U.S., Russia Sign Plutonium Accord

Wade Boese

The United States and Russia finalized an agreement Sept. 15 resolving a long-standing dispute on a bilateral program to dispose of excess nuclear weapons material. Yet, even though the signing marked the highlight of a recent Washington visit by a senior Russian official to discuss a range of nuclear matters, the program’s future still remains in doubt.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak signed the agreement along with Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph at what the two sides termed the inaugural meeting of a new “strategic security dialogue.” In addition to Joseph, U.S. representation also included officials from the Pentagon and the National Security Council, a Department of State official told Arms Control Today Sept. 19.

The agreement settled an issue that had been helping to block the United States and Russia from fulfilling a program to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium each. Concluded in principle in 1998 and formally launched in 2000, the program stalled because of a disagreement over assigning responsibility for accidents or damage caused by U.S. personnel working inside Russia. The Kremlin interpreted previous liability formulations as protecting U.S. personnel even if they committed intentional acts of damage.

Negotiators reached a preliminary agreement to resolve the issue in July 2005, but Moscow took more than a year to vet the document through its bureaucracy before signing it. (See ACT, September 2005. )

The agreement addresses Russia’s earlier concerns by establishing a process for the two governments to hold consultations in the case of alleged deliberate damage. If the two sides are unable to reach a settlement within 90 days, the accused personnel could be subject to Russian claims or legal proceedings. Under the settlement, the U.S. government or a private U.S. corporation could not be held accountable for an individual’s transgressions.

Washington is treating the liability protocol as an executive agreement, meaning it does not require Senate advice and consent to take effect. The Kremlin, however, has indicated it will treat the measure as a treaty and seek approval from Russia’s legislature. But Moscow also has asserted it can provisionally apply the agreement if the need arises.

Noting that the total material slated for disposal by the stalled program was equivalent to 16,000 nuclear weapons, Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman Sept. 15 hailed the signing of the liability agreement. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) also praised the move the same day as “a significant step forward.”

Yet, support for the program has receded in Congress, and its funding is in jeopardy. Led by House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee Chairman David Hobson (R-Ohio), the House cut $320 million from a program for building U.S. facilities to convert the excess U.S. plutonium into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for nuclear reactors. Hobson has defended the action both as saving money and sensible because Moscow is no longer interested in the MOX approach. “The Russians are not coming,” Hobson adamantly argued May 24. (See ACT, September 2006. )

On the other hand, the Senate Appropriations Committee fully approved funding for the program. If the full Senate follows suit, then lawmakers from the two chambers will need to reconcile their competing funding levels.

Aside from signing the liability agreement, there were no other public results from Joseph’s and Kislyak’s meeting. But a diplomatic source told Arms Control Today Sept. 18 that the United States presented Russia with a draft agreement, commonly known as a 123 agreement, to establish full civilian nuclear cooperation between the two countries. This follows a July agreement between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin to pursue such a relationship. (See ACT, September 2006 .) Moscow is expected to return a revised draft back to Washington in October.

Recently, Russia has indicated that its rationale may have shifted for such an agreement. Previously, Russia had said it wanted such an accord in order to host a depository for U.S.-origin spent fuel from countries such as Taiwan, South Korea, and Switzerland. But this summer Russian nuclear officials told the trade publication Nuclear Fuels that they want such an agreement primarily to import U.S.-origin uranium for enrichment and to exchange nuclear technologies.

In future rounds of talks, Joseph and Kislyak will discuss joint measures to stem the spread of unconventional arms, guard against terrorists using unconventional weapons, and provide “transparency and confidence-building measures in U.S. and Russian nuclear force postures and missile defense,” according to a Sept. 15 State Department press release.

The statement made no mention of nuclear reductions, an objective Russia appears keen on exploring. (See ACT, September 2006. ) Bush administration officials have repeatedly expressed disinterest in this notion.

The 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) obligates the United States and Russia to reduce their respective arsenals of approximately 5,500 and 4,400 deployed strategic nuclear warheads down to less than 2,200 each by the end of 2012. The two sides are currently relying on the verification regime of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) to help assess progress toward the SORT goal, but START is due to expire in December 2009.

Discussion of possible “arrangements” to succeed START will be part of the future dialogue between Joseph and Kislyak, the State Department official told Arms Control Today. “As we approach the expiration of START, the United States believes the U.S.-Russia security relationship should reflect the end of the Cold War,” the official added. The Bush administration has typically made similar statements when arguing that the United States and Russia no longer need bilateral arms treaties because of their warmer relationship.

No date has been set for the next meeting between Joseph and Kislyak.