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Who killed the US-Russia plutonium agreement, and does it really matter?

1 December 2016
Darya Dolzikova

Darya Dolzikova

Darya Dolzikova is a master’s candidate in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, focusing on proliferation and Russian security policy. She is also a graduate research assistant...


If a nuclear security agreement dies, but it wasn’t really about the nuclear security, does it matter who killed it? That depends on whom you ask.

In early October, the Kremlin decided to suspend its implementation of the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, which called for the bilateral elimination of American and Russian excess plutonium stocks. Key among the reasons cited by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his administration [link in Russian] for Russia’s unilateral suspension of the agreement, was the allegation that the United States had long ago violated the terms of the agreement by undertaking a plutonium disposition method not authorized by the agreement—a method that makes the disposed plutonium easily accessible for future weaponization. In other words, the United States chose to nix the agreement; Russia was simply making it official. The bilateral agreement thus became another victim in what has become an increasingly confrontational Russo-American relationship.

Technically speaking, Moscow is not wrong. The United States was well on its way to breaching the agreement, if not already in violation, because the plutonium disposition method that the Obama administration decided to adopt is far from proliferation-proof. Yet while this may be enough to satisfy the Kremlin’s narrative of Washington’s obstinate refusal to cooperate on critical security issues, the accusations hold little weight when placed in the larger context of plutonium disposition methods, and of Russo-American relations more generally. For this reason, it is worth taking apart the Kremlin’s allegations, to both test their validity from a technological perspective, and to draw lessons for the future of similar bilateral frameworks and for the future of US-Russia relations under a new administration in Washington.

Promising beginnings for nuclear security cooperation. Toward the end of the Cold War, and in the period that followed the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the United States and Russia engaged in a number of bilateral nuclear security initiatives, signing such major agreements as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), and its successor New START. Critical nonproliferation work also took place between scientists, through a series of lab-to-lab cooperation initiatives such as the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, the Warhead Safety and Security Exchange Agreement on nuclear counter-terrorism, and the nuclear Materials Protection, Control, and Accounting initiative, among others.

Elimination of fissile material stocks was high on the agenda, as both countries understood the threat that weapons-grade uranium or plutonium could pose in the hands of a dangerous non-state actor. In 1993, Washington and Moscow signed an agreement on the disposition of excess stocks of highly enriched uranium, commonly known as the “Megatons to Megawatts” program. Under the agreement, Russia committed to down-blending 500 tons of highly enriched uranium over the course of 20 years, by converting it to low enriched uranium and selling it to the United States for use in the commercial production of nuclear energy. The Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement followed, in 2000. Aimed at tackling excess plutonium stocks, the agreement committed each country to reducing its stockpile of excess plutonium by 34 tons.

With Putin’s return to the Russian presidency in 2012, however, the relatively short period of goodwill that allowed Moscow and Washington to forge bilateral cooperation initiatives came to a close. Putin, tired of seeing Russia disrespected by the United States, and of going along just to get along, took a much more assertive approach on the international stage. Eventually, Russian actions in Ukraine, the subsequent rounds of American and European sanctions on Russian entities and products, the increased NATO presence in Eastern Europe, disagreements over the countries’ respective roles in the Syrian conflict, and accusations of Russian cyber-attacks on American targets all seriously damaged the relationship. As a result, cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation and other critical issues suffered. In 2013, Putin refused to renew the “Megatons to Megawatts” initiative following its expiration that year, despite significant stocks of highly enriched uranium remaining in Russia. Three years later, the plutonium agreement was on the chopping block.

The nuts and bolts of the plutonium agreement. Understanding Russian accusations of American non-compliance, and why they are accurate but not entirely fair, requires a closer look at the provisions of the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, and at plutonium disposition processes in general.

As the independent analyst Pavel Podvig has discussed previously, plutonium disposition is no easy matter. Simply blending weapons-grade plutonium down to change its isotopic composition, as one would do with highly enriched uranium, doesn’t make the material unsuitable for weaponization. Plutonium remains sufficiently fissile for use in nuclear weapons even at reactor-grade and lower levels of irradiation, albeit at varying degrees of effectiveness and efficiency. A 1994 study by the National Academy of Sciences proposed the adoption of a “Spent Fuel Standard” for evaluating the effectiveness of plutonium disposition methods: By meeting specific International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards requirements, and applying certain barriers when disposing of plutonium, the material could be made “roughly as inaccessible for weapons use as the much larger and growing stock of plutonium in civilian spent fuel.” The Academy report identified four possible types of barriers:

  • An isotopic barrier would change the isotopic composition of the plutonium, requiring enrichment to make it suitable for efficient use in weapons.
  • A radiation barrier would impose a field of radiation around the material, necessitating sophisticated equipment to provide shielding during handling.
  • A chemical barrier would embed the plutonium within a matrix composed of a chemically different material, requiring additional chemical processing and safety measures to extract it.
  • A physical barrier would encapsulate the plutonium in a container, with the ease of removal dependent on the weight and size of the container.

When used in combination, these barriers could make the disposed plutonium as hard to extract as the plutonium in spent fuel from nuclear power plants—thereby satisfying the proposed Spent Fuel Standard.

The Academy report listed two plutonium disposition methods that it deemed to be in line with the standard: irradiation and immobilization. In the case of irradiation, plutonium would be mixed with uranium oxide to create mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel. The fuel would then be fed into reactors for the production of commercial nuclear energy. Irradiation alters the isotopic composition of the plutonium, turning it into spent fuel, thus meeting the Spent Fuel Standard by definition. While changes in isotopic composition do not make plutonium immune to weaponization, mixing the plutonium with depleted uranium at very low ratios, and allowing it to undergo high burnup, reduces the quantity of plutonium 239 left in the spent fuel, making it extremely inefficient to reprocess the fuel.

The immobilization option, on the other hand, does not change the isotopic composition of the plutonium, but rather imposes a radiological, chemical, and physical barrier on the material. The plutonium is vitrified within a ceramic material and sealed in cans, which are then placed within canisters filled with highly radioactive waste. The radioactive field, as well as the need to chemically separate the vitrified plutonium from the ceramic matrix, makes the plutonium as dangerous, challenging, and unattractive for theft as spent fuel. The 1994 report noted that disposition methods that did not impose either an isotopic or radiological barrier on the material would not meet the Spent Fuel Standard.

In line with the report’s guidance, the original Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, signed in 2000, allowed the parties to dispose of their excess plutonium through irradiation, immobilization, or “any other methods that may be agreed by the Parties in writing.” Russia, however, insisted that the plutonium undergo a change in isotopic composition. As a result, both Moscow and Washington committed to the irradiation method, with some minimal exceptions made for American plutonium stocks that were deemed too impure to be added to MOX fuel, and were slated for immobilization instead. But the cost of constructing MOX production facilities, and of adapting existing processing facilities for MOX consumption, soon proved unsustainable for both parties, especially for the United States, which had committed to helping fund the Russian program. The parties therefore amended the agreement in 2010 to allow Russia to use its existing fast-neutron reactors to irradiate its excess plutonium, thereby absolving Washington of the high costs of supporting a Russian MOX program.

To cut costs at home, the United States needed to choose either an all-irradiation or an all-immobilization approach. While the latter would have been significantly cheaper, Russia’s fixation on changing the isotopic composition of the disposed plutonium meant that Moscow could not accept an all-immobilization option for the United States. And so the updated agreement eliminated the immobilization option altogether, forcing the United States to irradiate all of its plutonium. This accommodation of Russian anxieties kept the plutonium agreement alive. But at what cost? By agreeing to continue, and even expand, its MOX program, the United States bandaged the wound, but that only delayed the inevitable.

Evaluating the validity of Russian accusations. By 2013, it was becoming clear to the Obama administration that the MOX program was bleeding the budget, potentially to the tune of $1 million per kilogram of disposed plutonium. In light of skyrocketing costs for the construction of a MOX production facility, Obama ordered a reevaluation of the US plutonium disposition program. Following the conclusions of reports by the Aerospace Corporation and the Department of Energy’s Plutonium Disposition Working Group, as well as a Red Team exercise by the Energy Department, the White House decided to abandon the irradiation program, and to get rid of excess American plutonium through dilution and disposal (abbreviated as D&D). At a fraction of the cost of the MOX program, the new method would mix plutonium with a classified inert material called “stardust,” and bury the mixture in an underground repository. In his 2017 federal budget request, Obama proposed terminating the MOX program and switching to the D&D approach.

This set off alarm bells in Moscow, eventually leading to accusations of American non-compliance and, finally, the unilateral suspension of the agreement. Not only was Washington refusing to change the isotopic composition of its disposed plutonium, it wasn’t even placing a radiological barrier around it.

As the Energy Department noted in one of its reports, by opting out of irradiation and adopting the D&D method instead, the United States has stepped outside the disposition options permitted by the bilateral agreement. Washington can still submit a written request to Moscow to include D&D in the permissible options for plutonium disposition, but the probability of such a request being honored in the current political climate is highly unlikely. Russian accusations of an American violation of the agreement, while technically premature because D&D has yet to be implemented, are not inaccurate.

The validity of the claim that the proposed D&D method leaves plutonium stocks easily accessible for extraction and weaponization depends on the definition of “easily accessible.” It’s true that plutonium disposed of through the D&D method does not meet the Spent Fuel Standard, since this method doesn’t impose either an isotopic or a radiological barrier on the plutonium. However, the chemical and physical barriers that the D&D method provides are enough to keep the material from falling into the hands of a non-state actor—and it’s doubtful that isotopic and radiological barriers would deter an advanced nuclear state from re-weaponizing disposed plutonium.

In fact, Russia’s irradiation of its excess plutonium in fast-neutron reactors poses a potentially greater proliferation threat than the D&D method. Unlike other reactors, fast-neutron reactors do not use a moderator to slow down neutrons, but rely instead on fast neutrons to fission the fuel. This fission process produces a large enough number of additional neutrons to not only sustain a chain reaction, but also to convert the uranium 238 in the fuel to plutonium 239, producing more plutonium than the reactor is consuming. As a result, in contrast to MOX spent fuel, the spent fuel from fast-neutron reactors is high enough in plutonium that it can be reprocessed to create more fuel—or for more nefarious ends. The plutonium agreement sets some restrictions on Russia’s ability to reprocess the spent fuel from fast-neutron reactors, but the simple fact that the Russian disposition program increases Russian plutonium stocks, instead of eliminating them, raises doubts as to the sincerity of Russia’s concerns about the effectiveness of the D&D method.

Examining the geopolitical drivers of Russia’s decision. Ultimately, the technological issues and shortcomings in American compliance were simply a red herring—a convenient justification for a decision that was driven by much larger geopolitical reasons. The Kremlin cited “unfriendly actions” by the United States, and the increased NATO presence in Eastern Europe, as reasons for Russia’s withdrawal from the plutonium agreement, and it was suspended just days after a State Department spokesperson stated that Russia would “continue to send troops home in body bags” if it did not stop bombing the Syrian city of Aleppo. That comment was perceived in Moscow as threatening and unprovoked; it is little surprise it did not go unanswered. Russia has been feeling squeezed by the United States. Showing that it can play hardball on issues of international security, Moscow is hoping to reassert its role as an influential global power, and Putin has been particularly eager to end programs that have imposed a donor-beneficiary relationship between the United States and Russia, as had been the case with the plutonium agreement. Ending the agreement let him place another nail in the coffin of what the Kremlin has perceived to be an unequal relationship.

The timing of Moscow’s withdrawal from the agreement is also telling. Technically, the United States has yet to terminate its irradiation program, and could have submitted a request to Moscow to switch to the D&D method. Considering the current state of Russo-American relations, particularly the American sanctions on Russian entities, Moscow has little reason to acquiesce to American requests. However, refusing to humor Washington, on what would have been a reasonable request, would have appeared to be at odds with Moscow’s rhetoric of its persistent, and repeatedly slighted, attempts at cooperation with the United States. By placing the blame for the agreement’s failure squarely on Washington, Moscow terminated an inconvenient arrangement, all the while preserving its claims to the higher moral ground.

Moscow could have withdrawn from the agreement on much the same pretexts of American non-compliance back in 2013, when Obama first proposed ending the MOX program. Waiting until four months before the end of the Obama presidency could have been a personal slight to an administration that has been particularly unaccommodating to Russian interests, and that had prioritized the issue of nuclear non-proliferation as a central pillar of its mandate. Nuclear security is one of the few areas in which Moscow can have a meaningful impact on a strategic American interest. With little time to renegotiate the agreement, the Kremlin may succeed in tarnishing Obama’s nuclear non-proliferation legacy.

Lessons for future cooperation. Whatever the reasons for Russia’s decision to suspend the agreement, Washington can draw two valuable lessons from it. The first is that disagreements over a document’s terms or conditions need to be addressed as they come up; sweeping them under the rug just means a bigger mess to clean up later. Had Washington acknowledged and addressed its inability to finance its MOX program in 2010, when the administration in Moscow was still amenable to negotiation, instead of acquiescing to unreasonable Russian demands for the irradiation of American plutonium, perhaps a middle ground could have been reached. Instead, Washington eventually found its hands tied with unsurmountable costs and a partner unwilling to help untie them. At that point, neither party could be blamed for its actions; the United States had to change its disposition method to save its bottom line, while Russia couldn’t really be blamed for suspending an agreement that had already been violated. In the end, it was the international nuclear security regime that suffered.

The unfortunate demise of the plutonium agreement is a cautionary tale in light of recent rumors that the Joint Commission may grant exceptions to Iran on its implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. As the Soviet saying goes: “Let a pig sit at the table, it will kick its feet up too.” Author and nuclear deterrence theorist Thomas Schelling called it salami tactics: dismantling an agreement one slice at a time, while claiming to be cooperative. If the rumors are true, allowing Iran to get away with small compliance failures now could cause disagreements over the Plan of Action’s implementation to eventually become so large that they prove irreconcilable, and the plan will face the same fate as the plutonium agreement. If the terms of the Iran nuclear agreement cannot be met by one of the parties, the issues must be addressed explicitly, not excused away.

The second lesson to draw from the plutonium agreement’s failure is that the difficulties that arose in agreeing on a single method for effective and affordable plutonium disposition highlight the importance of setting clear objectives, metrics, and compliance standards from the very start. For instance, by failing to define whether the agreement was aimed at preventing proliferation of plutonium to non-state actors, or keeping plutonium from being re-weaponized by nuclear states, the agreement allowed each party to devise its own interpretation. While Russian insistence on irradiation may have been appropriate for making the covert weaponization of plutonium more difficult for a state, it was excessive for preventing proliferation to a non-state actor. By the same logic, the US dilution-and-disposal method may well have complied with the intent of the agreement, if that intent was to stop proliferation to non-state actors.

These two observations underscore the importance of maintaining strong lines of communication over the course of an agreement’s implementation. Any agreement, by its definition, is a compromise; each party will have interests that lie outside the agreed-upon middle ground, and it should be expected that each side will try to interpret the document in a manner that is most favorable to its own goals. For this reason, communication and check-ins must continue on a regular basis, to make sure the document stays on its intended trajectory, and to maintain trust between the parties. Had the Obama administration been more diligent in keeping the Kremlin informed, and possibly even involved, in the evaluation process that led to the US decision to switch to the D&D method, Moscow would have had less cause to suspect Washington of ill intent, and fewer credible excuses to withdraw from the plutonium agreement.

Bigger problems. Ultimately, the failure of the agreement is symptomatic of much deeper issues in the Russo-American relationship. Unable to match the United States in conventional or nuclear military power, Russia will continue to rely on asymmetrical tactics, including threats to pull out of other Western institutions, including other nuclear agreements. Whether these threats are genuine is difficult to ascertain with much confidence. Russia’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court last month suggests they may not be entirely empty.

At the moment, the greatest threat is to American credibility, and to Washington’s ability to reassure allies that it can still control the future of critical international security initiatives. The election of Donald Trump and his apparent desire for a rapprochement with Moscow may solicit increased cooperation from Russia. Conversely, it may encourage the Kremlin to test the boundaries of a new administration. In the meantime, Putin may seek to undermine Obama’s legacy further, by withdrawing from more American-led agreements and initiatives before the US presidential inauguration in January.

While there is little Obama can do to prevent Moscow from continuing to act out, the incoming administration would do well to engage the Kremlin as soon as possible on issues of mutual interest, including nuclear proliferation and the conflicts in Syria and Eastern Ukraine. By articulating its position on these matters and setting clear lines, while also showing a willingness to consider Moscow’s concerns, the White House can reestablish a relationship of trust with the Kremlin. Or, if not trust, at least some degree of mutual respect. For now, that may be a good enough place to start.