industry enjoys support from the government that is accompanied by appropriate funding from the federal budget. Substantial funding allocated from the federal budget to support Rosatom defense and nuclear energy investments spills over to improve nuclear security at facilities involved in these programs. Overall, security, in general, has always been a priority in Russia, including nuclear security. Therefore, when funding is available in the federal budget, security makes the top of the list of priority expenditures. It is hard to come up with an accurate figure of nuclear security funding in Russia. However, the estimated overall annual funding for nuclear security in Russia is at least in the range of hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars.10Based on author’s analysis.

Nuclear security improvements in Russia continue. Despite the absence of peer pressure and expert support from the United States, Russia continues improving its nuclear security. Improvements at the national infrastructure level include activities aimed at developing new and revising existing regulations and guidelines; maintaining and developing Federal Information System; improving centralized transportation control and security system; and improving response capabilities and training capabilities.11Regular Russian Nuclear Security Updates contain sections providing an overview of nuclear security related drills and exercises in Russia. For details see http://russiannuclearsecurity.com/monthlyupdates Nuclear sites implement regular upgrades to replace outdated equipment, as well as in response to changes in threats and regulations.12See overview of Russian nuclear security procurements in Russian Nuclear Security Updates at http://russiannuclearsecurity.com/monthlyupdates New technologies are introduced in nuclear security practice, for example use of drones for surveillance of the nuclear site perimeter. Substantial investments are made in certain components of personnel reliability programs, such as pro-force personnel checks for substance abuse as well as physical and mental health checks.13E.g., see Protection Forces Personnel for Rosatom to Receive Drug Testing. http://russiannuclearsecurity.com/protection-forces-personnel-for-rosatom-to-receive-drug-testing

There is still room for improvement. In particular, attention given to security, at least in the public domain, is still much lower than attention given to safety and economic aspects of the nuclear industry. The Rosatom Annual Report for 2019 devoted half a page to nuclear security-related issues out of 149 pages of total Annual Report volume.14Rosatom, Performance of State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom in 2019 (Moscow: Rosatom, 2019), https://www.report.rosatom.ru/1628 (accessed April 26, 2021). This serves as evidence of inadequate attention Rosatom management has given to nuclear security as compared to other issues. Also, implementation of certain best practices, e.g. trending of nuclear materials inventory difference intended to detect protracted theft of nuclear materials, that were shared during the time and within the framework of U.S.-Russian cooperation is still lagging. Russia would benefit significantly by engaging in best practice exchanges and peer reviews, and there is some evidence that the Russian nuclear industry is willing to engage in such cooperation.15Based on conversations with industry experts, 2020.

Measurement of nuclear materials is incomplete. While Russia has formally transitioned to measurements-based nuclear materials accounting and control,16E.g., see Basic Rules for Control and Accounting of Nuclear Materials (OPUK). NP-030-19 Rostechnadzor Order # 438 of 18 November 2019. not all nuclear materials in Russia have yet been physically measured. This especially applies to passive stocks of nuclear materials stored at smaller research facilities. Ongoing consolidation of the Russian nuclear research complex can help resolve this issue, but it will likely take substantial time to complete.

Like in many countries, the weakest links in the Russian nuclear security system are related to human factors. This is particularly valid for personnel not directly involved in nuclear security activities, but whose behavior can negatively affect nuclear security. Two major issues are pervasive: corruption and poor nuclear security culture. Corruption happens when personnel with authority over certain components of nuclear site activity abuse their authority and resources under his/her control in a way that creates nuclear security risks. For example, in 2017, investigators found that there was an abuse of funding for nuclear security that resulted in a poorly built perimeter around the nuclear site. Perimeter construction work performed by the subcontractor failed to meet many critical requirements, but still was accepted by the responsible nuclear site manager and payment for this work was made. Such corruption schemes are extremely popular in Russia, as the corrupted person typically benefits from money paid for improperly performed work.17“Serious Violation in Upgrade Works at the Perimeter of Rosatom’s Closed City,” Russian Nuclear Security Update (Fall 2017),http://russiannuclearsecurity.com/fall2017issue#rec99991727 (accessed April 26, 2021). Major risks are associated with poor nuclear security can be attributed to the fact that nuclear site personnel do not internalize nuclear security threats and recognize the potential negative impact of their behavior on the security of a nuclear site, nuclear material, or sensitive information. For example, in February 2018, employees of a nuclear weapons lab in Sarov were detained for connecting the laboratory supercomputer to the internet for cryptocurrency mining, potentially leaking sensitive data.18“Employees of the Nuclear Weapons Center in Sarov Detained for Mining Cryptocurrency using Center’s Supercomputer, Russian Nuclear Security Update (March 2018),http://russiannuclearsecurity.com/march2018issue#rec99958511 (accessed April 26, 2021).

Reducing stocks of nuclear materials: HEU

As of now, there is no clear path for decreasing stocks and downsizing the use of HEU in Russia. The HEU-LEU Agreement that was responsible for burning 500 tons of HEU taken out of dismantled Russian nuclear weapons (thus decreasing total stocks of HEU from 1200 tons to 700 tons) was completed in 2013 and has not been extended to cover additional material. Moreover, in 2012, Russia resumed HEU production that was stopped in the late 1980s. Russia continues extensive use of HEU for naval propulsion, as well as a fuel for dozens of research reactors.19Frank von Hippel, “The Need to Address the Larger Universe of HEU-Fueled Reactors, Including: Critical Assemblies, Pulsed Reactors and Propulsion Reactors,” paper presented at the International Meeting on Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors, IAEA, Vienna, November 7-12, 2004), https://inis.iaea.org/collection/NCLCollectionStore/_Public/36/069/36069560.pdf (accessed April 26, 2021). Other than international pressure to reduce the use of HEU, the only valid chance for downsizing use and decreasing stocks of HEU in Russia is the drive for economic efficiency. Ongoing consolidation of the nuclear research complex in Russia can reduce the number of smaller research facilities using HEU. Another chance is burning HEU into a novel fuel for light water reactors, which uses HEU to make new fuel out of the spent fuel of light water reactors. This technology received Rosatom investment in 2020, and production facilities will be built on the site of the Siberian Chemical Combine.20Siberian Chemical Combine will produce U-Pu REMIX-Fuel (in Russian). August 26, 2020. http://atomsib.ru/novosti/7585-na-sibirskom-khimicheskom-kombinate-budet-proizvoditsya-uran-plutonievoe-remiks-toplivo

Reducing stocks of nuclear materials: Plutonium

In general, Russia considers spent nuclear fuel, including plutonium contained in it, as a resource that needs to be used for energy production. This position is part of the Russian closed nuclear fuel cycle policy. To implement this policy Russia has been working to increase its spent nuclear fuel reprocessing capabilities and introduce novel power generation technologies that would allow the most efficient use of this resource.

The last Russian WGPu production reactor was shut down in 2010, and the last plutonium was separated from the spent nuclear fuel irradiated in plutonium production reactors in 2012. This marked the successful completion of the U.S.-Russian Agreement on Cooperation Regarding Plutonium Production Reactors that provided the framework for U.S. technical and financial support to Russia in shutting down plutonium production reactors. Russia currently uses its own funding to decommission and shut down reactors.

Another U.S.-Russian agreement aimed at reducing stocks of WGPU failed to deliver expected results. Russia and the United States concluded the PMDA in 2000. Under this agreement, the United States and Russia agreed to dispose of at least 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium from their inventories. The revised PMDA entered into force in 2011 and captured new technical approaches to disposing plutonium as preferred by the parties.21Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Russian Federation Concerning the Management and Disposition of Plutonium Designated as No Longer Required for Defense Purposes and Related Cooperation, September 1, 2000, https://2009-2017.state.gov/documents/organization/18557.pdf (accessed April 26, 2021). However, in 2016, Russia suspended its participation in the PMDA claiming lack of progress in the development of agreed infrastructure for disposing of U.S. WGPu, as well as changes to the originally agreed-upon technical approaches to disposition without proper reconciliation with Russia.22Kingston Reif, “Russia Suspends Plutonium Agreement,” Arms Control Today, November 2016, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2016-10/news/russia-suspends-plutonium-agreement (accessed April 26, 2021). It is also highly likely that the crisis in the relationship between the two countries contributed to Russia’s decision to suspend participation in the PMDA.23The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, “Comment by the Information and Press Department on the US Report on Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Non-Proliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments” (Moscow: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, May 5, 2019), https://www.mid.ru/web/guest/situacia-vokrug-dogovora-o-rsmd/-/asset_publisher/ckorjLVIkS61/content/id/3633105?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_ckorjLVIkS61&_101_INSTANCE_ckorjLVIkS61_languageId=en_GB (accessed April 26, 2021). Russia, however, managed to create the infrastructure necessary to implement the PMDA regardless of the lack of financial support the United States committed to provide under the agreement. This infrastructure included a mixed oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility at Mining and Chemical Combine and a fast neutron BN-800 reactor at Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), which has a reactor core adapted to burn MOX fuel. Currently, Russia uses this infrastructure to make and burn MOX fuel made from civilian reactor-grade plutonium extracted from the spent nuclear fuel of light waterpower generation reactors. However, should parties agree to resume work under the PMDA, Russia will be able to start burning WGPu relatively quickly.

Russia also has substantial stocks of separated civilian plutonium that it extracted from the spent fuel of light water reactors following its declared closed nuclear fuel cycle policy. According to most recent reports of civilian plutonium inventory, as of 2018 Russia, had 56.5 tons of separated civilian plutonium with stocks gradually growing at a rate of 1-2 tons/year, which was reported to the IAEA under the Guidelines for the Management of Plutonium (INFCIRC/549).24International Atomic Energy Agency, “Communication Received from Certain Member States Concerning Their Policies Regarding the Management of Plutonium” (Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency, March 16, 1998), https://www.iaea.org/publications/documents/infcircs/communication-received-certain-member-states-concerning-their-policies-regarding-management-plutonium (accessed April 26, 2021). This growth can, however, change if Russia starts using civilian plutonium to produce MOX fuel to burn it in the BN-800 reactor.

Legacy of international cooperation: How not to throw baby out with the bathwater

The years between 1992-2014 were the Golden Age of U.S.-Russian nuclear security cooperation. This cooperation was largely suspended in 2014. While the Crimea crisis triggered the breakdown, overall “cooperation fatigue” created fertile ground for this suspension. By 2014 Russia had managed to substantially improve its economy and assert itself on the international scene. Hence, Russia saw cooperation conditions that were built and inherited its main elements from donor-recipient model as increasingly unfavorable. Regardless of the break down in nuclear security cooperation with the United States, Russia continues limited nuclear security cooperation with other nations, such as Norway, Italy, and Japan. This cooperation includes all “normal” elements of legacy cooperation, including foreign funding, meetings, and site visits. This indicates that the deterioration of U.S.-Russian nuclear security cooperation had more to do with the overall relationship between the two countries and not the cooperative framework or subject matter area.

Outside of traditional nuclear security cooperation, Russia started playing a more active role in supporting the development of national nuclear security infrastructure in partner countries where Rosatom builds NPPs of Russian design. While in the past Russia abstained from providing nuclear security support, now it is part of its overall NPP construction package. Nuclear security support typically includes help in developing nuclear security regulations and establishing necessary regulatory infrastructure, training nuclear security personnel, and providing advice in designing nuclear security systems at a NPP site.

Assumptions for future nuclear security cooperation with Russia

Russia’s participation is critical for the success of future international cooperation in nuclear security. This future cooperation must be based on the following assumptions to facilitate Russia’s commitment.

  • Russia is a “normal” country from a nuclear security standpoint. Major nuclear security issues have been resolved. While problems with nuclear security remain, they are comparable to those of other countries with well-developed nuclear industries.
  • Russia has a lot to share and a lot to benefit from cooperation. Contrary to the U.S.-Russian donor-recipient cooperative model of early 1990s, Russia is not only able to benefit from cooperation. Russia has substantial expertise to share and can leverage its NPP construction partnerships to substantially contribute to nuclear security globally.
  • Nuclear security is part of a broader nuclear cooperation package. While Russia has always been willing to cooperate in the areas of nuclear energy and science, nuclear security has not been a priority from the international cooperation standpoint. While Russia is increasingly willing to cooperate on nuclear security issues, Russia will only cooperate on nuclear security if it is part of a broader nuclear package. Another factor to consider in this regard is that nuclear security does not work in isolation from other domains. Strong nuclear security contributes to effective performance in other areas and vice versa. Cooperation on a broader agenda also contributes to confidence between parties, as they see that all interests are respected.

Dmitry Kovchegin, INSF Member, International Nuclear Security Consultant, and PIR Center Advisory Board Member

Dmitry Kovchegin is a graduate of the Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute, program on Security, Accounting and Controls of Nuclear Materials and Nonproliferation. In 2004-2012, he supported implementation of multiple nuclear security cooperation programs between the United States, Russia, and other former Soviet Union countries as a consultant in the Moscow office of Booz Allen Hamilton and as an independent consultant since 2013. In addition to his main engagements, Mr. Kovchegin contributed to multiple research projects covering the issue of nuclear security and served as an author or co-author on multiple publications on the topic. Mr. Kovchegin is a member of PIR Center Advisory Board, the leading Russian NGO covering the issues of nuclear security and nonproliferation, since 2015.

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