A SCRUBBY field in the provincial Russian town of Mayak, in the Ural Mountains, is fast becoming a symbol of frustration for United States officials worried about keeping plutonium and other dangerous fissile materials out of the hands of terrorists and thuggish dictators.
The field is supposed to be the site of a US-funded, state-of-the-art $70-plus-million storage facility for plutonium removed from nuclear warheads dismantled under a US-Russian disarmament program.
Construction of this crucial lockbox warehouse, however, has stalled because of bureaucratic delay and continued lack of cooperation by Russian authorities, in the US view.
Nor is Mayak an isolated incident. More than two years after it began, an overall US effort to help Russia account for and guard its fissile material has shown only halting progress, according to US officials. Slow US decisionmaking has been a problem, as well as poor communication and Russian intransigence.
``The program has not moved fast enough,'' says Harold Smith, assistant to the secretary of defense for atomic energy.
Meanwhile, evidence persists that a slow trickle of weapons-capable nuclear material is leaking out of former Warsaw Pact facilities. Two weeks ago, law enforcement officers in the Czech Republic announced they had recovered six pounds of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from a car parked in Prague. The dangerous package came complete with a certificate written in Russian.
Six pounds of HEU isn't enough to make a bomb. The size of this latest seizure, however, still worries US officials, as it represents a sharp jump upward from the gram-sized amounts turned up in previous ``loose-nuke'' investigations.
``There is a lively market for weapons-grade material. People are trying to buy it, and there are criminal elements trying to obtain it and sell it,'' noted Secretary of Defense William Perry in a broadcast interview last week.
Worried about stability in cash-poor Russia, Congress three years ago approved so-called Nunn-Lugar legislation authorizing US funds to help dismantle nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union and safely store the leftover plutonium and highly enriched-uranium warhead cores.
There are some subsidiary US efforts to keep ex-Soviet plutonium out of the wrong hands: Department of Energy nuclear labs, for instance, cooperate closely with Russian counterparts. But Nunn-Lugar is the main US ``loose-nuke'' program, and so far its weapons-dismantlement work has proceeded much more quickly than nuclear-material safeguard cooperation.
Nearly 8,000 warheads once pointed at the US have been dismantled since 1992, according to US officials. That's a big plus for US national security. But of the $969 million Congress has authorized for Nunn-Lugar over the last three years, only $1.2 million has been spent on fissile-material control and accounting in Russia, as of the end of fiscal year 1994. And much of the $1.2 million has gone for items to improve fissile- material transport security, such as conversion kits to make railroad cars more secure and armor blankets to cover transport containers.
``Priority has been given to the dismantlement of strategic nuclear-delivery vehicles. But it seems to me if you look at the economic instability in Russia, and the sorry state of its facilities, leaking plutonium and HEU may be a more time-urgent problem,'' says Dunbar Lockwood, Arms Control Association assistant director for research.
Pledged, but so far unspent, is $20 million in US funds to assess the critical accounting and control needs of 10 Russian facilities that handle plutonium and HEU - and then to provide these sites with alarms, seals, and other security equipment. And, perhaps most frustrating to US officials, the big Mayak storage facility has made little progress beyond the drawing board.
This secure warehouse is intended to hold fissile material that would be relatively easy to remake into a terrorist weapon - plutonium pits withdrawn from warheads. Building design was finished last spring, with substantial US technical assistance.
The Pentagon, through Nunn-Lugar, has pledged $75 million for equipment to build the Mayak compound. But the powerful head of the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM), Viktor Mikhailov, has continued to make what the US considers unacceptable demands for cash and other assistance before he will allow construction to begin.
``Mikhailov's intransigence is largely responsible for the slow pace,'' Mr. Lockwood says.
For its part, the US says it is ready to withdraw its support for the storage facility unless Russians are more open about their plans and proceed with ground-breaking work.
A US official who visited the Mayak site this fall says that at the time ``trees had been cleared'', but that was about all. MINATOM has reportedly told the US that it plans to start construction this spring.
There is enough blame for the relatively slow pace of the US fissile-material control program to go around, however. US decisionmaking has not exactly moved at time-warp speed.
``Too much time has been spent on the question of what to do, as opposed to actually doing something,'' says Harold Smith of the Department of Defense. ``How do you make two large bureaucracies implement an agreement?''