By Glenn Kessler
ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN - Belarus has agreed to give up its stock of highly enriched uranium, a critical fuel for nuclear weapons, the United States and Belarus announced Wednesday.
The deal with Belarus was revealed after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Belarus Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov on the sidelines of a security summit here. The agreement would help eliminate a legacy of the Cold War, when stocks of nuclear material were abandoned on territories of former Soviet states.
"I want to publicly thank Belarus for the decision that has been made to eliminate the remaining stock of highly enriched uranium. This is a very significant, important step that Belarus has taken," Clinton said after the meeting.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the enriched uranium that Belarus will give up will total nearly 500 pounds, though he could not precisely say how much is weapons grade.
Belarus is believed to have at least 88 pounds of weapons-grade uranium, enough for at least eight nuclear weapons, at a research institute in Sosny, along with hundreds of pounds of highly enriched uranium, according to a 2010 estimate by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
Russia will take possession of the uranium, blending it with other material to make it less potent and appropriate for other uses, or securing it in some other way.
Belarus was one of three nuclear-power countries - along with North Korea and Iran - that were not invited to President Obama's 47-nation Nuclear Security Summit in April. At the time, Belarusan President Alexander Lukashenko declared that the nation would never give up its uranium.
"I will tell you the truth: We have kept highly enriched uranium - hundreds of kilograms of what is basically weapons-grade and lower-enriched uranium," Lukashenko said then. "This is our commodity. We are keeping it under the control of the [International Atomic Energy Agency]. We are not going to make dirty bombs and we are not going to sell it to anybody. We're using it for research purposes, is all."
Belarus approached the United States a few months ago, however, indicating it was interested in reaching an agreement. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon said that Belarus will build its first civilian nuclear energy power plant, allowing it to diversify its energy sources. Belarus currently relies on gas imports from Russia for much of its energy, Gordon noted.
The announcement was apparently good enough to secure Belarus's invitation to the next summit, to be held in 2012 in South Korea. Belarus will aim to eliminate its stockpile by the time the summit convenes.
The joint statement issued Wednesday noted that "the United States intends to provide technical and financial assistance to support the completion of this effort as expeditiously as possible."
The United States has led efforts to eliminate stockpiles of such nuclear material in former Soviet states. At the April summit, Ukraine announced it would dispose of its entire stock of highly enriched uranium. With U.S. assistance, Kazakhstan earlier this month secured approximately 100 tons of weapons-grade nuclear material by transporting it to a highly secure storage facility in the eastern part of the country. The material had the potential to make more than 770 bombs.
Relations between Belarus and the United States have been strained for years, primarily because of Lukashenko's harsh repression of human rights. But the statement issued Wednesday suggested a potential thawing in ties.
"Welcoming progress on these global security issues, the United States and Belarus acknowledged that enhanced respect for democracy and human rights in Belarus remains central to improving bilateral relations, and is essential to the progress of the country and its citizens," the statement said. "The United States hopes for substantial progress in these areas and that the December Presidential elections in Belarus meet international standards."