U.S., Russia Sign Agreements On Plutonium-Production Reactors

VICE PRESIDENT Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin met in Moscow September 22 23 for the ninth session of the U.S. Russian Joint Commission on Economic and Technological Cooperation, commonly known as the Gore Chernomyrdin Commission. During this session, the sides completed a set of agreements to convert Russia's three remaining plutonium producing reactors so that they no longer produce weapons grade plutonium. At a joint press conference in Moscow, Gore said the agreements make "a major contribution to the advancement of our non proliferation interests."

In June 1994, the United States and Russia signed an agreement under which Moscow would shut down the three reactors at Tomsk 7 and Krasnoyarsk 26, former secret nuclear cities now called Seversk and Zheleznogorsk, by the year 2000. (See ACT, July/August 1994.) Russia, however, would not allow the accord to enter into force until alternative sources of energy had been found, arguing that the "dual use" reactors provide most of the heat and electricity for the surrounding cities. After completing an alternative energy feasibility study in 1995, the United States and Russia determined that conversion of the reactor cores was the best way to meet civilian energy needs while also halting the production of weapons grade plutonium. Since then, the sides proceeded with the design and engineering phase of the core conversion project.

Under an agreement signed by Gore and Chernomyrdin on September 23, Russia is required to modify the three reactors by December 31, 2000. The modified reactors will continue to operate until they have reached the end of their normal lifetimes, taking into account safety considerations. In an effort to reduce Moscow's stockpile of highly enriched uranium (HEU), the sides agreed that fuel for the modified reactors will incorporate uranium from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons.

Furthermore, the agreement prohibits the United States and Russia from restarting any plutonium producing reactors that have already been shut down. The United States shut down all 14 of its plutonium producing reactors by 1989, while Russia has ceased operating 10 of its 13 reactors. The agreement, which enters into force immediately, further stipulates that any plutonium produced between now and the completion of the core conversion (as well as any HEU recovered after conversion) cannot be used in nuclear weapons.

In order to help ensure compliance with its provisions, the agreement contains a detailed annex on verification measures. In plutonium producing reactors that have already been shut down, for example, the United States and Russia will be permitted to install seals and other agreed monitoring equipment to provide assurances that the reactors cannot resume operation without being detected.

In addition, the Department of Defense and the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM) signed a separate Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) implementing agreement to facilitate core conversion of the reactors. In fiscal year 1997, Congress appropriated $10 million in CTR assistance for this project.

In a side letter to the implementing agreement, the Department of Defense stated that it intends to provide up to an additional $70 million in CTR assistance for core conversion purposes. The total cost of the project, which will be divided between the United States and Russia, is expected to be about $150 million.

The United States and Russia also signed two other agreements related to the core conversion of the plutonium producing reactors. The Department of Energy and MINATOM signed a memorandum of understanding dealing with liability concerns, while the chairmen of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Nuclear and Radiation Safety Authority of Russia issued a joint statement emphasizing the importance of nuclear safety issues.