‘Rogue’ MOX Negotiations Possible After Expiration of 1998 Technical Agreement

Publish date: August 4, 2003

Written by: Charles Digges

Following the expiration on July 24th of a 1998 agreement governing the US-Russian technical exchanges and cooperation on plutonium disposition—after which bilateral talks about the future of the programme have no legal basis—some nuclear regulatory officials are dumbfounded as to why a US Department of Energy MOX fuel negotiator was in Moscow for apparent talks with contractors and representatives of Russian nuclear fuel giant TVEL.

The negotiator, Brian Cowell, is a MOX fuel envoy from Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, or ORNL, which is owned by the US Department of Energy, or DOE, and does nuclear energy and materials research. His presence at Gosatomnadzor, or GAN, regulatory meetings, say Russian and American nuclear industry insiders, may indicate that plutonium disposition talks are continuing despite the expiration of the agreement that granted the US and Russia the right to hold such talks, indicating that a backdoor deal is perhaps in the works. Including and beyond July 24th, the only meetings allowed by US officials were those that concerned licensing issues, GAN and US officials said.

The majority of US and Russian officials questioned about Cowell’s presence in Moscow last week either refused to comment or denied knowledge of his visit. But Yury Kolotilov, deputy project engineer at Russia’s State Specialised Design Institute, or GSPI, which is TVEL’s engineering contractor for the MOX project, did confirm Cowell’s visit to Moscow. Kolotilov said Cowell’s visit to Moscow did not involve official discussions of plutonium disposition’s future.

The 5-year-long accord—called the Plutonium Science and Technology Agreement—was not renewed because of liability disagreements between the US Department of State and Russia’s Ministries of Foreign Affairs and of Atomic Energy. The agreement had been signed by former US Vice President Al Gore and former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

The 1998 agreement never contained any liability structure because no construction was actually envisioned under it—only research, US-Russian technical cooperation and seminars. But now the State Department is insisting all further accords in the plutonium disposition programme follow strict liability guidelines that place practically all potential accident compensation costs on Moscow.

Plutonium Discussions Officially Put on Indefinite Hold
After the lapse of the technical agreement, both Russian and American plutonium disposition experts and negotiators were officially forbidden from discussing further research and technical projects concerning US and Russia’s bilateral agreement to each destroy 34 tonnes of plutonium that both sides have flagged as surplus to their military needs—although each country has dozens more tonnes of weapons plutonium in stockpiles.

Any such conversations or negotiations after the agreement’s termination on July 24th—the day Cowell was first seen at the meetings and on which they effectively ended—would have had no legal basis, according to sources from both sides. Cowell left Moscow, according to one knowledgeable source on Saturday, August 2nd.

The 1998 agreement, a State Department spokesman said this week, was given a strictly monitored three-month extension during which all new projects initiated under the aegis of the 1998 agreement would be “evaluated on a strict case-by-case basis.” But the spokesman would not comment on whether Cowell’s trip to Moscow had been authorised on this basis.

The GAN meetings, until July 24th, concerned the regulatory structure of the plutonium disposition programme, and US government structures—the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, and the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA—had sent representatives, GAN sources said in recent interviews.

Only one programme has been allowed to continue operation without special State Department and US National Security Council, or NSC, approval after the lapse of the 1998 agreement, US officials and representatives of GAN confirmed in recent interviews. This programme is a regulatory exchange project run by the DOE’s senior project manager for the GAN regulatory, licensing and 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 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.

Who Authorised the MOX Negotiator’s Trip?
Like the rest of the US and Russian plutonium disposition teams following the July 24th expiration date, the ORNL negotiator should have had neither the support of the 1998 government-to-government agreement, nor liability coverage for his journey, and no authorisation for meetings—except licensing meetings.

His arrival raised the eyebrows of many plutonium disposition insiders in Moscow and has led them to question precisely who, on the American side, authorised Cowell’s travel.

John Baker, director of the technical programme for the DOE’s plutonium disposition project, who—according to DOE officials—is typically in charge of giving the go-ahead to plutonium disposition related travel to Russia, would not return calls about who might have authorised the ORNL negotiator’s trip.

When interviewed, one Russian nuclear industry insider said that, without all of the necessary US Government approval, “we have a guy on a rogue mission.” Another source said: “There’s a loose cannon, the question is who fired the shot.”

What the purpose of this “rogue mission” was—if in fact it was one—is difficult to discern, as officials from Washington, the American Embassy in Moscow, Russia’s Ministry of Atomic Energy, known as Minatom, and TVEL, Minatom’s fuel production wing, all refused to comment, in some cases adamantly so.

Questions About Cowell’s Presence Draw Inconclusive Comments
Whatever the purpose of Cowell’s journey to Moscow was, questions to relevant authorities from Bellona Web struck a nerve.

Cowell’s presence in Moscow was confirmed by himself when he was reached by Bellona Web in his hotel room in Moscow. He would not, however, discuss the reasons for his visit, saying only: “You’ll have to talk to public relations about why I am here. I’m not supposed to do that.”

Public relations, in Cowell’s case, is NNSA spokesman Brian Wilkes. Despite several calls requesting comment, Wilkes did not respond. ORNL—Cowell’s employer—likewise would not respond to numerous requests for comment.

GSPI’s Kolotilov acknowledged in a telephone interview with Bellona Web that he had spoken to Cowell while Cowell was in Moscow—but that their conversations had not concerned any official negotiations about MOX fuel or its fabrication.

The controversial MOX fuel, which is a mixture of uranium and weapons-grade plutonium oxides, is the method by which Russia and the United States will each dispose of 34 tonnes of surplus weapons-grade plutonium in parallel progress, as mandated by US congress. The new and thus far untested fuel will be burned in specially retrofitted commercial reactors, like Russia’s VVER-1000s, producing spent nuclear fuel of such intense radiation that it becomes what is called “self-protecting” and the plutonium, say MOX adherents, could not possibly be extracted for weapons use.

If the liability disagreements between the United States and Russia are smoothed out, and the project continues, Kolotilov’s GSPI will be responsible for engineering Russia’s MOX fabrication plant, the construction of which is slated to begin near the Central Siberian city of Tomsk in 2004—at the same time the US breaks ground for its MOX fabrication plant at the DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Kolotilov said he and Cowell had spoken at an organisational meeting—one of the many taking place under the aegis of the GAN nuclear regulatory conference after the 1998 agreement’s expiration—prepared for Duke, Cogema, Stone & Webster, or DCS, the US nuclear firm that was formed to build, in parallel manner, the MOX fuel fabrication plants in Russia and the United States.

“Cowell came under the aegis of the 1998 agreement,” said Kolotilov in a telephone interview from Moscow. “He was there because the working agreement had expired and he was wrapping things up.” Kolotilov did not elaborate on what business relative to the agreement Cowell was concluding, but said he and Cowell had not had any official discussions about the future of the Russian MOX fabrication plant, MOX fuel, or its engineering.

For Others, Cowell a Ghost at the Meetings
According to the sources interviewed by Bellona Web, Cowell also spoke with TVEL representatives while in Moscow. Despite repeated telephoned, e-mailed and faxed requests, TVEL would not answer any questions at all about Cowell’s alleged conversations with their representatives.

But one Russian nuclear industry official who said she was at the meetings Cowell was said to have attended denied seeing the ORNL negotiator there when questioned directly about his presence.

Officials with DCS referred inquiries to one of their representatives, Peter Hastings, who was in Moscow while Cowell was there. Hastings said he would not disclose who he had—or had not—seen at the meetings.

Andrew Bienawski, director of the US Embassy’s DOE office in Moscow, and its Deputy Director Nick Carleson—both of whom would presumably have been apprised of Cowell’s presence and marching orders—offered no comment. Bienawski was away on vacation, but Carleson, when reached on his cell phone by Bellona Web, made no attempt to conceal his irritation.

“I have been instructed not to talk to the press at all,” he responded curtly before cutting the connection. It is not known if Carleson attended meetings Cowell was said to have attended or what knowledge he had of Cowell’s business.

Because the GAN-hosted meetings were sponsored by DOE funding, however, Bellona Web plans to file a Freedom of Information Act inquiry with the US government to obtain a full list of attendees.

Viktor Pshenin, a high-ranking TVEL official, also became cross when directly questioned about Cowell’s presence and doings in Moscow. “I have nothing to say to you. I cannot help you at all,” he said before slamming down his telephone receiver.

The disparity in tone and information offered by officials’ comments raises the obvious question: If the ORNL negotiator’s presence in Moscow was legitimate within the terms of current international agreements—as GSPI’s Kolotilov implied—then why won’t these officials simply say so?

Will the MOX Programme Continue?
At present, the Russian plutonium disposition programme is far behind the American one, and it is a widely held belief in the corridors of GAN and Minatom that Russia’s role in the project will never get beyond the talking stage.

For one, technical and licensing plans for the Russian MOX programme are, at best, at a preliminary point and will take several more months, if not years, to codify. Furthermore, funding for Russia’s MOX fabrication facility—estimates for which have grown from $.1.7 billion in 2001 to $2.1 billion to $2.7 billion this year—has not been secured from either the US or the Group of Eight industrialised nations, or G-8. The most recent failure to secure these funds came at the Evian, France, G-8 summit held in June.

The US State Department let the 1998 deal run out over concerns that the accord had no liability language. The State Department insisted a full extension of the agreement fall under the so-called “umbrella agreement,” which governs legal accountability for the Pentagon-run Cooperative Threat Reduction, or CTR, programmes—and which the State Department views as bedrock to any threat reduction programme authorisation with Russia.

Liability Negotiations at Loggerheads
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 unacceptable—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. A Minatom spokesman in a recent interview said 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 accord, it refused to sign MNEPR’s liability protocol, which, at US insistence, was separated from the main text of the agreement. According to the State Department spokesman, that position has not softened.

The 2000 Plutonium Disposition Agreement a Possible Way Out?
The Plutonium Management and Disposition agreement—a later accord signed by former US President Bill Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in 2000—does make reference to actual destruction of plutonium and contains provisions for facility construction. But the agreement was vague on issues of liability and put off their resolution until a future date.

According to some US experts, the administration of US President George Bush will try to keep the MOX programme chugging along by plugging the liability hole in the 2000 accord with the umbrella agreement.

But it is dubious that the Russians would agree to such conditions.

Russian Parliament, or the State Duma, for its part, has never ratified the umbrella agreement, and it is unlikely that the corresponding bill will cross its radar screen any time soon with December Duma elections looming.

With the MNEPR structure on the table as a liability model, plus the Russians’ known difficulties keeping pace with US MOX developments, the prospect of the umbrella agreement’s ratification by the Russians is even less plausible, thus grinding the MOX programme—at least officially, and in the absence of “rogue missions”—to a halt.