Accord Seen Near on Verifying Disposition

Daniel Horner

Russia and the United States could conclude verification arrangements by the end of the year for their agreement on disposition of surplus weapons plutonium, a U.S. official said last month.

The broader agreement, under which each side commits itself to the disposition of at least 34 metric tons of plutonium removed from its respective weapons stockpile, entered into force last year. (See ACT, July/August 2011.) The two countries originally signed the disposition pact in 2000, but the effort stalled over programmatic, financial, and legal disputes. Moscow and Washington eventually renegotiated a key part of the agreement so that Russia could use fast-neutron reactors instead of light-water reactors to irradiate the reactor fuel it made with the surplus plutonium.

At the April 2010 nuclear security summit in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signed a protocol to make that change and other amendments in the pact. (See ACT, May 2010.)

The disposition agreement names the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as the entity to carry out monitoring and inspections. Exchanges on a draft agreement among Russia, the United States, and the Vienna-based agency started shortly after the Clinton-Lavrov signing, the U.S. official said. The key issue still to be resolved is how to manage IAEA access to sensitive sites, but the sides are making progress toward an accord, he said.

“Unless things go awry, we should complete the [verification] agreement this year,” the official said in a March 15 interview.

However, the official indicated that Russia and the United States had not made much progress toward agreeing on a document that set certain disposition milestones for Russia to meet before it was eligible for U.S. funding of the project. The 2010 protocol caps the total U.S. contribution to the multibillion-dollar Russian project at the $400 million the United States had previously pledged.

In anticipation of the signing of the protocol, the Obama administration requested more than $100 million for Russian disposition activities in the fiscal year 2011 budget request, which was submitted to Congress in February 2010. However, because there was no agreement on the so-called milestone document, U.S. support for Russian disposition efforts received only a small fraction of that amount—$25,000 in fiscal year 2011 and $1 million in fiscal year 2012—with all of that money being spent in the United States, according to the detailed budget “justification” document for fiscal year 2013 from the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

The request for fiscal year 2013, which begins Oct. 1, is $3.8 million. The projected cumulative request for fiscal years 2014-2017 is $31.1 million, with none of the money being spent in Russia, the NNSA document said.

During a Feb. 13 conference call with reporters after the release of the Obama administration’s fiscal year 2013 budget request, Anne Harrington, NNSA deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, said the NNSA request for Russian disposition work in fiscal year 2013 and beyond reflects the current situation. The funding levels could change if there were agreement on the milestones and Russia then met them, she said.

Russia currently is proceeding with its disposition effort at its own expense, she said. At a March 6 hearing of the House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee, she said the Russians are “well on track” with their effort.