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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Key Nuclear Dispute Is Resolved

Washington and Moscow have resolved a liability dispute that had blocked the implementation of a key U.S.-funded nuclear threat reduction program in Russia for more than two years, a senior U.S. official said Tuesday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters in Moscow that the agreement, which would cover U.S.-funded disposal of weapons-grade plutonium in Russia, would be based on the principle of reciprocity, but he did not elaborate.

The resolution of the liability dispute paves the way for the disposal of excessive stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium, eliminating fissile material that might otherwise end up in the hands of terrorists or rogue nations. Russia has enough plutonium to make 4,000 bombs, according to the estimates of Graham Allison, an expert on nuclear terrorism and the director of Harvard University's Belfer Center.

A Russian source familiar with the U.S.-Russian negotiations said Tuesday that an agreement had been reached in principle but remained unsigned.

The source, who works for a state agency involved in the talks and asked not to be identified since the deal had not been signed, said it was now being passed around to various Russian government agencies for their approval and would be formalized as an addendum to a 2000 U.S.-Russian agreement on the disposal of excessive plutonium.

Neither side said when the agreement -- which is also expected to spell out who bears responsibility for any potential damage caused during the disposal of plutonium -- would be signed.

In another major development in the U.S.-Russian nuclear security dialogue, a second senior U.S. official said at the same briefing that Russia had presented a list of nuclear facilities that American inspectors would be allowed to visit to inspect progress on U.S.-funded security upgrades.

The official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said the two sides' progress on liability and access issues would "facilitate the extension" of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which serves as the basis for most U.S.-funded nuclear security projects in Russia, when it expires in 2006.

The Federal Atomic Energy Agency and the Foreign Ministry did not respond to written inquires about the status of the liability dispute or whether a list of selected nuclear facilities had been presented to Washington.

In advance of the Group of Eight summit in Scotland in early July, American media reported that the list would be handed over to the U.S. side and the liability dispute would be resolved when Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin met on the sidelines of the talks.

The Kremlin, however, made no statement at the time. One reason may be that Russian officials tend to be secretive about the details of U.S.-Russian nonproliferation in order to avoid riling the public, said Ivan Safranchuk, head of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information.

"The scale and concrete results of this cooperation are not publicized because authorities are afraid to do so in an atmosphere of ... anti-Americanism that they themselves have been encouraging," Safranchuk said.

Until recently, U.S. contractors carrying out upgrades at Russian facilities within the framework of Cooperative Threat Reduction had insisted that their companies and personnel should have immunity to liability for any damage caused during upgrades.

Their position was championed by then-Undersecretary of State John Bolton, much to the dismay of the Russians. The Russians had insisted that liability be divided as it was in the Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Program in the Russian Federation Framework Agreement, which was signed by several EU countries and Russia in 2003, a Federal Atomic Energy Agency official said in a recent interview.

With Bolton gone and Colin Powell replaced by Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, the liability issue was put on a fast track. The first sign of a pending resolution appeared after Rice's visit to Moscow in May, when both sides claimed significant progress on the issue.

Bolton's replacement, Robert Joseph, arrived in Moscow on Monday for 1 1/2 days of talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Kislyak, Federal Atomic Energy Agency head Alexander Rumyantsev and Security Council deputy head Nikolai Spassky.

Joseph was to discuss international efforts to ensure Iran did not develop nuclear weapons, the North Korean nuclear situation, the evacuation of spent nuclear fuel from Soviet-designed reactors to Russia and the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative.