Plutonium, Early-Warning Accords Advanced at U.S.-Russian Summit

July/August 2000

By Philipp C. Bleek

After Presidents Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin failed to reach agreement on either ABM Treaty modification or a START III accord at the June 3-5 Moscow summit (see p. 26), the United States trumpeted progress on long-standing negotiations on plutonium disposition and early warning. Negotiations between senior Russian and U.S. officials also yielded progress on several other arms control-related matters, including the extension of a technical cooperation agreement and limited headway on a civil plutonium reprocessing moratorium. According to a senior administration official, the summit served as a "target to help come to closure on outstanding issues."

At their 1998 Moscow summit, Presidents Clinton and Boris Yeltsin had reached an agreement in principle to dispose of 50 metric tons of plutonium deemed to be in excess of defense needs. (See ACT, August/September 1998.) At a June 4 press conference, Clinton and Putin announced that they had worked out the details of an agreement to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium—the amount Washington says exceeds the requirements of its nuclear weapons program. While Russia has considerably more excess material, it did not want to commit to disposing of more material than the United States.

The accord will eliminate enough fissile material "to make thousands of weapons," Clinton said. According to Laura Holgate, special secretarial negotiator for plutonium disposition, the agreement will be signed "in a few weeks." The deal was negotiated to allow either party's disposition to exceed the agreed 34 metric tons, and the United States has already indicated that it will dispose of an additional 18 metric tons of non-weapons-grade plutonium.

The accord requires each side to dispose of at least 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium by "irradiating it as fuel in reactors" or by "immobilizing it with high level waste," according to the White House. The latter option involves mixing plutonium with highly radioactive waste in glass "logs," thereby protecting the material from possible diversion and making extraction for future weapons use extremely difficult. According to a senior administration official, Russia plans to convert its 34 metric tons into mixed oxide (MOX) nuclear power reactor fuel. The United States plans to convert 25.5 metric tons into MOX fuel and to immobilize 8.5 metric tons. In both cases, strict monitoring and verification measures will be put in place to ensure that the terms of the accord are met.

Each party must "seek to begin operation" of relevant facilities by 2007 and must "achieve a disposition rate of at least 2 metric tons per year," according to the White House. The Russian program is expected to cost more than $1.7 billion over 20 years, while the U.S. program is expected to cost $4 billion, senior U.S. officials said. Congress has already appropriated $200 million for Russia's program, allowing preconstruction design work on the necessary industrial-scale facilities in Russia. Washington is working with Moscow to seek additional international financial assistance.

On June 4, Clinton and Putin also signed a memorandum of agreement on the "Establishment of the Joint Center for the Exchange of Data from Early Warning Systems and Notification of Missile Launches." Like the agreement on plutonium disposal, the decision to establish the Joint Data Exchange Center (JDEC) builds on an understanding reached at the 1998 summit, where Clinton and Yeltsin agreed to exchange early-warning information and to pursue negotiations on a joint early-warning center. Negotiations were broken off after bilateral tensions increased during NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia but "intensified" during recent months, according to a senior administration official.

Under the agreement, the JDEC will be established in Moscow over the course of the coming year. Its stated purpose is to "strengthen strategic stability" and "focus attention on the continuing worldwide proliferation of ballistic missiles." According to the senior administration official, the JDEC, which will be staffed by U.S. and Russian military personnel, will provide a "near real-time exchange of the detected information about the launch of ballistic missiles and space-launch vehicles." The center will receive information from the U.S. and Russian governments, based on each party's space-based satellites, infrared systems, and early-warning radars.

The center will operate for 10 years, with an option to extend the agreement for successive five-year periods. The initial phases of the system will only include information regarding U.S. and Russian launches; later phases will include limited information regarding third-party launches. A separate agreement to use the JDEC as an international repository for prelaunch notifications of space-launch vehicle and ballistic missile launches is under negotiation.

Russia and the United States established a similar, but temporary, center in Colorado Springs during the final weeks of 1999 and the first weeks of 2000 to minimize misunderstandings related to the so-called year 2000 bug, a computer glitch that some experts thought could play havoc with early-warning systems. (See ACT, November 1999.)


Other Agreements

Rose Gottemoeller, acting deputy administrator for defense nuclear non-proliferation, noted at a June 8 press briefing that Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and Minister of Atomic Energy Yevgeny Adamov discussed several issues at the summit that the presidents did not address directly. Gottemoeller said the officials had signed a protocol to extend the agreement on the "Exchange of Technical Information in the Field of Nuclear Warhead Safety and Security" (WSSX) for an additional five years. The WSSX agreement, signed in December 1994, facilitates cooperation between the United States and Russia on "safety, security, and physical protection of nuclear weapons during transport and dismantlement," according to the Energy Department.

According to Gottemoeller, the United States had hoped to issue a joint statement at the summit on the Russian civil plutonium reprocessing moratorium that it has been seeking, but despite "several days of very intense negotiations," the parties were unable to agree on a statement. Nevertheless, U.S. negotiators felt that a "clear agreement to proceed on a moratorium for not less than 20 years" had been reached at the summit, Gottemoeller said. Washington has long sought to suspend Russia's reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, which currently generates almost one ton of weapons-usable plutonium every year. Last February, the Department of Energy announced that it had arrived at an agreement in principle on this issue with Russia, but Adamov subsequently denied that any agreement had been reached. (See ACT, March 2000.)