(Dec. 1) -- The former Soviet state of Belarus said today that by 2012 it will scrap its stockpiles of highly enriched uranium -- a Cold War vestige that President Barack Obama has sought to eliminate.
The country's foreign minister, Sergei Martynov, made the promise today at a European security conference in Kazakhstan. The announcement marks a victory for the Obama administration, which has made nuclear nonproliferation a priority in its dealings with former Soviet states. Washington has been encouraging countries to convert nuclear power plants to run on low-grade enriched uranium, rather than the type of fuel that can also be used to make bombs.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton attended today's conference, where she offered Belarus technical and financial aid toward getting rid of its nuclear stockpile.
"I want to publicly thank Belarus for the decision that has been made to eliminate the remaining stock of highly enriched uranium," Clinton said after the meeting, according to UPI. "This is a very significant, important step that Belarus has taken."
Until now, the country's authoritarian leader, Aleksandr Lukashenko, had been defiant toward calls to relinquish nuclear fuel.
"Nobody will be allowed to make Belarus bow down," Lukashenko said in April, according to The New York Times. At the time, he was miffed at not being invited to Obama's 47-nation nuclear summit that month, where another former Soviet state, Ukraine, agreed to give up its uranium.
But Lukashenko appears to have changed his mind and approached U.S. officials a few months ago indicating he'd be willing to make a deal, The Washington Post reported. In exchange, Belarus will get an invitation to the next nuclear security summit, to be held in South Korea in 2012.
Experts are divided over how much weapons-grade uranium Belarus has. The Vermont-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies estimated earlier this year that the country has at least 88 pounds of weapons-grade uranium -- enough for eight nuclear weapons, the Post reported.