WASHINGTON — The growing confrontation between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine has derailed a recent accord that promised one of the most expansive collaborations ever between the countries’ nuclear scientists, including reciprocal visits to atomic sites to work on projects ranging from energy to planetary defense.
Only 11 months ago, the U.S. energy secretary — Ernest Moniz, a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who has championed scientific programs that would bury the Cold War competitions between the United States and Russia — went to Vienna to sign the agreement, an indication of how recently the Obama administration believed it had a chance of building on 25 years of gradual integration of Russia with the West.
Handshakes and congratulations exchanged with Moniz’s Russian counterpart, Sergey Kirienko, sealed an arrangement that would let Russian scientists into, among other places, the heart of the U.S. nuclear complex at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was constructed 70 years ago, and a dozen sister laboratories devoted to the making of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. In return, U.S. scientists would be allowed deep into Russian nuclear facilities, including the birthplace of the Soviet bomb.
The Energy Department’s announcement of the deal also highlighted its potential for “defense from asteroids,” shorthand for a proposal to recycle a city-busting warhead that could be aimed at an incoming Earth-destroyer, a plot Hollywood had imagined 15 years before in two far-fetched thrillers, “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact,” in which Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck, among others, saved humanity.
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Today, the accord is on ice. Earlier this year, the Energy Department canceled nuclear meetings, symposia and lab visits with Russia.
Daniel Poneman, the deputy energy secretary, said Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March had prompted the decision to freeze the accord. “We’ve made it very clear that this is not a time for business as usual,” Poneman said Friday. He added, however, that the Energy Department continued to work with Russia on the security of atomic materials.
U.S. officials and experts say the decision will limit how much each side knows about the other’s capabilities and intentions after more than two decades in which U.S. and Russian nuclear scientists worked alongside one another. Those programs let once-bitter rivals, locked in the ultimate weapons race, take each other’s measure and deepen relationships, reducing the chances for deadly miscalculation and technological surprise.
Now, both sides are slipping back toward habits reminiscent of the Cold War. The joint atomic projects have declined substantially. Last week, the U.S. accused Russia of violating a major arms treaty on missile technology. After the negotiation of the modest New START treaty in 2010, progress toward another round of nuclear-warhead reductions is dead in the water and unlikely to be revived during President Obama’s term.
Perhaps most startling is not the direction of these steps, but their speed: As recently as January, the two sides were meeting regularly on joint arms-control and scientific programs. The cancellations show how rapidly Obama has moved from a strategy that assumed Russia’s continued interest in cooperation to one that assumes that President Vladimir Putin of Russia is out to take as much territory and control as he can, and that letting Russian scientists into the U.S. nuclear complex is unwise.
Some Americans and Russians are still working alongside each other, though increasingly at cross-purposes, on the Iranian nuclear negotiations. The United States still needs its astronauts to ride to the international space station on Russian rockets, and it wants to keep buying Russian engines for its missiles.
Even so, at a moment when the Obama administration is imposing sanctions and working to counter the flow of weapons into Ukraine, it might be difficult to justify an exchange of nuclear scientists. Some experts say it is when times are tense that such midlevel interchanges are the most critical.
“The idea of having thick relations with Russian nuclear scientists is a good idea,” said Graham Allison, a Harvard professor who negotiated early deals on securing the Soviet arsenal during the Clinton administration. “People get to know each other, work on joint projects, and there is a basis for conversation and cooperation.”
That was part of the impetus, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, behind the West’s effort to fund new projects for Russian nuclear scientists. Keeping them busily employed, the theory went, made it less likely they would sell their expertise to Iran, North Korea or a terrorist group with nuclear ambitions.
But the agreement last fall went far beyond that: It promised cooperation on complex, if peaceful, nuclear programs, including wide Russian access to the U.S. nuclear complex.
While it would have allowed both sides to exclude “sensitive” military sites, it listed 137 U.S. installations at 15 locations from coast to coast, including the centers for nuclear-weapons design at Los Alamos and in Albuquerque and Livermore, Calif.
The September accord was posted online late last year by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit news organization based in Washington. The disclosure received little public notice.
The cooperative mood vanished after the invasion of Crimea. Russia complained bitterly: In April, Rosatom, its state nuclear-energy company and partner in the accord, put out a statement calling the suspension of the partnership “a mistake that contradicts the constructive atmosphere that has built up.”
Politics, it added, “should have no place in this field.”