The Bush administration is planning to slash spending on nuclear safety projects in Russia, raising fears that slacker controls on the porous Russian nuclear industry could bring an upsurge in the trafficking of radioactive materials.
Throughout the 1990s the US spent billions of dollars on various programmes in Russia aimed at securing nuclear stockpiles against theft, decommissioning weapons-grade uranium and plutonium or converting it for civilian use, and retraining and paying Russian nuclear scientists in order to discourage them from taking their expertise elsewhere.
The policy has been widely seen as one of the few relatively successful aid programmes to Russia and the Clinton administration had signalled a 50% increase in funds this year for the projects run mainly by the Pentagon and the US Department of Energy.
But White House budget plans from the Bush team have scrapped the proposed increases and instead cut the $800m (£571m) allocated to the energy department by around $100m or more than 12%.
"It seems that some projects will need to be scrapped," said Igor Kudrik, a Russian expert on his country's nuclear industry at the Bellona environmental watchdog in Norway.
The Republicans came to office in Washington fiercely critical of what they viewed as the Clinton government's failed economic and aid policies towards Russia. The proposed nuclear safety cuts are the first concrete evidence of reduced spending on Russia, though US and Russian experts predict the cuts will encounter strong resistance in Congress.
"There are prominent people in Washington, including Republicans, who want to restore and expand the spending, arguing that the nuclear problem is a threat to the US and not a favour to Russia," said Sergei Rogov, Moscow's top expert on the US.
Indeed, a recent US government sponsored report recommended that up to $30bn be spent on containing the Russian proliferation risk over the next decade.
Instead, under the Bush plans, experts say, key programmes could be eliminated, hastening a Russian brain drain and making it more tempting for Russian nuclear physicists to ply their trade in countries Washington views as rogue states.
A billion-dollar scheme to decommission 68 tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium, agreed by Presidents Clinton and Vladimir Putin in Moscow last year, is likely to be halted by the Bush administration, said Mr Kudrik.
A separate project promoting the development of hi-tech enterprises and retraining Russian nuclear scientists to work in them could also go. More than 2,000 Russian nuclear scientists are employed in such schemes. Employment is on offer from such US bugbears as Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.
In the eight years since the US energy department inaugurated its nuclear containment projects in the former Soviet Union, new security systems have been installed at 113 sites.
But this is a gargantuan work in progress, securing a mere fraction of weapons-grade material regarded as risky across Russia.
Apart from planning to cut the nuclear safety funding, the US is also threatening to suspend most other aid to Russia if it concludes that Russian sales of nuclear technology for power plants in Iran are helping the country build a nuclear bomb. Last week the US state department put Iran at the top of its league table of countries sponsoring terrorism.
"American officials are convinced both that Iran plans to use that reactor to develop nuclear weapons, and that Iran's possession of nuclear weapons threatens US national security and that of its vital allies," Celeste Wallander of the US Council on Foreign Relations wrote in an analysis last month of the Bush administration's policies on Russia.
But in the bout of tension between the Bush and Putin governments, says Mr Rogov, the Russians are pushing ahead with the Iranian contracts because they have concluded that there will be no reward from the West for good behaviour.
"We're damned if we do, and damned if we don't," he added.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001