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American experts hope for further cooperation between US and Russia in nuclear field

23:28 | 20.10.2016 | Analytic

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20 October 2016. PenzaNews. Russian State Duma approved a draft bill suspending the plutonium disposal agreement with the United States (PMDA) from 2000 on Wednesday, October 19. President Vladimir Putin’s decree garnered 445 votes and one abstention in the lower house of the Russian parliament.

American experts hope for further cooperation between US and Russia in nuclear field

Photo: © High Flyer, special to SRS Watch

Under the bilateral agreement and its 2010 protocol appendix, both parties agreed to irreversibly convert weapons-grade plutonium into the form unsuitable for nuclear weapons by irradiation in nuclear reactors. Moscow and Washington pledged to dispose of at least 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium and planned to start the process by 2018.

Russia has already created infrastructure to fulfil its obligations under the PMDA and brought to full power the BN-800 fast neutron reactor to irradiate disposition weapon-grade plutonium as fuel. At the same time, the United States has not finished the construction of Savannah River facility for the fabrication of mixed uranium oxide-plutonium oxide (MOX) fuel started back in 2007. The facility was supposed to come into operation in 2016; however the construction is only two-thirds finished.

Without official negotiations and Russia’s approval, the US abandoned its MOX facility, opting instead for a process of diluting and storing the plutonium at their geological repository for radioactive waste. According to Vladimir Putin, with this method the nuclear fuel retains its breakout potential, so it can be extracted, processed and weaponized again.

Mikhail Ulyanov, Director of the Foreign Ministry Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control and Representative of the Russian Federation, stressed that this disposition was discussed during the drafting of the PMDA and was discarded as not irreversible.

“Therefore, the PMDA as amended by the 2010 Protocol does not stipulate the possibility of the underground burial of disposition plutonium. Under the PMDA, the parties are to consult each other in advance of any change in their disposal methods. The United States has not officially notified Russia of its intention to use an alternative disposition method. […]Considering that Russia has financed the bulk of its planned investment in the creation of facilities to dispose of plutonium in keeping with a method that was coordinated with its US partners, we are perplexed, to put it mildly, by US officials’ statements on Washington’s intention to save money by choosing an alternative disposal method,” the diplomat said at the 71st Session of the UNGA, New York.

However, Moscow may resume the PMDA if Washington adjusts its policy and fully eliminates the obstructions that emerged through its fault to bring about negative changes in the political, military and economic balance in the world, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.

“The decision we have made is a signal to Washington: attempts at talking to Russia from the position of strength, in a language of sanctions and ultimatums while continuing selective cooperation with our country there where this cooperation benefits the United States will not succeed,” he said stressing that Russia does not quit its commitments in the sphere of nuclear disarmament.

According to the draft bill approved by Russian State Duma, the PMDA can be resumed after the US abandons its hostile policy towards Moscow, implying, in particular, the abolition of the Magnitsky Act and other sanctions, and reduction of US military presence on the territory of NATO member states.

Commenting on the situation, Edwin Lyman, Senior Scientist in the UCS Global Security Program, regretted the suspension of the PMDA and said that moving forward with the agreement is in the interest of both countries.

“The PMDA allows either party to change its approach provided that both sides agree in writing. My understanding is that the US and Russia had begun discussions on the proposed new US method but formal negotiations had not taken place. Meanwhile, work on the US MOX fuel fabrication plant is continuing,” he told PenzaNews.

According to him, the dilute-and-dispose method would render US plutonium sufficiently inaccessible to meet the intent of the PMDA.

“Plutonium will be diluted to a low concentration with materials that would make it difficult – although not imposible – to chemically extract the plutonium. This mixture would be placed in small quantities, less than 300 grams of plutonium, in 208-liter waste drums. The drums will be emplaced 660 meters underground in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the US geologic repository for nuclear waste. Over time, the salt caves where the waste will be buried will collapse over the waste, rendering it practically irretrievable. The PMDA allows for the possibility of international monitoring of the plutonium waste. Any attempt by the US to recover the plutonium would take a significant amount of time and be easily observable by inspectors,” Edwin Lyman said.

“Russia has raised the concern that unlike reactor irradiation, the dilute-and-dispose method does not change the isotopic composition of plutonium from weapons-grade to reactor-grade. This is not a significant issue because the US and presumably Russia can use reactor-grade plutonium to make nuclear weapons. However, in order to alleviate Russian concerns, the US could obtain reactor-grade plutonium from another country, like Japan, and blend it with US weapons-grade plutonium before disposing of the mixture in WIPP,” the expert added.

In his opinion, Russia’s decision on the PMDA will have less of an impact than the other disputes that are causing friction between the US and Russia.

“The half-life of plutonium-239 is over 24,000 years, which should allow sufficient time for relations between the US and Russia to improve. […] The US, as a good-will gesture, should invite both Russia and the International Atomic Energy Agency to observe its plutonium disposition activities. I believe that the US can provide sufficient information to convince Russian experts that dilute-and-dispose is an acceptable approach,” Edwin Lyman said.

In turn, Alan Kuperman, Associate Professor at LBJ School of Public Affairs, Coordinator of Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, University of Texas at Austin, stressed that the Russian action could actually facilitate US plutonium disposal.

“Now the US can dispose of plutonium by dilution, which would not be strictly consistent with the PMDA, but would prevent the plutonium from being used in nuclear weapons. This method would be consistent with the spirit of PMDA, although not its letter,” the expert said.

According to him, Russian decision will not affect relations with the US at all.

“It is a symptom, not a cause, of the condition of US-Russia relations. When withdrawing from PMDA, Russia pledged that its designated plutonium under the agreement would never be used in nuclear weapons. If so, I would hope that Russia would still proceed to dispose of that plutonium in a manner consistent with the spirit of the PMDA, as US is doing. The bilateral disposal of the plutonium in a secure and safe manner is more important than the agreement,” Alan Kuperman added.

According to Pavel Podvig, Senior Research Fellow at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, regular contributor to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Chicago, it is not quite correct to say that the US is unable to fulfil its commitments.

“No final decision to abandon the MOX route has not been made yet. It is wrong to say that the United States violated PMDA. The agreement includes an option for changing the disposition method by mutual consent and the United States has always stated that it is its intent to seek Russia’s consent,” the analyst said.

In turn, Richard Weitz, Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute, reminded that both the Russian Federation and the United States have secured changes in the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement throughout its history but adhered to its elimination goal.

“The immediate consequences of the Russian decision to cease joint elimination will be minimal since both countries intend to continue to eliminate their unneeded military plutonium or transform it into civilian nuclear fuel. The main practical consequence could be reduced IAEA supervision of the process in both states, which is useful but not critical,” the expert said.

Since this was not a major agreement like START; it could mostly affect future projects to eliminate fissile materials in a mutually verifiable and acceptable way, he said.

“However, the long-term consequences could be more severe if the Russian government applies the conditions that the President sent to the Duma for resuming the PDMA to other possible future bilateral arms control agreements. Many US and NATO government officials would not accept these conditions,” Richard Weitz added.

Miles Pomper, Senior Fellow at James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, shared the opinion that Russian decision won’t have a great deal of effect on Russian-US relations.

“It is more an effect of the poor relations at this time than the cause of further deterioration. The agreement has long been in trouble and no one expected it to enter into force soon-if ever,” the expert said.

However, he expressed hope that both countries will take steps to ensure that this material in any case is not used for nuclear weapons.

“I don’t think there is anything wrong with the US administration’s proposal to dilute and dispose of the plutonium – it would have as much disarmament or nuclear security value as the Russian plan. Unfortunately, the proposal could not gain the support of some members of the US Senate because those senators wanted jobs for their state that were associated with the MOX approach, which was simply unaffordable,” Miles Pomper said.

In turn, Tom Clements, Director of Savannah River Site Watch working for the public interest by monitoring activities at the Savannah River Site (SRS) and other nuclear projects in the US, stressed that the current situation with the plutonium disposition programs in the US and Russia is no surprise.

“For many years it has been obvious that the US MOX project was failing and would likely eventually have to be officially terminated. […] However, Russia’s total withdrawal from the agreement was not expected. Article IX of the PMDA states that ‘the activities of each Party under this Agreement shall be subject to the availability of appropriated funds.’ Given that the US Congress has not been appropriating sufficient funds to carry out the MOX project, it has appeared to me that the US side was essentially letting the PMDA lapse by passively exercising the Article IX that was operative on the US side. Additionally, there are extensive design and construction problems with the MOX plant and the contractor building the facility has not been able to solve them,” Savannah River Site Watch Director said.

He also added that rumors about misspending and construction problems at the MOX project come to him on a weekly basis.

“Rumors are persistent that contractors may be guilty of waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement. Full-scale investigations into DOE and contractor personnel are essential to determine why the MOX project failed and who is responsible for that. So far not a single entity has been held accountable for the debacle that the MOX project has become and those responsible must not be allowed to get away without punishment,” Tom Clements stated.

On top of the technical and financial problems, no companies owning nuclear power reactors have expressed interest in MOX use, meaning that a costly plant was being built to produce a product with no customers, he said.

“It will take many years for a clearer path for plutonium disposition to emerge in the US but one thing which is clear is that MOX has been shown to be both unworkable and not wanted by the nuclear power industry. [..] Some workers have known the facility building can’t be finished and call it a ‘fake project’ and a ‘dog and pony show’ being continued simply to enrich the contractors – CB&I AREVA MOX Services and subcontractors,” the expert said.

According to Amercian expert on nuclear issues Victor Gilinsky, who served on the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the PMDA was not a good agreement in the first place.

“It pretended to be an arms control agreement, for which well-meaning but naive officials and academics provided support, but really served the interests of the nuclear energy departments in both countries to support a plutonium fuel industry. A practical problem with that goal is that plutonium-fuelled power reactors make no economic sense and would require heavy subsidies. Nuclear agencies have never been cost-conscious. The construction of the American plutonium fuel fabrication plant could not continue because the cost was mounting astronomically,” the analyst said.

Although the PMDA would ideally turn 34 tons of each country’s plutonium especially suitable for bombs into less suitable material, the product would not be entirely unsuitable as almost any kind of plutonium can be used in bombs, he said.

Moreover, according to Victor Gilinsky, the proposed reductions in the US and Russian stocks are anyhow not particularly significant in security terms. This is mainly why the defense departments in the two governments were willing to go along, he added.

“While the reductions would be of some marginal value, the real effect of carrying out the agreement is to encourage and validate plutonium activities in many other countries. With more countries having easy access to plutonium, there would be more countries within easy arm’s reach of nuclear weapons,” the expert said.

In turn, American physicist Frank von Hippel, Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, who served the Assistant Director for National Security in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, stressed that the US is still debating internally what would be the best approach for their plutonium disposal program.

“The most important loss due to President Putin’s termination of the agreement will be international verification. I think both countries should unilaterally declare that they will each negotiate verification arrangements with the IAEA,” the scientist said.

Moreover, he suggested that George W. Bush’s decision to take the US out of the ABM Treaty in 2002 was far more damaging.

“I think that our constructive relations in the nuclear area can survive if more central elements of our joint nuclear arms control agreements aren’t cancelled or allowed to expire,” the analyst concluded.

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