Can the US-Russia plutonium disposition agreement be saved?

By Pavel Podvig | April 28, 2016

These days, projects and agreements that were once flagships of US-Russia cooperation can suddenly give rise to bitter dispute. The most recent controversy involves a cooperative program that commits Russia and the United States to eliminating a significant part of their weapon-grade plutonium stocks. Experts knew there was potential for tension, but it still came as a surprise when Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking at a meeting with journalists in April, launched a broadside against the United States, accusing it of not living up to its side of the deal. Not only is the United States not fulfilling its agreed obligations, he said, it is also trying to change the way it deals with plutonium in such a way that the material “can be retrieved, reprocessed and converted into weapons-grade plutonium again.” At that moment, it became clear that the future of the plutonium disposition program will be a serious irritant in the US-Russian relationship.

Strictly speaking, the Russian president described the situation correctly, but he was wrong in his implication about US motives. To understand the real story, however, requires delving into some of the details of the plutonium disposition deal and problems that were encountered during its implementation.

A history of cooperation. During the 1990s, the United States and Russia agreed to work together to eliminate a significant fraction of the weapon-grade plutonium they possessed in excess to their military needs. The United States declared 61.5 metric tons (or tonnes) of material as excess, out of a total stock of about 90 tonnes of separated plutonium, all of it military. Russia, which has a larger plutonium stock of about 180 tonnes—128 of which is weapon-grade—said it considers about 50 tonnes of weapon-grade plutonium excess. After some deliberations, the two countries agreed to each eliminate 34 tonnes of plutonium.

As it turns out, plutonium is a very difficult material to get rid of. Unlike highly enriched uranium, which can be easily blended down to low concentrations of uranium-235, no similar simple process can be applied to plutonium, as a change in isotopic composition does not really make it unsuitable for weapons. It is, however, possible to dispose of plutonium by building barriers that would make it very difficult to recover and use. In 1994, the US National Academy of Sciences conducted a thorough study of the problem and came up with a number of practical options. The study suggested adopting a so-called “spent fuel standard,” which means the process should make the plutonium being disposed of as well-protected and difficult to recover as that contained in the spent fuel from commercial nuclear power plants. The study also identified two practical ways to achieve this standard. One was to use plutonium to fabricate mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel that would then be used in existing nuclear power reactors; the plutonium would become irradiated and protected by the radiation barrier. The other way, known as immobilization, was to mix plutonium with high-level radioactive waste, in effect creating the same radiation barrier without putting plutonium in a reactor. Ultimately, the irradiated MOX fuel or immobilized plutonium would be placed in a geological repository, but that step was not essential—weapon-grade plutonium could be considered effectively eliminated at the time it was brought to the spent-fuel standard. An official US Energy Department study, conducted in 1997, re-confirmed these two disposition methods as appropriate options.

Many experts were skeptical about the MOX option, not least because it would provide a significant boost to the plutonium economy, eventually leading to wider acceptance of plutonium in the civilian nuclear industry. Plus, it was more expensive and potentially less secure than immobilization. But Russian experts were adamant in insisting that plutonium was a valuable energy resource that should not be disposed of as waste. So in the end, the US-Russia Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), signed in 2000, stipulated that most of both countries’ excess plutonium would be used to fabricate MOX fuel, which would be irradiated in existing light-water reactors. The United States, however, decided to pursue the immobilization option for some of its plutonium as well.

To make a long story short, it took another 10 years to settle all the issues related to implementation of the PMDA. In 2010, the agreement was amended to change the agreed disposition methods. Russia abandoned the option of using MOX in light-water reactors, which it never liked, and would now irradiate plutonium in its fast-neutron reactors, BN-600 and BN-800. The reactors are part of Russia’s ambitious plan to expand the use of plutonium in its nuclear power industry. The United States decided not to pursue the immobilization option, fully committing itself to the MOX route.

Sticker shock sets in. By the time the amended agreement was signed in 2010, construction of facilities needed to support the program was already underway. But while Russia managed to keep its projects largely on track, construction of the key component of the US program, the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, encountered serious problems. For a variety of reasons, technical as well as organizational, the cost of the project quickly escalated beyond what anyone envisioned at the start of the program. It is now estimated that the disposition program could cost the United States more than $30 billionand perhaps significantly moreContinuing with the MOX route means the United States would have to spend about a million dollars per kilogram to dispose of its weapon-grade plutonium.

Facing the escalating cost, the Obama administration initiated a review of plutonium disposition options. When the review confirmed the high cost of the MOX route, the administration decided to halt construction of the plant at Savannah River and look into alternatives. The “dilute-and-dispose” option that emerged from the analysis as a favorite would simply have plutonium mixed with some inert material (the composition of this material, known as “stardust,” is classified) and buried in an underground repository, such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. This option would still be rather expensive, but it would be three to four times cheaper than MOX. As a result, in its 2017 budget request, the Obama administration made a commitment to terminate construction of the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility at Savannah River, and begin preparations for the dilute-and-dispose option. 

This decision introduced two important changes to the original plutonium disposition plan. First, it walked away from the spent-fuel standard, which was always considered an essential element of the process. Indeed, options like dilute-and-dispose were considered and explicitly rejected by the National Academy of Sciences study in the 1990s. Second, the decision committed the United States to a disposition path that is not included in the US-Russia PMDA agreement. This, in effect, made the US program hostage to Russia’s approval.

The agreement is very specific about how disposition must be handled, and under it, the United States has only one option: to use its excess plutonium to manufacture MOX fuel that will be irradiated in light water reactors. Changes to the agreement are allowed—indeed, the 2010 amended version accommodates Russia’s request to burn its plutonium in fast reactors—but require the written consent of both parties. Now, the US administration is hoping that Russia will reciprocate and allow the United States to change its disposition method too.

No good will. Is it reasonable to expect that Moscow will act in good faith, and agree to change the PMDA terms once again? So far, the signs are not particularly encouraging.

To begin with, the United States has not yet approached Russia with a formal request, partly because it is still too early to say that the MOX project is dead. Despite its exorbitant cost (or, indeed, precisely because of it), the MOX plan has vocal and powerful supporters in the US Congress, who are determined to keep funding the program. Ironically, supporters of MOX use the expected difficulty of obtaining Russia’s approval for a change as one of the strongest arguments in this fight. MOX critics, meanwhile, are confident that the agreement can be changed, but it will be hard to say if they are right until the two parties start a practical discussion of the issue. The US administration, however, has not yet tried to test the waters with Russia, with a State Department spokesperson curiously insisting in an April 11 press briefing that a renegotiation of the agreement would not be necessary. This may be technically correct in the sense that the PMDA would not have to be negotiated from scratch, but if the United States wants to preserve the agreement, it would have to bring its new disposition plan to Moscow and ask for a written consent. There is no way around that.

One reason Russia may object to the new US plan is that it includes none of the barriers that were long assumed to be essential elements of the plutonium disposition process. The dilute-and-dispose method abandons the spent-fuel standard, and leaves the isotopic composition of the plutonium intact. It is fair to argue that plutonium mixed with “stardust” and buried deep underground would be just as well-protected as plutonium mixed with high-level waste or irradiated in a reactor. Moreover, it is really difficult to imagine a future scenario in which anyone would want to mine the geologic repository to extract the material, as there is still a lot of plutonium around. Nevertheless, there was a reason the studies done in the 1990s explicitly recommended that dilute-and-dispose not be pursued. Even though barriers created by a chemical mixture and geologic disposal are fairly strong, they were not believed to be strong enough to protect the material from recovery by the host country. It could be argued that circumstances have changed and these arguments do not apply today, but at the very least, if the United States wants to pursue a new approach, it should clearly and openly present and discuss its merits.

To complicate the matter, Russian technical experts never really believed in the spent-fuel standard. For them, a reliable disposition method would have to change the isotopic composition of plutonium, converting it to so-called reactor-grade plutonium, which has a high content of the Pu-240 isotope. Russia did agree in 2000 that some plutonium can be disposed of through immobilization, which does not change the isotopic composition. But it has always insisted that immobilization should not be the primary route. In the end, the options included in the 2010 version of the PMDA satisfied both sides, if for different reasons—the United States got the spent-fuel standard, while Russia got the change in isotopic composition. But while irradiation in a reactor conveniently achieves both, there are options that allow changing isotopic composition without irradiation. For example, the United States could try mixing its weapon-grade plutonium with reactor-grade material.

How options like this might be seen by Russia is not entirely clear. Officials at Rosatom, Russia’s state atomic energy corporation, would say they have serious reservations about the dilute-and-dispose method, and would probably never advise their own government to accept it as a “real” disposition method, on par with irradiation in a reactor or immobilization with high-level waste. But those same officials would also say that ultimately, Russia does not particularly care how the United States treats its excess material, so if it wants to bury it underground “as is,” that would be acceptable. In the end, while technical arguments are important, the decision will be political.

An agreement worth saving. The political nature of the issue will clearly be the most significant obstacle. Securing Russian approval for a significant change in a previously agreed plan would have been a difficult undertaking during much better times for the US-Russian relationship. It seems virtually impossible right now. By voicing his concerns about the way the United States treats its plutonium, Putin made the issue explicitly political, and framed it in a way that makes it very difficult to find a reasonable compromise.

In fact, the Kremlin may not be interested in a compromise at all. Russian leadership may decide it has more to gain from insisting both sides stick to the already-agreed disposition plans. Russia’s own program is on schedule—the new BN-800 reactor that will burn weapon-grade plutonium was connected to the grid last year, and the fuel fabrication facility is up and running. In the past, Russia needed PMDA funding provisions to finance part of its plutonium disposition program, but that is no longer the case, and it now has few incentives to accommodate a US request. By refusing to give its consent to a change in the agreement, Russia could sustain uncertainty around the US program, and help US proponents of the MOX project keep spending billions of dollars on a project that serves no useful disarmament or nonproliferation purpose. Last but not least, Russia could claim the moral high ground as a disarmament advocate and accuse the United States of reneging on its obligations. Unfortunately, the Kremlin would have a point there—to an outside observer, today’s US policy does look like an attempt to move the goalposts in the middle of the game.

Facing the prospect of a protracted spat with Russia over disposition methods, pulling out of the PMDA altogether may look increasingly attractive to the United States. Doing so, though, would seriously damage US credibility and set back the global nuclear disarmament effort. For all its limitations and technical problems, the US-Russian plutonium disposition agreement was an important step toward eliminating stocks of weapon-usable fissile materials. In addition to setting a precedent and creating an infrastructure for eliminating plutonium, the PMDA was supposed to bring accountability to the process by inviting the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor disposition. If the United States abandons the project, any progress in this area will be impossible for a very long time, and the opportunity to establish international control over the fissile material elimination process may be lost forever. A US withdrawal from the PMDA would also undermine a range of other nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation initiatives, such as the effort to achieve a global ban on production of fissile materials for weapons.

Make a case to the world. Does the United States have any good options here? Not really. Sticking with the old MOX route could help avert a difficult negotiation with Russia, but would probably bring only temporary relief—the project is clearly unsustainable, so any delay in terminating the current program will only increase its sunk cost. Another option is to hope that Russia will see reason in US arguments and agree to modify the agreement. Although this is not entirely impossible, it would take a small miracle under current circumstances. At the very least, the Kremlin is likely to demand a steep political price for any concession, which the United States may not be willing to pay.

Any solution that preserves the PMDA will have to involve Russia. And it appears that the only strategy that will get Russia to agree to the proposed change is for the United States to make its case as clearly, consistently, and openly as possible. Any new disposition plan must leave no room for doubting the US commitment to irreversible and verifiable elimination of its weapon-grade plutonium. The key, for the US administration, is to present its new plan not just to Russia or the US Congress, but to the entire international community. If done correctly, this not only would help bring Russia to the negotiating table, but would further strengthen the program’s disarmament value.

As a first step, the United States could commit to submitting all key elements of the disposition process to IAEA monitoring. In particular, monitoring procedures should allow the IAEA to examine all elements of the physical barrier around plutonium, whether it is the “stardust” mixture agent or a geological repository such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

The United States could also offer to place under IAEA safeguards all 34 tonnes of the plutonium that will be eliminated. This step might present a challenge, since some of the plutonium may still be in classified forms, being present, for example, in weapon components or yet-to-be-disassembled weapons. But such a step would be essential for strengthening the commitment to irreversibility. Plus, most of the technical work that would be required for this kind of safeguarding was already done as part of the Trilateral Initiative, a joint US-Russia-IAEA project. If necessary, the United States could also explore the possibility, considered in the past, of placing part of its Pantex weapon component storage complex in Texas under international monitoring.

If the United States moves forward with these or similar steps, it could put significant pressure on Russia to join it in redefining the plutonium disposition program. Even if Moscow is still unwilling to change the PMDA terms, it would probably find it difficult to terminate some important elements of the agreement, such as IAEA monitoring of the disposition process or restrictions on production of new plutonium in the process of burning old material. In the end, if the new arrangement helps terminate the US MOX program and create a new framework for plutonium disposal, it might actually do more for the cause of nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation, and US-Russian relations than the old PMDA.

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