February 2000

Moscow Takes Step to Ease U.S. Fears on Plutonium Use

New York Times, February 7, 2000
By Judith Miller

[Posted 09/02/2000]

In a major agreement aimed at safeguarding nuclear fuel that could be used to make weapons, Russia has promised to stop making plutonium out of fuel from its civilian power reactors as part of a $100 million joint research and aid package from the United States, Clinton administration and Russian officials say.

While the administration has several collaborative programs that enhance the safety and security of plutonium produced by Russia's military, this is the Energy Department's first major attempt to secure Russia's huge civilian stockpile of plutonium, from which 3,000 nuclear weapons could be made.

"It's a bold initiative to reduce a 30-ton plutonium threat from Russia's civilian nuclear sector," Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson said in a telephone interview. His department is to make public Russia's moratorium on plutonium reprocessing today when it unveils its budget for the next fiscal year.

Administration officials and arms control experts were particularly pleased with the deal, more than a year in the works, because it comes at a time of growing strains in relations with Russia over its war in Chechnya, policy toward Iraq, and access to Russian nuclear facilities.

The agreement is also likely to place added pressure on other nuclear powers like Japan, Britain and France to follow suit, arms control experts said. Because of concerns about the environment and the spread of nuclear materials to countries like Iran, Iraq and North Korea, the United States has not reprocessed fuel since 1978.

Part of the accord -- $25 million for long-term joint research that is most attractive to Russia -- is contingent on an end to new sales and transfers of nuclear technology to Iran. Washington believes that those transactions are helping Tehran acquire nuclear weapons.

"The money for this research will be in our budget," said Ernest P. Moniz, the Undersecretary of Energy, who was in Moscow last week to discuss the agreement. "It's now up to Russia to decide if they want it."

But the bulk of the money will be given in exchange for Russia's decision to halt reprocessing nuclear fuel from its 29 civilian power reactors. That will include, if Congress approves, $45 million to better secure spent fuel already stored at Mayak, a once closed nuclear complex in the southern Urals, and to build a large dry storage site elsewhere in Russia.

Yevgeny Adamov, Russia's atomic energy minister, insisted in a telephone interview from Moscow that despite the agreement, Russia would not stop competing to sell new light-water power reactors to Iran.

At the same time, he said, Russia has lived up to the commitments made to Washington last year not to provide sensitive material or technology to Iran. But it was willing in principle to discuss additional safeguards and "more commitments for greater transparency to remove American concerns."

Mr. Adamov also stressed that Russia was not abandoning its belief that plutonium, which is produced by all nuclear reactors, could eventually be used to fuel a generation of "safe" reactors, not yet developed, that would produce waste more difficult to recycle into weapons.

"We're talking in terms of decades," for the moratorium on plutonium reprocessing, he said. "At least two may be enough."

Russia, officials said, already possesses about 150 metric tons of plutonium and 1,200 metric tons of highly enriched uranium, both of which can be used in nuclear weapons.

Given that, said Thomas Graham Jr., a former arms control negotiator who now is president of the Lawyers Alliance for World Security, an arms control group in Washington, "it is important to stop the accumulation of material that some rogue nations would love to get their hands on.

"This is a very important agreement," he added.

In 1998 alone, Energy Department officials said, Russia's 29 civilian reactors produced 798 metric tons of spent fuel. Normally, Russia would send this material to Mayak for reprocessing -- that is, the separation of plutonium, which can be used in weapons, from the rest of the fuel.

But under the new agreement, the plutonium will not be separated out. Instead, the unreprocessed material will be stored at a new site somewhere in Russia that the United States will finance.

The location and ultimate cost of the site are still not determined, but Mr. Adamov said he was leaning toward Krasnoyarsk-26, a once closed nuclear city where the Russian military made plutonium.

William C. Potter, the director of the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies, in California, particularly praised an allocation of $3 million in the aid package aimed at helping Russia reacquire Soviet-era fuel from countries like Belarus, Ukraine and Yugoslavia. He fears that the material is vulnerable to diversion or military use.

Since the end of the cold war, the United States has spent billions of dollars to protect nuclear materials in Russia and the former Soviet Union and to prevent them from falling into the hands of Iran, Iraq or other aspiring nuclear powers. As of this year, Washington has spent about $1.2 billion to help prevent the loss or theft of material that could be used in nuclear weapons.

At Mayak, the United States is already financing the construction of a warehouse to protect bomb-grade plutonium extracted from nuclear warheads. A recent American visitor there said that some plutonium was still being stored in milk-pail-size canisters in a wooden storage shed secured mainly by a padlock.

Since 1993, Washington has bought 500 metric tons a year of highly enriched uranium from Russian weapons, sales worth more than $400 million a year to Russia. The uranium, which is blended down and sold as reactor-grade fuel for power production, meets about half of America's nuclear power fuel requirements.

The new aid package for Russia would provide $45 million for the dry storage site and security upgrades for the stockpiled civilian plutonium and $30 million for new efforts to safeguard material from the military sector.

It would also provide $20 million for collaborative research into devising reactors and fuel that cannot be used to make weapons, and $5 million for research into the design and development of a permanent geological repository to store used fuel. Administration officials stressed that only those last two items, which are longer- term projects, hinge on an end to Russian nuclear sales to Iran.

Mr. Adamov said on Saturday that Washington would be "wrong" to believe that a $100 million assistance package would prompt Russia to forgo revenue from future reactor sales, each of which could be worth up to $1 billion dollars.

"These are huge orders for our industry, and we'll aggressively pursue these orders and win them," he said.

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