"I learned so much about arms control and disarmament at ACA! I learned more about arms control here in four months thanĀ I had in all three years at my college."

– Alicia Sanders-Zakre
Intern, Fall 2016
December 16, 2016
U.S., Russia Negotiate Spent Fuel Reprocessing Moratorium

Philipp C. Bleek

DESPITE DENIALS BY a high-level Russian official, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) says that it has reached an agreement "in principle" to suspend Russia's reprocessing of civil reactor-generated spent fuel. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced the "new initiative" in a February 7 statement accompanying the release of DOE's fiscal year 2001 budget, which requests an additional $100 million for non-proliferation efforts in Russia. The timing of the announcement appears to have been intended to ease congressional approval of the requested funds. However, following Richardson's speech and press reports indicating that a deal on a moratorium had already been concluded, Richardson's Russian counterpart publicly denied that any agreement existed.

News of the deal first appeared in The New York Times, which reported February 7 that Russia had "promised to stop" producing plutonium by reprocessing civil spent fuel. The following day, Richardson was quoted by The Washington Post as saying, "We have an agreement in principle. The Russian assurances are strong enough so that we put it in our budget." A reaction from Russian Minister of Atomic Energy Yevgeny Adamov quickly followed. "There are no agreements with the United States on plutonium, there have not even been any official talks to that end," he said in an interview with Interfax published February 9.

Senior DOE officials maintain that an agreement on a reprocessing moratorium had evolved in negotiations over the past several months and was reportedly confirmed during a January visit to Moscow by Undersecretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. However, as a result of the premature U.S. announcement, Adamov appears to have come under fire from other ministries in the Russian government and been forced to state publicly that no agreement had been formally negotiated.

Persuading Russia to stop reprocessing spent fuel from civilian reactors has been a stated U.S. policy goal since President Carter announced in 1977 that the United States would cease reprocessing civil spent fuel. Despite U.S. persistence, Russia has continued reprocessing spent fuel from some of its 29 civilian reactors, as well as spent fuel returned from Eastern Europe, generating almost a ton of weapons-usable plutonium every year.

Through ongoing high-level negotiations, Washington has introduced various incentives into a deal on a possible moratorium. The agreement currently under negotiation, first presented to Russian officials last summer, offers $100 million to fund bilateral threat reduction efforts in Russia (in addition to the $250 million DOE currently spends on such programs), including $45 million for spent fuel storage and material protection, control and accounting; $20 million for joint long-term research on "developing nuclear fuel cycle options that maximize technological barriers to proliferation"; $30 million for new efforts to safeguard military-origin material; and $5 million for research into long-term spent fuel storage options.

While DOE officials remain optimistic that the agreement can be formalized in the coming months, a number of key issues will need to be resolved. Portions of the funding are contingent on Russia curtailing its nuclear cooperation with Iran, but it remains to be seen whether the relatively small amount of aid the United States is offering will be sufficient to convince Russia to cut back its lucrative nuclear ties with Iran, which are potentially worth several billion dollars.

Also at issue is the length of the moratorium. DOE seems to be seeking a long-term commitment to end reprocessing of civil spent fuel. Russian officials have stated that they are considering a moratorium for a decade or two but would reserve the option to resume reprocessing once plutonium-utilizing power reactor technology has matured. It is also unclear whether the moratorium would apply only to spent fuel generated in Russia's reactors, or whether Russia would also have to cease reprocessing spent fuel returned from Eastern Europe, a practice that currently generates significant revenue for Russia's nuclear industry.

According to a senior DOE official, the United States has indicated to Russia that agreement on a moratorium and curtailed nuclear cooperation with Iran are stepping stones to increased U.S.-Russian civilian nuclear cooperation, including a possible international spent-fuel repository in Russia and development of a proliferation-resistant nuclear power reactor, initiatives currently sought by Russia.