Belarusian highly enriched uranium (HEU) has not received a significant amount of attention apart from within small policy circles. Belarus was not invited to the high-profile Nuclear Security Summit this spring in Washington, nor has it had much of a relationship with the United States over the last couple years. One is hard pressed to think of what Belarus and the U.S. even have in common. It is hard to negotiate when the interests of two countries don't seemingly overlap. However, nuclear material is one area where some common ground can be found between the United States and Belarus.
Taking into account the uranium enrichment activities of Iran and the renewed belligerence of North Korea, Belarusian HEU has all but disappeared from the political radar. Nonetheless, the material could be a potential ace-up-the-sleeve for President Alyaeksander Lukashenka if played wisely. The HEU could be used to both garner high-level attention from the United States, and to improve any future Belarusian negotiating position, at least in the short to mid-term.
There is a time limit on the ability of Belarus, or any other country for that matter, to secure the maximum benefits that would accompany surrendering its HEU stock in order to be down-blended, rendering it less dangerous. The President of the United States has made securing and consolidating nuclear material a key priority of his administration's non-proliferation agenda. Indeed, the agency in charge of administering nuclear security programs is likely to receive a 13.4% budget increase over last year.
However, not everyone in the U.S. government shares the President's fervor, as evidenced by the reluctance and often hostility of the U.S. Republican party to the President's agenda. It is likely that a future Republican administration will be loath to offer the same terms in a negotiation with Belarus, and will more likely resort to strong-arming in the case that it sees Belarusian HEU as a threat. Therefore, it is highly recommended that if Belarus would like to improve its international standing and gain the optimum benefits for its immediately-valuable HEU, it should pursue an open and high-level dialogue with the United States over the repatriation of its HEU stocks to Russia for downblending.
Securing loose nuclear material that could fall into the hands of terrorists or a nation seeking nuclear weapon capability is a top priority of the Obama administration. It was the focus of the April 2010 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, which brought together the leaders of 47 nations to discuss the nature of the threat posed by loose nuclear material and to foster a consensus aimed at addressing the problem. The Nuclear Security Summit was also a key element of a larger U.S. effort to reduce the global threats posed by nuclear weapons, and as such, the Obama administration has invested significant political capital in the pursuit of its nonproliferation agenda.
Noticeably absent from the April summit was Belarusian President Lukashenka. Belarus is thought to have between 170-370 kg of fresh - nonirradiated - HEU, 40 kg of which is said to be weapons-grade - enriched to 90% or higher. The material is said to be stored at Sosny, 10 miles outside of Minsk, which is the home of the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences and a Joint Institute for Power and Nuclear Research. The HEU at Sosny, while inherently dangerous, is not exactly the "loose" nuclear material that an international consensus has been built around securing. But even though Minsk's possession of HEU doesn't exactly pose the greatest threat to international security and stability, Minsk can still capitalize on its large stocks to gain political and economic benefits by recognizing that the current U.S. administration would love to chalk up another foreign policy win.
To its credit, Belarus has been a rather responsible member of the nuclear nonproliferation regime since its ratification of the Treaty of the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and its co-sponsorship of the indefinite NPT extension proposal in 1995. Belarusian participation in the now-famous efforts to consolidate the former Soviet nuclear arsenal, its 2005 signature of the Additional Protocol to its International Atomic Energy Agency Safeguards Agreement (not in force as of 27 May 2010), and its ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty are indicative of its understanding of the need to control nuclear weapons and material.
Its efforts should be commended, but as the saying goes, "the squeaky wheel gets the grease." If Belarus wants to be perceived as a responsible steward of its nuclear material by keeping it secure, then kudos to Belarus. But if it would like to receive some tangible benefits, then it would be well advised to capitalize on the current attention that the U.S. administration's non-proliferation agenda is receiving. At a time when U.S.-Belarusian relation are at a very low point, this issue could be used to ease the tension and allow the two countries to begin normalizing relations, which would be in both of their interests.
If Belarus could leverage the Obama Administration's desire to pick up what would likely be perceived as a big foreign policy win before the next U.S. Presidential election in 2012, it could further its own goals and effectively contribute to global security. The U.S. administration's elevation of nuclear material security to a top-priority would allow for Minsk to garner positive notoriety and financial gain. The state of U.S.-Belarusian has nearly bottomed out and could use the adrenaline shot that working together to repatriate the Belarusian nuclear material would provide.
If Lukashenka is to garner the optimum benefit from his HEU stockpile, it will have to be before there is a change of administration in the White House. The U.S. Presidential election in 2012 is likely going to be quite contentious, and if the opposition party comes to power, many of Obama's policies will likely be discontinued. If Belarus would like to continue to be a responsible steward of its significant quantities of HEU, that is great, but it should understand that such dangerous material can also be a liability.
by Andrew Riedy, contributing writer