U.S., Russia Near Liability Accord

Claire Applegarth

U.S. and Russian negotiators say they are coming closer to resolving a long-standing dispute that for nearly two years has stymied a joint program to dispose of tons of weapons-grade plutonium. However, the hopes that a deal could be reached in time for a May 9 meeting of Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin were dashed.

Instead, the two sides issued a statement after the summit, saying that “significant progress” had been made in the dispute over who should assume liability for damage to relevant Russian nuclear facilities. The United States has been attempting to place the full burden on Russia.

Negotiators now hope to reach agreement on the issue by the start of a July Group of Eight summit meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland.

The dispute concerns liability language contained in agreements governing key Department of Energy threat reduction programs in Russia that expired in 2003.

The United States has insisted that it would not renew the agreements unless they were governed by different liability provisions than the programs’ agreements currently include. U.S. officials wanted to use terms similar to those of a 1992 Cooperative Threat Reduction “umbrella agreement” that covers Department of Defense U.S.-Russian threat reduction efforts. (See ACT, September 2003.)

The umbrella agreement holds Russia fully accountable for all nuclear accidents in its facilities, even if the act was premeditated. Russia has refused to accept such blanket responsibility and has not ratified the umbrella agreement, which is now set to expire next summer.

Nonetheless, the United States has pressed since 2003 to apply similar language as that of the umbrella agreement’s liability provisions to the Energy Department programs as well. Those efforts have gone nowhere. Eager to renew work on a program to dispose of weaponsgrade plutonium, the Bush administration offered a compromise earlier this year. Since then, the two sides have tried to come to a deal. The program implements a 2000 bilateral accord calling for the United States and Russia each to dispose of 34 metric tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium.

Because of the liability dispute, the Energy Department has not been able to begin construction of a mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility in Russia to dispose of excess plutonium and has now pushed back the tentative completion date to 2010. The delay has also held up construction of a U.S.-based MOX facility designed to fulfill the U.S. end of the 2000 agreement.

The current U.S. proposal, while solely addressing plutonium disposition, could act as a template for the negotiation of liability language for other activities that have been stymied by liability concerns. One of these is the Nuclear Cities Initiative, a program that seeks to downsize the Russian nuclear weapons complex and direct Russian scientists into peaceful enterprises, which also lapsed in 2003. A liability accord could potentially jump-start work on several non-threat reduction efforts as well, including a Joint Data Exchange Center near Moscow.

The holdup in disposition efforts is cause for concern among some U.S. lawmakers. Senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who in 1998 secured an initial appropriation of $200 million for the plutonium disposition program, expressed disappointment that Bush and Putin were unable to reach accord on liability during their February summit meeting. Earlier, in a Feb. 17 confirmation hearing for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Domenici said he was “frustrated that opposition from within our own government over the liability issue has delayed the startup of operations.”

Liability has been only one, albeit significant threat reduction issue raised on recent visits to Moscow by Rice and Bush. Access to Russian nuclear facilities has also proven a contentious subject, as the United States has historically sought entry into some of Russia’s closed sites. Rice, in response to a question from Ekho Moskvy Radio April 20, said she thought the United States had “made improvements in our access to these sites.” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov denied any talk of the matter, however, telling Interfax News that U.S. visits to Russian nuclear installations “are not under consideration.”