US State Department leaving MOX programme to twist in the wind

Publish date: October 29, 2003

Written by: Charles Digges

Continuing hang-ups and disagreements between the United States and Russia over their bilateral agreement to destroy in parallel progress their surplus plutonium are threatening to kill the non-proliferation initiative as the US Department of State further entrenches its stance on liability in US-Russian nuclear remediation programmes, US and Russian officials said.

The one programme that the State Department is allowing to continue its work is a unique regulatory exchange project between US and Russia nuclear watch-dog agencies that has expanded beyond the boundaries of the techology exchange and cooperation accord, State Department and Russian nuclear regulatory officials have said.

But other programmes—such as industrial-level fuel testing and Russian adoption of the French-designed MOX fabrication plant blueprints and the plant’s construction—due to the July expiration of the 1998 bilateral agreement, are hostage to currently non-existent liability guidelines on which Russian and US officials say the State Department is unwilling to compromise.

The on-again-off-again nature of the plutonium disposition programme, which has been beset by controversy, environmental outcry and scientific challenges since its inception in the late 90s under the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, is nothing new. What is new however, is the source of the current impasse.

Previous setbacks have been blamed on the Russian side and its Ministry of Atomic Energy, or Minatom, which is historically unwilling to destroy its weapons-grade plutonium because it sees it as a future source nuclear energy. It has also shuffled its feet regarding liability issues, and sought less stringent requirements from the US side. But this time, insiders from the Russian side, and those contacted in the US, are saying it is the State Department that wants the programme "to die a slow death" by the next US presidential election.

"The whole plutonium disposition project has been nothing but years of nuclear tourism, junkets, frequent flier miles and nights at the Marriott Grand," the prestigious Moscow hotel where US Department of Energy, or DOE, staffers stay on their trips to Moscow, said one Russian source close to the negotiations who asked not to be identified.

"US programme directors are waiting for the programme to die out before the next presidential administration."

Indeed, US President George Bush, is responsible for putting the plutonium disposition project in its current predicament by prohibiting immobilization—a method of encasing and storing plutonium in highly irradiated waste that environmentalists say is safer, and even the DOE says is cheaper. Immobilizing some of America’s of surplus plutonium was part of the plan until Bush nixed it in favour of the exclusively MOX option. Russia was against immobilisation from the beginning.

The MOX option
As currently envisioned, the plutonium disposition programme would burn 68 tonnes—34 tonnes from each country—of surplus weapons grade plutonium in mixed uranium and plutonium oxide, or MOX. The fuel would be burned in specially— and expensively—retrofitted commercial reactors in both countries. In Russia’s these would be the VVER-1000 light water reactors, as well as the BN-600 fast neutron reactor at Beloyarsk. The weapons plutonium would be destroyed in parallel progress between the two countries.

The theory that MOX containing weapons-grade plutonium could work has yet to be realized at an industrial scale, and the July expiration of the 5-year-long 1998 US-Russian Plutonium Science and Technology agreement has now rendered further talks between the two countries on MOX disposition legally groundless, putting the future of the programme under a dark shadow.

Many analysts looked to the 2000 Plutonium Management and Disposition agreement—signed by former US President Bill Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin—and its intentionally vague wording on liability as a way out of the void left by the expiration of the 1998 agreement. This vague wording, many US officials argued at the time the 1998 accord expired, could be fine-tuned to fulfil the State Department’s liability requirements.

Michael Guhin, the State Department’s ambassador for non-proliferation issues, is, according to a European official close to the negotiations, working to do precisely that. The European official, who requested anonymity, said, however, that the liability models Guhin is discussing are likely "much larger" than Russia would like to swallow at the moment.

If—or when, as the European official insisted—the liability issues are overcome, it will disperse the deadlock on technology transfer regarding the construction of a $2 billion MOX fabrication facility in Russia. France’s nuclear giant Cogema has made the design for the facility.The design of this facility has been transferred to the US concern Duke, Cogema, Stone & Webster, or DCS, which was formed to build the MOX fabrication plants in both the US and Russia.

But because of the current liability impasse, said the European official, those designs cannot be transferred from DCS in the United States to contractors in Russia.

Is the State Department trying to bury MOX or save it?
An extension for the 1998 agreement from the State Department—which it refused to grant—would have kept the programme rolling. But according to Russian and American sources that are close to the negotiations, Undersecretary of State John Bolton, the Bush Administration’s point-man on plutonium disposition, is working—via stringent liability requirements that Russia would never agree with—to quietly smother what many see as the environmentally unsound, outrageously costly and bureaucratically cumbersome project.

Bolton has a long history of hostility toward bilateral non-proliferation agreements with Russia, and according to many observers, the lapsing of the 1998 agreement was just the kind of snag he was waiting for to ensnarl the entire programme.

"Bolton’s hostility to US-Russian bilateral nuclear agreements has focussed on liability agreements," said Edwin Lyman of the Union for Concerned Scientists, and former president of the respected anti-MOX Nuclear Control Institute, in a telephone interview from Washington. "What the United States is demanding in terms of liability is unprecedented and seems unreasonable."

Bolton has consistently insisted that liability in bilateral nuclear efforts between the US and Russia be governed by the so-called Umbrella Agreement of the Cooperative Threat Reduction, or CTR, programme, run by the US Department of Defence. The Umbrella Agreement places full responsibility—from nuclear accidents, to a US contractor breaking a leg while falling down the stairs of his flat—on Russia, which is an unpalatable option for Moscow.

Making the Umbrella Agreement an even blander dish for the Russians is the May signing of the Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Programme in the Russian Federation, known as the MNEPR accord, which offers far less onerous liability requirements between Russia and Western donor states. The agreement was signed by 10 European nations, two pan-European entities as well as the United States—although Washington insisted that MNEPR’s liability protocols be separated from the agreement itself.

These protocols—which include the right to arbitration for liability disputes between signatory countries and Russia in case of accidents during bilateral nuclear projects—were left unsigned by the United States.

Lyman, however, said it was very prudent of Bolton to insist on stringent liability controls—especially in the event that a rogue contractor intentionally causes an act of nuclear terrorism that could spread beyond national borders

"Bolton and the State Department are wise to duck responsibility, especially in the event of a terrorist act," said Lyman. He added that the State Department had a firmer grasp, in this situation, on safety issues than does the DOE, which simply wants to press ahead with the programme.

"You can’t rely on the DOE to make accurate safety assessments," he said.

The European source added that the MNEPR agreement is not strong enough to cover plutonium.

"It’s fine for decommissioning submarines and nuclear cleanup, but MOX needs a strong nuclear liability agreement in the spirit of the Umbrella Agreement," he said. Although the European official had no forecasts as to whether the MNEPR liability protocol would be strengthened or whether the Umbrella Agreement would be adopted, he said that a stronger nuclear agreement with Russia to deal with plutonium was needed.

Lyman was pessimistic about the MOX programme as a whole.

"This is a US initiative, but the liability issue underscores the ridiculousness of MOX," he said. "The DOE is willing to fully fund the $4 billion MOX programme in the United States, where the State Department is doing everything to slow it down in Russia—US Congress is going to have to confront this."

Lyman added that the liability deadlock was an example of "how far out of whack the two sides of this programme have become."

Like the Russian source, Lyman said that the liability questions surrounding the MOX programme may be left to dangle for the next US presidential administration, should Bush be defeated in November 2004. Regardless of the outcome of that election, several Western press outlets have indicated that US Secretary of State Colin Powell may not seek to be reappointed to his position. In the case of Powell’s retirement, said a source who has dealt with Bolton on the MOX issue, "Bolton himself is angling for Powell’s job." In this case, said a source who has dealt with Bolton on the MOX issue, "Bolton himself is angling for Powell’s job."

Despite several calls, neither Bolton nor his spokespeople could not be reached for comment, and others at the State Department refused to talk about—or said they had no knowledge of—the apparently worsening condition of the MOX programme. These State Department officals also would not comment on the possibility of Bolton taking over as Secretary of State.

Sunnier predictions from the NNSA
Brian Wilkes, the spokesman for the US National Nuclear Safety Administration, or NNSA, said that the key to furthering the MOX programme was in the hands of the State Department. The NNSA has played an integral role, under the DOE, in the MOX programme. As he said immediately following the expiration of the 1998 science and technology accord, Wilkes reiterated, in a telephone interview from Washington this week that "everything is going fine."

"As we predicted, the lapsing of 1998 agreement would not affect us in the short term." he said. "If this goes on for a long time, then we could start to have problems, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it—and it is a State Department bridge."

The European official agreed with Wilkes, saying: "I do think there will be an agreement for nuclear liability."

Wilkes would not hazard a guess as to how long it would take before the MOX programme started having serious "problems."

What does the future hold for MOX?
For most on the Russian side, that time has already come.

"There is no progress on the programme," said Yury Kolotilov, deputy project engineer at Russia’s State Specialised Design Institute, or GSPI. This institute is an engineering subcontractor for Russia’s nuclear fuel giant TVEL, and, if the MOX project goes forward, GSPI will have the responsibility of bringing the MOX fabrication plant designed by Cogema into accord with Russian standards. GSPI would also have a hand in designing the MOX fuel rods.

"My people, who work mainly for TVEL, are now sitting and talking about licensing and regulatory issues," said Kolotilov in a telephone interview from Moscow with Bellona Web. "Its hard for us to know to whom we should even take our questions."

In the past, noted Kolotilov, DOE authorities were readily available for inquiries pertaining to the progress of the programme. "Now there is no approaching their experts," he said.

The glum forecast for the plutonium disposition plan follows a week’s worth of meetings in Moscow, during which even the DOE programme’s technical director, John Baker, said none of the plutonium disposition projects were making any progress, except for the regulatory exchange project, according to information about these meetings provided by Bellona Web’s sources.

Regulatory programme allowed to progress
This last project—conceived by Andrei Kislov, head of GAN’s fuel cycles division and the DOE’s senior project manager for plutonium disposition, Sotirios Thomas—has been hailed by insiders as a necessary step for brokering any international nuclear remediation deals with Russia. Though the programme began within the framework 1998 US-Russian Plutonium Science and Technology agreement, it has been deemed by the State Department to fall beyond the accord’s parameters.

Begun as an effort to codify regulation, licensing and transparency for the plutonium disposition plan, the regulatory programme expanded, with the oversight of Kislov and Thomas, into a broader initiative. That initiative is to give GAN the legal underpinnings it needs to be a fully independent, effective and trasparent oversight agency—a monumental task given that GAN has been marginalized and stripped of its powers by Minatom since its foundation.

The programme has brought together the expertise of the NNSA, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, and GAN and has, judging by the jam-packed discussions it has been holding this week in Moscow, been a roaring success.

According to a source with GAN, who asked not to be identified, the NRC and GAN have translated the NRC’s two-step set of guidelines for licensing a nuclear facility. The first, called a construction authorisation request—known in industry acronym as CAR—is submitted to the NRC. The NRC then reviews the CAR documentation and either gives the nod to the project, or returns it to the contractor with so-called open items, or unresolved questions, via a document called a Request for Additional Information, or RAI. If all open items on the RAI are satisfied, the NRC grants the authority for construction to begin. If not, more RAIs are sent to the contractor.

GAN—which has previously used only a one step process wherein construction applications are simply accepted or rejected, often under political pressure—will be adopting the NRC’s regulatory practice, the GAN source said.

But at this week’s meetings, it is not only GAN that has been asking questions. The NRC has come to Russian nuclear experts with its own inquires as well. A Tuesday discussion led by Yevgeny Nazin of the Moscow’s Defence University for Radiological and Biochemical Research and Gennady Yegorov of the Electro-chemical department of the Russian Academy of Sciences, addressed the issue of chemical safety and accidents at nuclear installations—particularly a 1993 explosion that occurred in Tomsk—a field in which the NRC has little experience.

During this accident, a tank containing a blend of paraffin and tributyl phosphate exploded, resulting in the release of uranium, plutonium, niobium, zirconium and ruthenium. The solution contained 8773 kilograms of uranium and 310 kilograms of plutonium. The explosion was so violent that the walls on two floors of the building collapsed. A fire broke out on the roof after the electrical system shorted. The release from the tank was estimated to be 4.3 TBq of long-lived isotopes. Gamma radiation 20 times higher than the norm was measured in the area that received the most fallout, northwest of the installation.

"The NRC asked more questions that anything else," said the GAN official. "This programme is a genuine exchange of information, not just the United States dictating information to us."

Infighting at the DOE
According a US source who are close to the plutonium disposition project, the success of the regulatory exchange programme has not come without the cost in inner-office friction. According to one of these sources, there has been professional jealousy toward Sotirios Thomas" because of the success of his programme.

Thomas has been criticised, according to the source, for spending too much money on the project. But it has so far only cost $1m—little if compared to research and development projects farmed out by the DOE to US laboratories like the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and Los Alamos, which have resulted in multi-million dollar failures, said the source.

According to other US sources, Baker seems to have lost faith in the MOX programme—as his remarks in Moscow seemed to suggest—and has apparently made requests to transfer out of the programme.

One incident last year, reported by sources in Russia, hinted that the DOE’s plutonium disposition office’s attitude as a whole toward the MOX-only disposal scheme, as mandated by the Bush administration, has flagged.

Highly placed sources at the Mayak Chemical Combine said that a group of scientists from the United States’ Lawrence Livermore Laboratory had visited the Combine to discuss immobilization—after immobilisation had officially been taken off the plutonium disposition agenda by the White House.

Baker, who would likely have had knowledge of such a trip, refused to comment when reached by Bellona Web, and DOE public relations officials could not confirm what any of the anonymous sources had said.

Will Russia proceed on its own initiative?
So far, the State Department’s Guhin has managed to raise some $800m toward the first stages of building Russia’s MOX fabrication facility. The project is estimated to cost $2 billion. Russian officials connected with the MOX programme have indicated that, if the liability guidelines and technical exchange guidelines, as currently dictated by France’s Cogema, are worked out, Moscow is ready to begin pouring cement with the money it has in the bank.

This, say experts, would be an enormous risk: Should funding dry up—and several observers including Lyman have noted Western countries are not anxious to donate to the cause—the Tomsk region will be left with an unfinished MOX fabrication facility. By the guidelines of the 2000 Plutonium Management and Disposition agreement, however, the Russians could not begin construction of their plant until the US side began its plant at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

If the Russians do begin to build, and money to finish the project does not materialize, it means that either US or Russian taxpayers will have to foot the bill for its completion, or both countries will be left with abandoned construction sites.