US and Russia sign protocol to continue plutonium disposition plan

Nuclear technicians fabricating MOX in a European facility.

Publish date: September 20, 2006

Written by: Charles Digges

The United States and Russia have resolved a long-standing major hurdle paving the way to dispose of tons of excess plutonium in a protocol announced Friday concerning a liability issue that has long stymied the programme, the US Department of State said.

But a lack of Congressional funding for the programme, and Russian flip-flopping over how the programme should proceed still threaten to derail the non-proliferation project indefinitely.

Negotiations on the new liability protocol had been completed by the end of 2005, a State Department spokesman said, but the information was not released to the public until just last week.

The liability issue had held up any progress on the controversial Plutonium Disposition Agreement of 2000, signed by former US President Bill Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin since September 2003. The programme envisions converting 68 metric tons – 34 tons from Russian and 34 from the United States – of surplus weapons-grade plutonium into mixed oxide, or MOX, fuel for burning in conventional reactors.

This process theoretically would render any plutonium resulting in the waste useless for weapons purposes. The slated amount of plutonium to be converted is equal to the amount needed to create 16,000 nuclear weapons. But Russia has recently expressed that is does not wish to convert its plutonium to MOX.

Environmentalists and non-proliferation experts have critisised the plutonium disposition programme as being dangerous, as it entails the use of MOX, which, before burned, contains four percent pure weapons-grade plutonium that could easily fall into the wrong hands during transport. It is also, by the US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) own admission, more expensive than alternative disposal methods.

In all, the U.S. is believed to have about 100 metric tons of plutonium and Russia about 145 metric tons.

Shifts in Liability
Under the original Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programme initiated in 1992, Russia bore complete liability for any accidents taking place during CTR funded nuclear remediation and clean up projects.

But a limited exception under the new protocol now stipulates that Russia would not be liable for damages resulting from deliberate wrongdoing on the part of a US employee or contractor, State Department spokesman Sean McCormick said in a statement.

McCormack added that signing the protocol also would have "significant benefits for other cooperative programmes between the United States and Russia," and that important nonproliferation and security discussions were proceeding on the basis of it.

These include US Department of Energy (DOE) programmes to retrain Russian weapons scientists for peaceful work – a programme that also hit a brick wall in the 2003 liability disagreement between Moscow and Washington.

Robert Joseph, under secretary of state for arms control and international security, signed the new protocol for the United States, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak signed for his government.

"Signing this protocol with our Russian partners formally resolves the issue of what liability framework would apply for cooperation … to eliminate this dangerous material from Russian and U.S. stocks," National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) chief Linton Brooks said.

But Brooks also has acknowledged further discussions are needed over what the next steps in implementing the agreement will be.

Congressional and technical hurdles remain
However, there are other daunting technical and scientific issues still to be worked out, not the least of which is how Russia will dispose of its 34 metric tons of plutonium from its weapons stockpile under the 2000 agreement.

Meanwhile, the future of the US disposal programme also has become murky.

The NNSA said it is ready to break ground for a facility to fabricate MOX this fall at the DOE’s Savannah River site in Aiken South Carolina. But the US House of Representatives eliminated funding for the plutonium disposition programme in its budget proposal for the 2007 fiscal year, beginning October 1st.

So whether the programme goes forward is dependent on whether Congress decides to restore the programme’s funding. It also still hangs in the balance as Russia has not yet agreed on a method by which to dispose of its 34 metric ton plutonium surplus.

The programme has been described as a major nonproliferation effort as it would remove 68 tons of plutonium in the two countries and not make it susceptible to potential future diversion. This is because the burning process would significantly reduce the plutonium’s enrichment, and because the resulting spent nuclear fuel would be so radioactive that the plutonium contained inside would be protected by the dangers of exposure to the used fuel.

Russia sinks MOX
But the programme, hailed six years ago as a breakthrough in safeguarding the United States and Russia’s excess plutonium, has stalled not only over the liability issue, but also disagreement on how Russia is to get rid of its share of the plutonium.

Moscow recently said it did not want to convert its plutonium into MOX fuel — as envisioned in the US plan — but to burn it in a fast neutron reactor.

Critics have said that could lead to more proliferation and not less since such a reactor also can be designed as a so-called "breeder reactor" that runs on plutonium and produces more plutonium as SNF.

Current discussions are focusing on details about the design of such a reactor if it is to be used under the plutonium disposition agreement and not produce more plutonium.

But Russia is historically unwilling to destroy its weapons-grade plutonium because it sees it as a future source nuclear energy in a closed plutonium nuclear fuel cycle – to which fast neutron and breeder reactors would be ideally suited. Moscow has thus rocked the boat of the plutonium disposition agreement since its inception in the late 90s.

It was first planned that both countries would rid a portion of their plutonium in MOX and seal the remainder of it in barrels of highly radioactive molten glass – a far cheaper and more secure process of disposing of plutonium than MOX known as vitrification.

But Russia opted out of the vitrification plans in favour of MOX because it wanted a US funded MOX fabrication plant, which, at the end of the plutonium disposition programme could easily be converted to a plutonium fuel production facility.

Moscow therefore was hoping that the Washington would foot the bill for its closed plutonium fuel cycle, which is as great – if not a greater – proliferation risk as the current conditions of enormous plutonium stockpiles.

Now Russia wants to bypass the MOX process altogether and burn weapons-grade plutonium in its three fast neutron reactors – presumably a combination of its one BN-600 reactor and its two BN-800 reactors. These are highly dangerous and untested waters, as these reactors have previously run only on reactor-grade plutonium.

Retooling them to run on weapons grade plutonium is dicey at best and a recipe for catastrophe at worst – to say nothing of the enormous cost involved in developing breeders, which have historically proven to be extremely unreliable.