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Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor

Vol. 19 No. 39 • Oct 16, 2015

Russian Official: Gov’t Open to Alternative U.S. Plutonium Disposition Methods

Brian Bradley
NS&D Monitor

A Russian official on Tuesday signaled Moscow is willing to allow the U.S. to choose a different plutonium
disposition method than the mixed-oxide approach mandated in a bilateral deal from 2000. The Plutonium
Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA) calls for each nation to dispose of 34 metric tons of
weapon-usable plutonium by converting the material into MOX fuel. “It is up to the US to choose their own path for
material disposition,” the official told Weapons Complex Monitor by email. “If the DOE will decide to drop MOX
option we will have to discuss [a] new protocol. My government is ready for any talks related to the agreement
implementation. Right now we are in a waiting mode.”

While a State Department official declined to discuss specifics, the official reiterated that if the U.S. selects a
disposal option other than MOX, the new method would have to be written into the PMDA. “As we have said on
several previous occasions, once the U.S. reaches a decision on a disposition method for its program, it looks
forward to engaging the Russian side in talks required by the PMDA,” the official said. “If that decision is for a
non-MOX method, agreement in writing will need to be reached on how to accommodate such a method under
the PMDA.”

The Energy Department has conducted several studies and officials have repeatedly indicated—most recently to
Congress during a House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing last week—that dilution and
disposal is their preferred pathway to dispose of the plutonium in accordance with the PMDA, although MOX
contractor CB&I AREVA MOX Services estimates it has already constructed about 70 percent of the facility.

The Russian official said Moscow has expected “more information” from its “US partners” on Washington’s
approach to the PMDA for “several years now.” National Nuclear Security Administration chief Frank Klotz said in a
brief interview last week that neither party is currently negotiating an amendment to the PMDA, but added that the
U.S. has informed Russia of DOE’s support for the alternative dilution and disposal approach. “We have raised to
their awareness at the technical level … that we are exploring alternative pathways to get to the mission of
disposing of 34 metric tons of excess weapons grade plutonium,” Klotz said. “Their response has been, ‘Well, if
you have something more definitive, then let’s get back together and discuss it.’”

The U.S. in the bilateral agreement pledged to provide $400 million to help Moscow operate its MOX plant, at
Russia’s Mining & Chemical Combine (GKhK), which sits in the south central part of the country. Workers recently
completed construction of the facility, which as of mid-September had produced its first 10 kilograms of MOX fuel,
according to Russian state media outlet Russia Today.

House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said during a MOX
hearing last week that it appears a “virtual impossibility” for Congress to approve any funds for Russia’s MOX
program in the near future, given recent public statements by Pentagon brass about the danger Russia could
pose to the U.S. "Given that so many senior U.S. military leaders are saying they are our biggest threat, it's going
to be a virtual impossibility to get more money out of Congress for Russia," he said.

Experts have said renegotiating the PMDA would have little to no impact on Russian plutonium disposition, as the
nation has already started acting on its commitment to use fast-neutron reactors embedded with MOX fuel to
advance the country toward a closed fuel cycle. But some have said Russia could push to remove certain
reprocessing bans included in the agreement until the amount of plutonium covered by the accord is fully
disposed, as noted in a 2014 essay by Anatoli Diakov, chief research scientist for the Russian think tank the
Center for Arms Control, Energy, and Environmental Studies, and Vladimir Rybachenkov, senior research scientist
for the same think tank.

“We are of the view that Russia may agree with any disposition method which the USA would deem acceptable,”
their report, “Disposition of Excess Weapon Grade Plutonium: New Developments,” states. “In return the Russian
side would have the right to repudiate the provision of the Agreement prohibiting spent fuel and blanket
reprocessing till the full disposition of 34 tons of excess plutonium is over.” Blanket reprocessing in fast breeders
often involves a “blanket” of tubes that surround a MOX core. The blankets commonly contain non-fissile
uranium-238 that absorbs fast neutrons from reactions in the core, and then converts to fissile plutonium-239
before being reprocessed and used as nuclear fuel.

Along with some others, the essay expresses uncertainty regarding whether the same bilateral and International
Atomic Energy Agency facility verification measures outlined in the PMDA would be sustained through any amendments. As implementation of dilution and disposal would not appear to conjure the same level of concern about illicit reprocessing as would MOX, Diakov and Rybachenkov argue that Russia likely will not prioritize carrying over existing stated PMDA international monitoring procedures through any amended agreement. "But still there is an understanding in the Russian expert community that preservation of an international monitoring is an important issue in the context of possible involvement of other nuclear states in the process of nuclear armaments reductions,” the report states.

The State Department official did not say whether Washington hopes to keep existing PMDA verification measures
through any updated agreement, and offered no opinion about whether the current measures are in limbo. “The
details of a verification agreement, of course, will necessarily await the outcome of [any PMDA amendment] talks,”
the official said.

On verification, the Russian official stated: “I do not expect I will be able to [state] our position before something
happens on bilateral tracks of the PMDA implementation.”

There is a limit to the PMDA’s potential strength of safeguards, though, because the agreement allows Russia to
use fast-neutron reactors, which could offer a bigger window into nuclear weapons activities than other
nonproliferation methods, according to Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education
Center. “They’ve already conceded that they can use a breeder. They’ve already conceded that they can have a
blanket,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. “It’s a nuclear-weapons state. They’re going to be making more
stuff probably, and you wouldn’t know. And what is it in these safeguards that defies the laws of physics and
informs how we’re going to find out?”

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