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I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them. -

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
Plutonium Disposition Accord Reached
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Wade Boese

In July, U.S. and Russian negotiators reached an agreement in principle to resolve a long-standing dispute on a joint program to dispose of excess bomb-making materials. The deal clears one hurdle for the program’s implementation, but others remain.

Moscow and Washington first committed in September 1998 to eliminate tons of plutonium, of which a minimum of four kilograms is needed to build a weapon. They ultimately settled on disposing of 34 metric tons of plutonium apiece by transforming it into reactor fuel.

Several factors have impeded work toward fulfilling this joint commitment, including a two-year disagreement over the liability coverage that the Kremlin would extend to U.S. companies and workers carrying out the program inside Russia. A key hang-up was whether Russia would grant liability protection for any deliberate damage.

U.S. and Russian officials resolved the liability issue July 8 in Vienna. However, the two sides have not released the specific terms of the deal because their capitals must review and approve it.

Once the two governments officially sign the agreed text—all indications are that they will—Russia’s lower legislative house, the Duma, will need to approve it for its entry into force. The United States considers the negotiated settlement an executive agreement that does not require Senate advice and consent to take effect.

A leading proponent of the plutonium disposition program, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), applauded U.S. and Russian officials July 19 for their “important achievement” and expressed hope that the Duma would “take quick action.”

Still, additional obstacles confront the program. Moscow is conducting a wholesale review of the program, and current funding commitments fall far short of the program’s estimated costs.