The waiver, which has been awaiting Bush's signature since November, paves the way for destruction of some eight months' worth of backed-up nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in Russia and puts an end to tense battles among members of the administration on how to proceed with dispensing of the weapons arsenal that Russia and satellite states have inherited from the Soviet Union.
Bush signed the waiver order Friday and is expected to officially notify Congress by early next week, administration officials say.
Senator Richard Lugar — who, in 1991, initiated the Nunn-Lugar programme with former Senator Sam Nunn — said in a Tuesday statement that the most intensive funding efforts this year would be applied toward the construction of a $150m chemical weapons destruction facility in the Urals town of Shchuchye. But officials in Lugar's office have, since November, spoken of an expanded role for Nunn-Lugar in disposition of nuclear materials that may include the destruction of decommissioned non-strategic submarines in the Russian Navy.
Under the new waiver provisions, most activities under Nunn-Lugar — officially known as the Cooperative Threat Reduction act, or CTR — will require presidential re-certification only every three years. Projects at Shchuchye, however, will have to be re-certified at the end of this fiscal year, in September.
"These waivers, passed last year by Congress and signed Friday by the president, mean that destruction of Russia's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons can continue," Lugar, who is the incoming chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, said. "Russian stockpiles of weapons and materials are the most likely source for terrorists attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Destroying those weapons at the source is imperative for our national security."
The Bush White House seems now to agree with that imperative although administration support for Nunn-Lugar over the past 12 months has been uneven.
Under the US law that is now supplanted by the new certification regulations, the president had to re-certify Russia's commitment to Nunn-Lugar activities on a yearly basis, which allowed Nunn-Lugar to continue with its work.
But Bush stopped Nunn-Lugar in its tracks last spring when he refused to re-certify the programme over concerns that Russia was not being candid about its stocks of Soviet-era chemical and biological weapons. In August, Bush signed a temporary waiver that allowed the programme to run until the beginning of the fiscal year, Oct. 1. But until Bush signed off on the new waiver regulations Monday, the programme had been shut down since then, meaning that it has not been able to accept new contracts for a total of eight months.
After Bush initially declined to certify Nunn-Lugar, he paradoxically began lobbying Congress to grant him a permanent waiver from the certification requirement. The subsequent haggling over the waiver became, according to some observers in Washington, a tense struggle within the administration itself, with Pentagon brass opposing a waiver of any kind, and Bush National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice phoning members of Congress to lobby them for a permanent waiver, congressional sources said.
The compromise that was hit on by the House of Representatives — which passed in November — was to require presidential re-certification every three years, with the exception of the Shchuchye chemical weapons facility.
Lugar indicated on Tuesday that he plans to battle for an extension of the chemical weapons certification as well.
"Continuing the project is important to do as quickly as possible for national security and cost reasons. We will need to extend the chemical weapons destruction waiver beyond this year so that these deadly weapons can be destroyed," Lugar said in his statement.
The Shchuchye project aims to destroy nearly 2 million modern chemical weapons, artillery shells and SCUD missile warheads. During a visit to Shchuchye in May last year, Lugar was told by the Russians that these weapons — stored there in simple barn-like buildings — could kill the world's population some 20 times over.
Other items on the agenda for Nunn-Lugar this year will include efforts to mobilize some $20bn in non-proliferation funding pledged by the G-8 last June in the so-called "10 plus 10 over 10" commitment. Under this commitment, the United States will contribute $10bn in aid while the remaining G-8 nations supply another $10bn. This funding will be disbursed over the next ten years.
Some of this money, Lugar advisors have said, may be channelled into expanding nuclear submarine decommissioning beyond the boundaries of strategic submarines, as Nunn-Lugar currently stipulates. Last November — in the wake of Russia's requests for aid in dismantling its growing stock of rusting non-strategic subs — Lugar advisors hinted to Bellona Web that Nunn-Lugar will at least aim to spearhead such efforts.
Indeed, with Senator Lugar heading the Foreign Relations Committee, he will be in a good position to influence US non-proliferation policy in Russia.
With recent indications from G-8 member Japan that Tokyo intends to loosen its purse strings in an effort to dismantle non-strategic subs in the Pacific Fleet, these efforts may already be underway.
In the past decade, the Nunn-Lugar has spent $4bn to help former Soviet states eliminate or secure weapons of mass destruction. Its successes range from dismantling one of the world's largest biological weapons production facilities in Kazakhstan to deactivating more than 6,000 nuclear warheads spread across Russia and the former Soviet Union.