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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nuclear Effort Called a Lifeline in U.S. Ties

YEKATERINBURG -- Amid tense relations between the United States and Russia, two prominent U.S. arms control advocates Friday toured a storage facility designed to hold tons of plutonium and enriched uranium from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons.

U.S. Senator Richard Lugar and former Senator Sam Nunn, co-authors of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, were escorted through the high-security Mayak facility -- built to withstand assaults from terrorists and a direct hit from a jet.

Russia plans to store up to 25 tons of plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons at the facility, completed by the U.S. Defense Department in 2003 at a cost of $309 million.

Both Nunn and Lugar said Friday that their program had become a lifeline for maintaining Russian-U.S. relations.

"This is the strongest bridge we've built, because we've worked together and taken action together," Nunn said. "We've formed working relationships at the laboratory level and at the military-to-military level. Those bridges are strong and I think they can withstand this turmoil in the relationship, this tension in the relationship."

Nunn said he felt the United States had been too eager to criticize Putin's consolidation of power, saying that many Russians prefer the current political stability to the chaos of the 1990s.

"There's no lack of Americans on the left and the right telling Russia that they're concerned about the rollbacks of freedoms," he said. But criticizing Russia's domestic politics "can become very counterproductive," creating hostility instead of encouraging reform.

"You don't ever give up your values," he said. "But there are times when you use judgment and discretion about how much free advice another country wants."

Nunn and Lugar came to Mayak, in part, to gently push Russian officials to conclude months of negotiations by the end of the year on U.S. inspections of the facility.

The U.S. Congress has required Russia to confirm that Mayak is being used for what it was designed for -- to serve as a permanent storage center for nuclear materials that could be used to make bombs, and keep them out of the hands of criminals and terrorists.

Nunn and Lugar spent four days last week touring sites -- including Mayak and a massive U.S.-built chemical weapons destruction plant in western Siberia. While nonproliferation topped their agenda, the pair said they also sought to help halt the drift in U.S.-Russian relations toward acrimony and diplomatic confrontation.

"I think we are at a very important crossroads," Nunn said Friday. It has not yet become a crisis, he said, but there is danger of further deterioration. "I think it's more political than it is military now," he said. "But over time it will become more military if we don't turn it around."

The Nunn-Lugar program has helped deactivate 6,982 nuclear warheads, destroyed 653 intercontinental ballistic missiles, eliminated 485 ICBM silos, dismantled 101 mobile ICBM launchers, and improved security at nuclear, biological and chemical materials storage sites across the former Soviet Union.