The United States and Belarus announced Wednesday an agreement under which Belarus will eliminate a stockpile of Soviet-era highly enriched uranium. The accord was reached at a meeting of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Belarusian counterpart Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov on the sidelines of the OSCE summit in Astana, Kazakhstan.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had as recently as this April said he would not bow to international pressure to give up the uranium stockpile, which experts feared was poorly-secured.
But U.S. officials say the Minsk government began to reconsider its position after it was barred from attending the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, and the agreement was hammered out by the two sides in the days leading up to the OSCE summit.
An announcement after the Clinton-Martynov bilateral meeting said Belarus, with U.S. assistance, will eliminate, by 2012, its entire stock of enriched uranium, estimated at about 220 kilograms, enough to make several nuclear weapons.
The United States said it will support a Belarus decision to build a safeguarded light-water nuclear power plant, and that South Korea is inviting the Central European state to the next nuclear summit in two years.
Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Philip Gordon told reporters traveling with Clinton the Belarus accord is a major step toward fulfilling President Obama's goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear material by 2014, and that the prospective power plant will help Belarus diversify its energy supplies.
"It is cheaper and safer. It increases the energy diversity because, at present, Belarus relies very significantly on gas imports from one country, Russia. And a nuclear reactor would enable them to supply their own energy and not have to be so reliant on imports,” said Gordon.
The authoritarian government of Mr. Lukashenko, described in the past as Europe's last dictatorship, has taken some recent steps to improve relations with Washington and the European Union, including the release of remaining political prisoners.
The Clinton-Martynov statement said both sides acknowledge that enhanced respect for democracy and human rights remains central to improved relations, and that the United States hopes to see substantial progress, including a presidential election later this month that meets international standards.
The Belarus nuclear accord is the second the United States has concluded with a former Soviet republic in the past two weeks. Kazakhstan announced November 18th that with U.S. and British help, it is shutting down a plutonium plant and putting 10 metric tons of highly-enriched uranium and three tons of plutonium in safe storage.
Secretary Clinton hailed that accord at a press event with Kazakh Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev.
"That is enough material to have made 775 nuclear weapons. And now we are confident it will never fall into the wrong hands. This is a milestone of our cooperation, and a major step forward in meeting the goals set at this year's Nuclear Security Summit, in securing all nuclear material within four years," said Clinton.
While the Kazakh nuclear material will remain there in a new storage facility, a senior State Department official said the highly-enriched uranium from Belarus will eventually be shipped to Russia to be "blended down" into low-enriched reactor fuel.
U.S. companies will not build the nuclear power plant Belarus plans to acquire because the two countries lack a nuclear cooperation agreement.