Technical Agreement for Plutonium Disposition Allowed to Lapse by US

Publish date: July 30, 2003

Written by: Charles Digges

In a long-anticipated act of inaction, the US Government let expire a 1998 US-Russian agreement on technical cooperation for plutonium disposition over concerns that the agreement did not provide sufficient liability protections for US officials and contractors involved in the project, the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, and Russia’s nuclear regulatory agency confirmed.

As a result, all new plutonium disposition planning under the Clinton-Yeltsin era agreement—known as the Plutonium Science and Technology agreement—legally has to be halted. The agreement provided for scientific and technical cooperation between the United States and Russia on the development of methods by which to destroy surplus weapons-grade plutonium in each country. Both the US and Russia have agreed to each eliminate 34 tonnes—of the hundreds of tonnes both have in stockpile—of surplus weapons-grade plutonium in so called “parallel” progress.

The method by which this plutonium will be destroyed is in the creation of a nuclear fuel called MOX, which is a mixture of weapons-grade plutonium oxide and uranium oxide. This fuel is to be burned in specially retrofitted conventional nuclear reactors, similar to Russia’s VVER-1000s, which will produce spent nuclear fuel of such high radioactivity that, according to MOX proponents, it will be impossible to extract the weapons-grade plutonium from it.

The programme envisions billions of dollars worth of fuel fabrication plant construction and environmentally risky reactor retrofitting. It is Bellona’s opinion that, although safe methods of securing surplus weapons-grade plutonium must be found quickly, the MOX option is dangerous and ill-suited for this purpose. With the right technology, experts contend, weapons-grade plutonium in MOX spent fuel can, in fact, be extracted. Furthermore, because the MOX fuel includes uranium, burning MOX breeds even more plutonium than was in the fuel assemblies to begin with—undermining the very purpose of the enterprise. In Bellona’s opinion, adopting the MOX approach is irrational against a background of cheaper and safer options like immobilisation.

“I cannot understand why the administration would let key aspects of the programme to get rid of so much weapons-grade plutonium lapse. Keeping fissile material out of the hands of terrorists seems a critical step in the war on terrorism,” Ellen Tauscher, a US House of Representatives Democrat from California, and a vocal proponent of maintaining threat reduction programmes, told the Global Security Newswire, or GSN last week.

A US Department of State spokesman confirmed Monday that a provisional three-month extension had been given to the 1998 agreement, but that all new projects within this period would be “evaluated on a strict case-by-case basis.”

The expiration follows the announcement last week by the US Department of Energy, or DOE, that another 1998 threat reduction measure, the Nuclear Cities Initiative agreement, will be allowed to expire in September unless Russia agrees to similar changes in liability provisions. This DOE-run programme aims to retrain Russian nuclear weapons scientists for work in the commercial sphere. Tauscher and five other Democrats wrote the US President George Bush administration this week to protest the move, congressional officials said this week.

The Plutonium Science and Technology agreement—signed by former US Vice President Al Gore and former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin—covered MOX concept design, research and development, small pilot projects for fuel testing, equipment transfers, limited testing of lead-test assemblies, and international seminars.

The 1998 agreement, did not, however, adopt the liability provisions of the “umbrella agreement” of the Cooperative Threat Reduction, or CTR, programme as it did not envision any actual construction, but only research. The umbrella agreement places nearly all liability for any accidents that take place during US-funded nuclear dismantlement and cleanup efforts in Russia on Moscow. This is a position that the US Department of State apparently will not compromise on, but that Russia finds untenable—especially given the May signing in Stockholm of the Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Programme in the Russian Federation, or MNEPR.

The MNEPR agreement provides more latitude for Russia on liability issues when entering into bilateral nuclear disarmament and cleanup projects with other—particularly European—nations, and a spokesman at the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy, or Minatom, said Tuesday that the Russian side would prefer future liability agreements with the United States to be modelled on MNEPR’s liability policies.

But this would be an unlikely concession from the United States: Although Washington is a signatory of the MNEPR agreement, it refused to sign MNEPR’s liability protocol, which, at the insistence of the US, had been separated from the main text of the agreement. According to the State Department spokesman, that position has not softened.

In addition, according to a European Union official who is close to the plutonium disposition negotiations, and who requested his name not be mentioned in this article, there are some European nations that agree with the United States—though he did not name which ones, or whether they were signatories of the MNEPR accord—and think MNEPR liability guidelines are not stringent enough.

In Europe, the MNEPR agreement was signed by Belgium, the United Kingdom, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, as well as the European Community, or EC, and the European Atomic Energy Community, or Euratom—all of which signed the MNEPR liability protocol.

NNSA Says Impasse is ‘Short Term’
Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for the NNSA—which is participating in several exchanges with Russian nuclear regulators—said in a telephone interview from Washington that the liability problem was “a legal issue for the State Department to work out.”

“We just want to proceed with our programmes, essentially, and we don’t want to get bogged down in these legal issues, but … the State Department is insisting on some legal changes on the liability issues,” Wilkes said.

Wilkes said no new projects could be started under the 1998 technical agreement now that it has lapsed, but he noted that “there’s a lot that’s already in the pipeline that’s been planned. This will have no impact in the short term.”

He added, however that “if the disagreement over the liability terms of the 1998 agreement becomes longer term, it could be a problem.”

One Programme Allowed to Continue
American and Russian officials, who had convened in Moscow this and last week under the aegis of the 1998 agreement to discuss regulatory issues for plutonium disposition plan, were said by one official to be in a “depressed mood” over the lapse of the agreement.

“Few people showed up at the seminars and everyone is uncertain about their job security,” said the official.

Only one programme has been allowed to continue operation after the lapse of the 1998 agreement without special State Department and US National Security Council, or NSC, approval, US officials and representatives of Russia’s nuclear regulatory agency Gosatomnadzor, or GAN, confirmed in interviews this week. This programme is a regulatory exchange project run by the DOE’s senior project manager for the GAN regulatory and licensing infrastructure development project, Sotirios Thomas, and Andrei Kislov, head of GAN’s 3rd Directorate, or fuel cycles division.

This programme, according to Russian, European and American officials, which seeks to unite the experience of US nuclear regulators such as the NNSA and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, with that of Russian regulators to transform the ever marginalized GAN into a truly independent nuclear watchdog, goes beyond the scope of the plutonium disposition programme.

The project is advancing US foreign policy as it relates to developing the licensing of nuclear activities in Russia, and is meant to help make GAN an expert regulatory agency free of state pressure—something the US Congress truly wants, said officials in conversations with Bellona Web in the weeks leading up to the lapse of the 1998 agreement.

Working Around the 1998 Agreement
Several US and European observers noted, however, that the 2000 Plutonium Management and Disposition agreement, signed by former US President Bill Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin, may provide a map out of the current impasse over the 1998 agreement. The 2000 agreement—which does make reference to actual destruction of plutonium and contains provisions for facility construction—was vague on issues of liability and put off their resolution until a future date.

That date, the Bush administration apparently decided, has arrived.

"What the administration would like is to negotiate a liability provision for the 2000 plutonium disposition agreement that conforms to the CTR umbrella agreement," William Hoehn, Washington office director of the Russian American Nuclear Safety Advisory Council, or RANSAC—a Washington-based NGO that advises the Russian and US governments—said in a telephone interview this week. "That way, everything that needs to be done could be performed under the 2000 agreement, and the 1998 agreement would no longer be required."

The European official agreed with Hoehn. “The 2000 agreement provides a political basis with which both sides can work,” the European official told Bellona Web.

The CTR umbrella agreement, however, has never been ratified by Russia’s Parliament, the State Duma, but according to some reports, the US is hoping that the Duma may soon ratify the umbrella agreement. Although Hoehn noted that many Washington experts were enthusiastic about Duma ratification for the CTR liability structure, he said the issue may not be as high on the Russian Parliament’s “to do” list as some US specialists think.

"Politically, I am not sure, with parliamentary elections coming up in December, that ratifying the umbrella agreement is a high priority for the Duma right now," he said. "If they do manage to ratify it, it would be a major achievement."

Whether or not the ratification comes, said the European official, “Russia and the United States have gone so far along the plutonium disposition path and exerted so much political pressure that I don’t think the whole programme will just disappear.”

“They have a three-month extension in which to establish the needed legal principles,” he added. “I just cannot see that this programme will come to an end.”

Yet another factor that the European Union official noted which will buy some more negotiating time is the disparity between the US and Russian MOX programmes. Under the 2000 agreement, both countries are to proceed in parallel progress. But, said the European official, “the US work is far advanced and Russia is lagging far behind.”

He noted, for instance, that Russia would require approximately $2 billion for its MOX fabrication plant that is slated to be built near the town of Tomsk in Central Siberia. So far, $800,000 has been collected in international donations, the official noted, and it is unknown how much more can be expected. The European official said, therefore, that even if all the liability structures were in place, Russia would face the dilemma of waiting until it has all the money it needs in the bank to start construction, or committing to the project with the money it does have—but then it may financially never be able to complete it.

Nuke and Environmental Experts Register Opposition to MOX on Capitol Hill
An open letter by a group of respected US nuclear and environmental experts sent to US Senator Pete Domeneci, who heads the Senate Appropriations Committee, confirmed the EU official’s analysis. Domenici will be responsible for whether a $402m appropriation to begin construction of the US MOX fabrication plant at the DOE’s Savannah River Site in the 2004 fiscal year will be granted. The experts, in their letter, urged him against it.

Aside from US-side construction authorisation for the plant—which has yet to be granted by the NRC—as well as the DOE’s failure to accurately clarify the budget for the facility, the letter noted:

*Technical and licensing plans for the Russian MOX programme are at a preliminary point and lag far behind the US programme, and thus will not be at a place where congressionally mandated “parallel” construction of MOX facilities in Russia and the US can begin in the 2004 fiscal year;

*Funding for the Russian MOX programme has not been secured from either the US or G-8 Group of Eight countries, with the most recent failure to secure sufficient funds coming at the G-8 summit which was held from June 1st to June 3rd in Evian, France;

*No agreements with Russia have yet been reached concerning the critical issues of liability of Western vendors or “monitoring and inspection” to confirm Russia’s adherence to control and accounting of plutonium and inspection of facilities, as stipulated in the US-Russia plutonium disposition agreement of September 2000.

Based on the United States’ own cost analysis documentation of the MOX programme, the letter—which was posted on the website of the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute, or NCI,—went on to say that “it is quite clear that the Russian MOX programme is at a preliminary stage. In addition to lack of clarity about which reactors would be used for Russian MOX irradiation, whether one or two MOX facilities would be constructed has not been decided.”

“Accordingly, the cost estimate for the Russian programme has increased dramatically from the 2001 estimate of $1.7 billion to a range of $2.1 to $2.7 billion, and the cost analysis document states that the estimates presented are “preliminary” and actual costs will “most likely” be greater than costs presented in the document,” the letter continued.

DOE and NNSA insiders, in conversations with Bellona Web, said that the views expressed in the letter were widely shared within the corridors of their agencies.

NCI Letter Urges Immobilisation Over MOX
The letter also touched on the ongoing debate of MOX versus immobilisation—another way to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium. One method of immobilisation involves melting plutonium oxide with high-level radioactive waste and specially fabricated sand, thus making glass bricks, and burying the bricks in a permanent repository. The other, called the “can-in-canister” approach, would compress weapons-grade plutonium into pucks and store them in canisters filled with molten glass containing high-level radioactive waste. These canisters would then likewise be placed in a permanent repository.

“The DOE acknowledged in its 2002 plutonium disposition report to Congress that the cheapest disposition option for all 34 metric tonnes of surplus US plutonium was its immobilisation in high-level waste, yet the DOE prematurely ended development of this option in 2002,” read the letter. In 2002, the Bush administration abandoned any plutonium disposition agreements that would involve immobilisation altogether.

The letter concluded that former US President Ronald Reagan’s Undersecretary of Defence had testified before the House Committee on International Relations in 2003 that the US-Russian MOX programme “could do great harm to non-proliferation” and that the programme “will encourage other expanding uses of plutonium,” which “could well mean the death knell for non-proliferation.”

The letter was signed by NCI President Paul Levinthal, US Greenpeace’s top representative Tom Clements, Tom Cochran of the Natural Resources Defence Council, and 17 other nuclear and environmental experts. Pete Domeneci’s office had no comment on the letter when reached on Tuesday.