U.S., Russia Recast Plutonium-Disposition Pact

Miles A. Pomper

After struggling for seven years to move forward with an agreement to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium each, the United States has agreed to recast the accord to reflect Russian preferences on the method of disposition more closely.

Russia has long viewed plutonium as an untapped energy resource and sought to find means to use it as part of the fuel for its planned fast nuclear reactors. These reactors when operating in “breeder” mode are capable of producing more plutonium than they burn. Russia has an estimated stockpile of 120-170 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, including the 34 tons set for disposal.

The United States, on the other hand, has emphasized the arms control benefits of reducing plutonium stockpiles and the proliferation dangers from plutonium, including the threat of theft by terrorists. Since the 1990s, Washington has veered between two disposition methods: the conversion of some of excess weapons-grade plutonium into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for use in dedicated reactors or immobilization of the weapons-grade plutonium with high-level radioactive waste. However, the Bush administration has recently warmed to the idea of using plutonium as a source of energy, making the reprocessing of spent fuel to extract plutonium a centerpiece of its Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP).

In a joint statement announced Nov. 19, Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman and Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency Director Sergei Kiriyenko generally endorsed the Russian approach. Under the plan, the United States will cooperate with Russia to convert the Russian weapons-grade plutonium into MOX fuel, made of plutonium and depleted uranium. Starting in 2012, Russia would irradiate this fuel, eventually employing at least two reactors, a BN-600 fast reactor currently operating at the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant and a more advanced BN-800 fast reactor under construction at the same site.

The statement said the two countries also intend to continue working together on development of an advanced gas-cooled, high-temperature reactor, another potential means to dispose of Russia’s plutonium. That reactor is initially intended to burn weapons-grade plutonium at Seversk where the United States is also supporting an effort to replace two plutonium-production reactors that are used to generate electricity. Such reactors are viewed as more proliferation resistant because their fuels have a high burn-up rate and their spent fuel is difficult to reprocess.

Under the plan, Russia agreed to dispose of the surplus weapons-grade plutonium “without creating new stocks of separated weapon[s]-grade plutonium.” Moscow will operate the fast reactors in a “burner” mode rather than a breeder mode, by removing the breeding blanket of depleted uranium around the reactor core. Officials from the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous part of the Department of Energy, said that under such a scheme the reactors will still produce plutonium as part of the reaction but consume far more plutonium fuel, thereby reducing the stockpile. Together the reactors would run through about 1.5 tons of plutonium per year.

The initial 2000 Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement prohibited Russia from reprocessing any additional plutonium from the spent fuel used in the fast reactors until all of the original 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium had been irradiated.

The new plan would amend that agreement to state that no fuel from the BN-600 reactor could be reprocessed. But it would permit 30 percent of the spent fuel from the BN-800 reactor to be reprocessed if this were done as part of the kind of advanced reprocessing program that is backed by GNEP. Other details need to be worked out in the coming months by negotiators from the two countries.

The deal is likely to face close scrutiny from Congress. Key House lawmakers such as Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.), chairman of the energy and water appropriations subcommittee, and David Hobson (R-Ohio), the panel’s ranking member, have raised questions about any Russian effort that would lead to the production of new plutonium.

Under the 2000 agreement, the United States pledged to contribute $400 million to the Russian effort. But previously, congressional and administration officials had balked at providing funds for a disposition program that involved the fast reactors rather than conventional light-water reactors. A pending fiscal year 2008 energy and water appropriations bill, which has been approved by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, would not provide funds for such an effort.

Visclosky indicated Nov. 20 that he was in no rush to help the administration and was skeptical of its ability to finalize a deal.

“It would be irresponsible to change Congressional priorities before there is a formal government-to-government agreement with the Russian government. This announcement hasn’t changed anything from my perspective,” Visclosky said in a statement.

Still, the United States has limited leverage in forcing Russia to follow its disposition preferences, given that such funds would only represent around 10-20 percent of the project’s total cost and Russia is benefiting from a massive surge in revenues from oil and natural gas exports.

In the United States, the executive branch and Congress also squared off for years about how to meet the U.S. commitment under the deal, with the administration choosing to dispose of the plutonium in MOX fuel rather than immobilizing it. Construction of a facility to fabricate the fuel recently began at the Energy Department’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

In September, Bodman announced that the United States would remove nine metric tons of plutonium in the coming decades from retired, dismantled nuclear warheads, which would likely permit the United States to surpass the goals of the 2000 agreement. (See ACT, October 2007. )