In Nuclear war

By Jonathan Marshall, Consortium News, October 5, 2016

An apparent casualty of the New Cold War was a U.S.-Russian agreement for eliminating weapons-grade plutonium but the deal’s death is not being mourned by either side.

Despite America’s constant demonization of Russian President Vladimir Putin, few world leaders have collaborated as effectively with Washington on matters of critical national security, including overflight rights to Afghanistan, disposal of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks, and the agreement to prevent Iran from undertaking a nuclear weapons program.

Now he’s done it again. In the guise of punishing the United States by suspending a nuclear disarmament agreement, Putin has generously relieved the Obama administration of a budgetary headache of Excedrin proportions.

On Monday, Putin issued a decree suspending a bilateral agreement for the disposal of each side’s weapons-grade plutonium, complaining that Washington’s economic sanctions and military buildup in Eastern Europe have “radically changed” relations between the world’s two major nuclear powers.

“The Obama administration has done everything in its power to destroy the atmosphere of trust which could have encouraged cooperation,” the Russian foreign ministry explained. “We want Washington to understand that you cannot, with one hand, introduce sanctions against us . . . and with the other hand continue selective cooperation in areas where it suits them.”

An instant analysis by Stratfor, a private risk consulting firm, warned that “other nuclear disarmament cooperation deals between the United States and Russia are at risk of being undermined. The decision is likely an attempt to convey to Washington the price of cutting off dialogue on Syria and other issues.”

There’s some truth to that gloomy forecast. But Putin was well aware of Washington’s own eagerness to find a way out of the agreement due to the spiraling cost of compliance. He thus succeeded in sending a message without risking serious additional damage to the already frayed U.S.-Russia relationship.

The Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, signed in 2000, commits the United States and Russia to dispose of a total of 68 tons of weapons-grade plutonium, enough for 17,000 nuclear weapons, rendered surplus by the easing of Cold War tensions.

Besides signaling other countries that the United States and Russia were serious about slashing their nuclear arsenals, the agreement aimed to get rid of the plutonium in a way that minimizes the risk of nuclear theft or diversion.

The two parties agreed to dispose of most of the plutonium by mixing it with uranium to create “mixed-oxide” (MOX) fuel for “burning” in commercial nuclear reactors. But that step required construction of special facilities to create the fuel.

In the United States, planning began for the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina. After years of research, development, and initial construction under the Bush and Obama administrations, however, the Department of Energy announced in 2013 that “This current plutonium disposition approach may be unaffordable, though, due to cost growth and fiscal pressure.”

Indeed, the total cost of the MOX program, including the plant and its operation, had soared from an estimated $3.1 billion in 2002 to $18 billion. This year, the Department of Energy reported that the MOX facility won’t be ready until — no joke — 2048.

Worse yet, commercial nuclear utilities don’t even want the fuel, whose use would raise a host of technical issues.

For its part, Russia agreed to dispose of most of its excess plutonium in special “fast-neutron” reactors optimized for the use of plutonium. Russia’s latest such plant was finally connected to the electric grid late last year, 31 years after the start of construction. Despite Russia’s pride in this technological achievement, construction cost billions of dollars and the reliability of the units has yet to be proven. One wonders if the Putin administration is also having second thoughts about the cost of compliance with the 2000 agreement.

Cheaper disposal options

Both countries have potentially much cheaper disposal options, including encasing and then burying the plutonium in a pit, which the Department of Energy estimates could save taxpayers $30 billion over several decades.

“The Obama administration actually approached Russian officials several years ago, seeking a potential modification to the agreement that would open a path to that approach,” notes Patrick Malone, a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity.

“The Russians’ announcement, as a result, is hardly a further blow to relations between the two countries. It means that Washington’s hands are arguably no longer tied by the agreement, allowing the next president to proceed with the burial option once the Energy Department solves a few remaining technical concerns.”

Or as noted arms control advocate Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, put it in a tweet, “There is a bright spot in the breakdown of the Russia plutonium deal: no need for the nuclear facility that’s costing US taxpayers billions.”

The only loser, ironically, stands to be the hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, who dropped his usual opposition to arms control to embrace the plutonium accord because the giant MOX facility would bring jobs to his state.

The downward spiral of U.S.-Russia relations is very real and very dangerous. But it’s nonetheless reassuring that President Putin found a way to express his displeasure with Washington that simultaneously signals to insiders his continued willingness to cooperate.

Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international affairs, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic (Stanford University Press, 2012).

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Related readings:

Why Russia was forced to suspend plutonium deal with U.S., commentary by Dr Alexander Yakovenko, Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, published on, Oct 6, 2016

Putin signs decree suspending Russia-U.S. deal on plutonium disposal over hostile U.S. actions, Oct 4, 2016

Russia has suspended a post-Cold War deal with the U.S. on disposal of plutonium from decommissioned nuclear warheads. The decision was explained by “the hostile actions of the U.S.” against Russia and may be reversed, if such actions are stopped.

A decree signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin cites “the radical change in the environment, a threat to strategic stability posed by the hostile actions of the U.S. against Russia, and the inability of the U.S. to deliver on the obligation to dispose of excessive weapons plutonium under international treaties, as well as the need to take swift action to defend Russian security” as justification for suspending the deal.

While Russia suspended the plutonium reprocessing deal, it stressed that the Russian fissile material, which was subject to it, would not be used for any military purpose, be it production of new weapons or research.

The suspension decree has come into force, but it needs to be approved by the Russian parliament, which may overrule the president’s decision. Leonid Slutsky, who’s slated to be appointed head of the Foreign Relations Committee in the newly-elected parliament, said it would be given a priority. “It’s a very important issue. It’s about taking swift action to protect Russian national security. We will deal with it as soon as the bill is submitted,” he told TASS.

A bill submitted by the president’s office to the parliament on Monday states that the uranium agreement may be resumed, provided the U.S. takes steps to eliminate the causes of the suspension. In particular, Moscow wants Washington to curb its military presence on the territories of NATO members which have joined the alliance after September 1, 2000, to the number at which they were at the moment of signing the agreement, Russian media report.

The draft bill also mentions repeal of the so-called Magnitsky law and of sanctions against Russian regions, persons and companies introduced by the U.S. over Ukrainian crisis, while also paying compensation for damages caused by them, including the damages caused by the counter-sanctions that Russia was forced to impose.

The Magnitsky Act is a 2012 U.S. law intended to punish a number of Russian citizens believed to be linked to the death in custody of Russian lawyer Sergey Magnitsky.

Moscow also wants Washington to provide a clear plan how it is going to irreversibly reprocess plutonium under the agreement’s conditions.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later said in a statement that Russia’s suspension of the agreement is “a forced measure”. According to the minister, Moscow has always viewed the Russia-U.S. deal on plutonium disposal as an important step to nuclear disarmament.

“Unfortunately, in recent years the U.S. has made a number of unfriendly steps towards Russia. In particular, under false pretexts, Washington introduced large-scale economic and other sanctions against Russia,” he said. “The U.S. has started the build-up of its military forces and NATO infrastructure close to Russia’s borders. Washington and its allies openly talk about ‘restraining’ Russia.”

Lavrov added that Russia’s move “is a signal to Washington”.

“Trying to talk with Russia using strength, the language of sanctions and ultimatums, and still maintain selective cooperation with our country only in those areas where it is beneficial for the U.S. won’t work.”

The development was not entirely surprising, since Russia earlier expressed its dissatisfaction with how the U.S. wants to handle plutonium reprocessing. Washington decided it would be cheaper to mix nuclear materials with special diluents. Russia insisted that the U.S. was violating the terms of the deal, which required it to use a nuclear reactor to transmute plutonium. Unlike the mixing technology, the latter method makes the process irreversible.

The treaty between the U.S. and Russia, which regulates how the two countries are to dispose of plutonium from nuclear warheads decommissioned as part of the parallel reduction of the two countries’ Cold War arsenals, was signed in 2000. Each country was required to dispose of over 34 tons of fissile material by turning it into so-called MOX fuel and burning it in nuclear reactors.

However, costs for building a facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where the U.S. was supposed to fabricate MOX fuel from its plutonium, spiraled out of control. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. decided that it would instead use the cheaper reversible process, arguing that it was in line with the spirit of the deal with Russia. Russia expressed its concerns over the unilateral move in April, shortly after a nuclear security summit held in the U.S.

“We signed an agreement that the plutonium will be processed in a certain way, for which facilities would be purpose-built,” Putin said at the time. “We have met our commitments, and constructed the necessary facilities. The U.S. has not.”

The U.S. rejected the criticism from Russia. The “new US method would not require renegotiation of the agreement,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Jennifer Bavisotto said.

Russia suspends plutonium agreement with USA

By World Nuclear News, Oct 4, 2016

Russia has suspended its 2000 agreement with the USA to reduce their surplus weapons-grade plutonium. The suspension was made via a presidential decree issued yesterday ‘on the management and disposition of plutonium designated as no longer required for defence purposes and related cooperation in this area and the protocols to this agreement’.

The agreement may be resumed if the USA meets certain conditions, according to a bill presented yesterday to the Russian parliament, the State Duma.

The two countries were each required to dispose of 34 tonnes of weapons grade plutonium under a weapons reduction agreement signed in June 2000. They reconfirmed the deal in 2010, but President Barack Obama’s FY2017 budget submission proposes a “dilution and disposal” approach as enabling the material to be disposed of sooner, at lower cost and with lower technical risks than conversion to mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel.

Obama has proposed halting construction of a facility in South Carolina to downblend the plutonium into MOX fuel for use in commercial reactors. That form of use for the material was specified in a 2010 protocol to the agreement as the sole disposal option for the USA. Russia had agreed to dispose of the material in fast reactors.

In April, Putin said the USA was failing to meet its obligations to destroy plutonium by instead permitting a reprocessing method that allows plutonium to be extracted and used again in nuclear weapons.

The bill Putin submitted to the State Duma yesterday sets out pre-conditions for the agreement to be resumed. These include reduction of US military infrastructure and troops in countries that joined Nato after 1 September 2000 and lifting of all US sanctions against Russia – imposed after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s southern Crimea peninsula in 2014 – and “compensation for the damage they have caused”.

In May 2015, Obama drew a line under the completed Megatons to Megawatts program by terminating a state of national emergency that had been declared in 2000 to help to ensure that payments to Russia under the 1993 agreement to downblend surplus military high-enriched uranium could not be derailed by unrelated legal actions.

In a letter to the US Congress, Obama said then that, with the completion of the program, the order was no longer needed.

“With the successful conversion of 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium extracted from Russian nuclear weapons into low enriched uranium, the transfer to the United States of that low enriched uranium (LEU) for use as fuel in commercial nuclear reactors, and the completion of all payments to the Russian Federation, there is no further need for the protective blocking imposed by Executive Order 13617. For this reason I have determined that it is necessary to terminate the national emergency … and revoke that order,” he told Congress.

In 1993, the US and Russian governments signed an agreement for the purchase over a 20-year period of 500 tonnes of Russian ‘surplus’ high-enriched uranium (HEU) from nuclear disarmament and military stockpiles. These were to be bought by the USA for use as fuel in civil nuclear reactors. Under the deal, the USA transferred to Russia a similar quantity of natural uranium to that used to downblend the HEU.

Also known as the HEU Agreement, the Megatons to Megawatts program was implemented through a 1994 contract between the US Enrichment Corporation and Techsnabexport (Tenex), which acted as executive agents for the US and Russian governments. After the HEU Agreement was signed, the US Enrichment Corporation was later privatized, becoming USEC Inc. Since 2000 the program has been under the US National Nuclear Security Administration.

 In August 2013, the final shipment of LEU from Russian TVEL’s JSC Electrochemical Plant marked the completion of Russia’s commitments under the Megatons to Megawatts program. The US-Russian agreement to downblend weapons-grade uranium expired at the end of that year.

 Related stories on World Nuclear News:


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