Russia suspends bilateral agreement with United States disposal of weapons-grade plutonium.


In October 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), a bilateral treaty between Russia and the United States governing the disposal of surplus weapons-grade plutonium. (1) A Russian Foreign Ministry director explained that the decision was prompted by a "dramatic change in the situation... brought about by the unfriendly steps taken by the United States." (2) He also cited "the United States' obvious inability and unwillingness to honour its obligations... on time and in full." (3) The United States expressed disappointment at the suspension, arguing that continued implementation was in both states' interests.

The United States and the Russian Federation initially signed the PMDA in 2000. (4) As amended by protocols in 2006 (5) and 2010, (6) the PMDA obliges each party to dispose of at least thirty-four metric tons of disposition plutonium and imposes certain requirements regarding the method of disposition. (7) Of particular note for the present dispute, Article III (1) provides: "Disposition shall be by irradiation of disposition plutonium as fuel in nuclear reactors or any other methods that may be agreed by the Parties in writing." (8)

The 2010 amendments entered into force following a July 2011 exchange of diplomatic notes between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. (9) A State Department fact sheet described that milestone as

mark[ing] another significant step in both countries' efforts to eliminate nuclear-weapon-grade materials and to reduce nuclear dangers.... The initial combined amount, 68 metric tons [of disposition plutonium], represents enough material for about 17,000 nuclear weapons, and the Agreement envisions disposition of more weapon-grade plutonium over time. (10) Importantly, the agreement sought to make "arms reductions irreversible by... preventing the plutonium from ever being reused for weapons or any other military purpose." (11) The agreement also addresses monitoring, inspections, and financial support. (12)

The agreement required disposition of plutonium to begin in 2018. (13) As explained in a 2010 press release from the U.S. State Department,

[w]eapon-grade plutonium, unlike weapon-grade uranium, cannot be blended with other materials to make it unusable in weapons. But it can be fabricated into mixed oxide uranium-plutonium (MOX) fuel and irradiated in civil nuclear power reactors to produce electricity. This irradiation results in spent fuel, a form that is not usable for weapons or other military purposes and a form that the Protocol prohibits being changed any time in the future unless subject to agreed international monitoring measures and only for civil purposes. The amended PMDA will provide that this weapon-grade plutonium be disposed by irradiating it in light water reactors in the United States and in fast-neutron reactors operating under certain nonproliferation conditions in the Russian Federation. The U.S. MOX fuel fabrication facility being constructed at the Department of Energy's Savannah River Site is planned to begin operation in 2016; Russia has already fabricated MOX fuel on a limited basis and is in the process of constructing/modifying fuel fabrication facilities capable of producing MOX fuel at levels required to meet the PMDA's disposition rate. (14) The method planned for disposing of plutonium in the United States proved problematic, however. Construction of the Savannah River fuel fabrication facility far exceeded initial estimates for both budget and timeline. (15) In addition, as uranium prices fell since 2010, so too did demand for MOX fuel. (16) In February 2016, the Obama administration's budget request for the Department of Energy reflected a plan to terminate the Savannah River site; the budget request also sought $ 15 million for "a dilute and dispose option that will disposition surplus U.S. weapon-grade plutonium by diluting it and disposing of it at a geologic repository at significantly lower cost and less time than the MOX option." (17) On the day of the budget rollout, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz stressed that MOX is unaffordable and that fully funding the facility would require millions of dollars more annually:

The reality is the MOX program, with a lifetime cost certainly north of 30, probably 40, billion dollars with a need for an additional, say, half a billion dollars a year for decades just does not look to be affordable. The dilution approach... is surely technically less challenging and we believe is less than half the cost, even going forward.... I'm sure that we will have a lively discussion about this in the Congress. (18) Putin publicly voiced his concerns about U.S. implementation of the agreement in April 2016. He said:

We signed this agreement and settled on the procedures for the material's destruction, agreed that this would be done on an industrial basis, which required the construction of special facilities. Russia fulfilled its obligations in this regard and built these facilities, but our American partners did not. Moreover, only recently, they announced that they plan to dispose of their accumulated highly enriched nuclear fuel by using a method other than what we agreed on when we signed the corresponding agreement, but by diluting and storing it in certain containers. This means that they preserve what is known as the breakout potential, in other words it can be retrieved, reprocessed and converted into weapons-grade plutonium again. This is not what we agreed on. Now we will have to think about what to do about this and how to respond to this. (19) The State Department denied that it was violating the PMDA, (20) arguing that while the agreement does specify...

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