Historic St. Petersburg nuclear dialogue provides rare opportunity for interaction with Russian scientists
As a global community, we are in a time of uncertainty regarding nuclear issues. Nearly twenty years after the end of the Cold War, we remain hamstrung by the legacies of the nuclear East-West standoff. There are the physical nuclear remains of that conflict: tens of thousands of excess nuclear weapons and thousands of tons of highly dangerous fissile material. And there are the military mental constructs it created: “mutually assured destruction” and “survivable second strike capabilities.”
We want to move to a future where nuclear weapons play a greatly diminished role in world affairs, but we fear a future beyond our control, so we hedge our bets and cause others to react in turn. The result is a lacking sense of direction, which plays out as stagnant, calcified conversations within our official discussions at the United Nations and elsewhere. Meanwhile, new and emerging threats continue from dangerous regimes and nonstate actors.
Turning to energy, we see the potential for a global nuclear energy renaissance that holds out the hope for cheap, carbon-neutral electricity for a growing, developing global community. At the same time, visions of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl loom in our collective memories, and real, unanswered questions remain regarding not only safety issues, but about nuclear waste, nuclear weapons proliferation, and even basic economics. Once again, our uncertainty holds back progress on policy discussions and decision making.
A Rare OpportunityAgainst the background of these challenges, in April 2008 the Stanley Foundation cosponsored the 2nd annual Russian Nuclear National Dialogue on “Energy, Society, and Security,” along with several high-profile Russian organizations, both governmental and nongovernmental: Rosatom (Russian government nuclear agency), the Russian National Academy of Science (equivalent to the US National Academy of Science), and Green Cross International, an organization created by former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. Over two days in St. Petersburg, 100 Russian and international participants from governmental, academic, policy, and civil society backgrounds met to discuss these critical issues from a Russian perspective.
Its role in nuclear issues has changed since the end of the Cold War, but Russia remains vitally important as a country striving to maintain its own security and leadership role in the region; rapidly developing from its vast oil and gas reserves; seeking to export its national technologies through increased trade; and acting as a key participant in setting global norms and settling international strategic crises, in the UN Security Council and elsewhere. Yet for all this, few real opportunities exist for free and open discussions between Russian and international experts across these different sectors of society, and so a conference such as the one held in April becomes all the more valuable.
Conference participants discussed how to improve the strategic relationship between Russia and the United States; the proliferation concerns stemming from “loose nukes” kept inside old Soviet bases and military warehouses; environmental cleanup of past Soviet nuclear crises, such as Chernobyl; how to spread nuclear energy to other countries without spreading technologies that could be turned into weapons; and how to deal with North Korea and Iran.
It was clear that this was one of the few opportunities for Russian lab officials to interact with international experts, for Russian citizens and environmental groups to interact with Russian governmental officials, and for an open forum where the once confidential nuclear topics could be addressed. International participants should take advantage of this open time to strengthen and deepen relationships with Russian experts and institutions, as a variety of significant challenges remain.
Repairing the US-Russia Relationship At the height of the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union amassed more than 70,000 nuclear weapons between them and more than 2,000 tons of additional nuclear material. With the end of the Cold War and consistent bilateral negotiation, our strategic arsenals will be at the lowest point since the Eisenhower administration of the 1950s. This is undoubtedly a good thing, but many quantitative and, more importantly, qualitative challenges remain.
The strategic relationship between the United States and Russia is presently in poor health, and as Russia continues to assert itself more actively on the world stage, the strains in the relationship make progress on nuclear matters more difficult. Bilaterally, this complicates strengthening past strategic weapons reductions.
As well, there is a danger that the tremendous progress made in securing and eliminating Russian residual nuclear material from our Cold War legacy could be hamstrung by the current political tensions between the two former superpower rivals. For fifteen years, under the umbrella of “comprehensive threat reduction,” the United States has been assisting Russia in a host of areas: the destruction of its excess nuclear weapons, the purchase of excess nuclear material (that now produces approximately 10 percent of US electricity), and the transformation of Russian personnel and infrastructure from military to civilian productivity. This unprecedented effort could falter if the US-Russian relationship continues to erode.
A resurgent Russia is key to managing and resolving critical external nuclear nonproliferation challenges. Russia is a vital participant in the two most public, challenging nonproliferation situations confronting the global community today: North Korea and Iran. Russia also participates in and contributes to a host of nonproliferation efforts, from long-standing efforts such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the related efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, to newer initiatives such as the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership and the Proliferation Security Initiative.
In a changing global environment, Russia is a major power on nuclear nonproliferation and its resurgence will maintain its critical position for the foreseeable future. Multilateral nuclear conferences, such as the recent St. Petersburg event, are an important channel of communication between Russia, the United States, and the international community on these critical nuclear issues. Progress depends on common understandings, which in turn rely on opportunities to share perspectives and views. St. Petersburg has historically been the pivot point between the West and the East, between Europe and Russia—a fitting location for an open dialogue on some of the most serious security issues facing our common future.
— Matt Martin
The Summer 2016 issue of Courier features: “Their name is the Rohingya, a people disowned by their home government, cast away as stateless and homeless. Who will step up and help?” and “Peace at Risk in Burundi—Again.” The issue also includes “Strengthening Nuclear Security in a Post-Summit World,” “No Time to Lose, the 1.5 C Limit in the Paris Agreement,” and “Investigation U. 2016.” The full Summer 2016 issue. PDF (1.0 MB) Subscribe for FREE.
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