By Nicole Gaouette
Belarus will eliminate its stocks of highly enriched uranium by the next Nuclear Security Summit in 2012, Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov said today.
The U.S. will provide technical and financial support to help Belarus complete the project as quickly as possible, Martynov said during an appearance with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan.
U.S. President Barack Obama has made non-proliferation a priority for his administration, with the aim of securing stockpiles of highly enriched uranium, some of which can be used to make weapons, and converting international reactors to less- enriched fuel.
Ukraine, another former Soviet republic, agreed to get rid of its stocks of highly enriched uranium by 2012 during the 47- nation Nuclear Security Summit hosted by Obama last April in Washington.
The same month, Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko said his country had "hundreds of kilograms of what is basically weapons-grade and lower-enriched uranium." The country used the material for research purposes, Lukashenko said, according to the Russian news service Interfax.
Belarus wasn't invited to the April summit after the government made clear it wouldn't relinquish its uranium stocks, a State Department official said on condition of anonymity. The only other nations not invited were Iran and North Korea.
Lukashenko's government agreed to change its position after further talks with the U.S., the official said.
Belarus agreed to send about 220 kilograms (485 pounds) of uranium to Russia, where it will be diluted for use as fuel in nuclear power plants, the official said. The country plans to have its first reactor in operation by 2018, with a second going online in 2020.
The deal helps Belarus, which depends on Russia for most of its energy needs, diversify supplies, while furthering the U.S. goal of reducing nuclear stockpiles, the official said.
Belarus has as much as 370 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, at least 40 kilograms of which is enriched to 90 percent, according to research by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington-based policy group founded by Ted Turner and former Republican Senator Sam Nunn.
Uranium enriched to more than 80 percent is weapons-grade.
The James Martin Center is the largest U.S. nongovernmental organization devoted exclusively to research and training on nonproliferation issues. It is a graduate school of Middlebury College in Vermont.
Clinton and Martynov pledged to work together on nuclear security and security upgrades at the Belarus Joint Institute for Power and Nuclear Research. Clinton also welcomed indications that South Korea will invite Belarus to the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit.