Russia and US sign deal to dispose of plutonium that chagrins international enviro groups

Still from video

Publish date: April 13, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK – Russia and the United States signed a new protocol Tuesday on a long stalled agreement to complete the disposal of 34 tons of excess weapons grade plutonium each, pumping new blood into the 2000 Plutonium Disposition Agreement that has been foundering on the shoals of bureaucratic foot dragging and mutual distrust for seven years.

Though the signing of the Plutonium Management and Disposition deal between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be touted as one of the successes of the 46 nation, two-day summit convened by President Barack Obama – alongside laudable agreements by Ukraine to relinquish its weapons uranium – it will also spark a new battle among non-proliferation officials and environmentalists both in Russia and the United States.

As has been clear for more than 15 years, Russia regards its stockpiles of weapons plutonium as a money-spinner for a new nuclear economy in Russia that relies on plutonium and reactors that produce it.

The Russian nuclear industry’s faith in plutonium as a lifeline for its ailing and aged nuclear industry was, in fact, the main reason plutonium disposition plans were nearly abandoned, according to Energy Department officials who spoke with Bellona Web. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said today prior to the signing that past disagreements had been “technical” and that the agreement signed today “would remove some of those technical and impediments.”

And already, Russia’s Ecodefence environmental group has released a major report on how the reinvigorated plutonium programme will end up producing far more plutonium than it disposes of, and cites numerous safety and cost issues tied to disposing of the plutonium.

The vision for Obama’s summit was a call to secure all of the globe’s vulnerable nuclear materials by 2014. Few specifics were offered for achieving that goal, but Obama declared ”the American people will be safer and the world will be more secure” as a result.

Obama had called the summit to focus world attention on keeping dangerous materials out of terrorist hands, a peril he termed the greatest threat facing all nations and a ”cruel irony of history” after mankind had survived the Cold War and decades of fear stoked by a US-Soviet arms race.

Yet the sideline agreement would seem to thwart that purpose altogether, say environmental and non-proliferation groups.

Plutonium disposition via MOX returns from a shallow grave

On the sidelines of the summit, a number of joint US-Russian non-proliferation efforts were dusted off and received a new lease on life – namely the bilateral plutonium disposition agreement.

Under the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, the amount of plutonium to be disposed of constitutes enough to make some 17,000 nuclear weapons, officials said.

To achieve this, each country will draw on its excess weapons plutonium for the creation of mixed oxide, or MOX fuel to be burned in civilian nuclear reactors. Though this was agreed to by former US President Bill Clinton and former Russian President, now Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin in 2000, the US Energy Department driven programme has been hobbled since 2003 when several key bilateral agreements that would have enabled the programme were allowed to lapse – most notably by the State Department.

State Department and Russian Foreign Ministry pleased

“The Plutonium Disposition Protocol represents an essential step in the nuclear disarmament process,” the State Department said in a statement obtained by Bellona Web.

Lavrov told a State Department briefing: “We are planning to spend up to $2.5 billion to eliminate our 34 tons of plutonium.”

The deal “makes arms reductions irreversible by ensuring that United States and Russia will transparently dispose weapon-grade plutonium from their respective defence programmes, thereby preventing the plutonium from ever being reused for weapons or any other military purpose,” the State Department said.

Lavrov added the “US side will spend around $400 million dollars as its contribution to our programme.”

“This is an important step in the sphere of nuclear disarmament,” Lavrov told reporters.

Environmental groups disagree with method

International environmental groups, including Bellona and Ecodefence, assert that, though the use of MOX fuel is in use in several countries like Japan and France, weapons grade plutonium remains untested in such fuel.

Further, the some $400 million the United States will have to pump into the programme will create a MOX fabrication facility in Russia that will pose extraordinary dangers to the environment.

Bellona has also argued that MOX fuel rods – which are essentially weapons ready nuclear material – will have to be transported across Russia in conditions of questionable security, thus thwarting the mission of Obama’s summit.

The MOX disposition plan is also far more expensive than other options for immobilizing excess plutonium, such as vitrification. The spent nuclear fuel produced by reactors using MOX – which will have to undergo expensive retrofits to burn the weapons material – will also be extremely radioactive.  

In Russia, the fuel will be burned by fast breeder reactors, specifically the BN-600 reactor and the BN-800 reactor, which has been under production for 25 years already and has already cost the Russian government $6 billion thus far, according to independent estimates cited by Ecodefence, and is expected to be completed in 2014.  

Fast neutron, or breeder, reactors can be used for both burning and producing  plutonium, which offers to the Russian nuclear industry the possibility of actually producing more plutonium rather than net destruction of the element.

Later – according to the initial plans spelled out in the original Plutonium Disposition Agreement of 2000 – MOX fuel may also be used in Russian light-water reactors of the VVER-1200 design.

Yet, Russia last month effectively doomed itself to producing more plutonium with an announcement by Putin that the Russian government would be investing $2.2 billion in the development of the Russian nuclear industry’s the construction of a100MWe lead-bismuth-cooled fast reactor called the SVBR by 2015.
Putin told reporters this would be followed by further pursuit of the Russia’s lead-cooled 300MWe BREST fast reactor by 2020 – a sort of holy grail in the Russian nuclear industry that has so far only existed on paper.

Earlier this year, on January 10th, the Russian government approved a program of advanced technologies development worth $4.3 billion. Most of the funding will go for breeder reactor development, Ecodefence said.

Is Russia actually interested in destroying plutonium?

As witness the Plutonium Disposition Agreement of 2000, Lavrov and Clinton’s signatures today represent little more than a statement of purpose, and Energy Department insiders told Bellona in interviews that the questions of science, location of the fabrication plants in Russia, and what will need to be done for their reactors to burn the fuel remain exactly where they were in 2003, when the programme all but ran aground.

One of the main impediments to moving the programme forward has been the Russian nuclear industry’s culture of plutonium as a viable source of energy that should not be squandered on non-proliferation programmes.

Indeed, the 34 ton commitment represent only a portion of the estimated military excess of 50 tons of plutonium Russia declared was in its possession under the administration of Boris Yeltsin. Other estimates have put Russia’s excess weapons grade plutonium at far higher numbers approaching 100 to 150 tons.

The Plutonium Management and Disposition agreement therefore still represents just a drop in the bucket of weapons plutonium still in Russia – and furthermore still faces the hurdles of circumvention the Kremlin’s fetish for plutonium.

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