Russia suspends plutonium agreement with USA

04 October 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.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News