Third quarter of 2000
plutonium politics hit by liability uncertainties
WISE-Paris, 28 July 2000
By David Lowry
Investigation has learned that the US is pressing ahead with its support
for the Russian MOX program even though there is no agreement on who
will take responsibilty for liability, if there was an accident in one
of the Russian reactors using MOX, or in a MOX production or plutonium
processing plant developed as part of the agreement.
a wide ranging interview conducted with Dr Michael Guhin, chief US negotiator
and representative for plutonium disposition, during a stop-over at
the US embassy in Paris on 27 July, Dr Guhin spelled out the current
status of the negotiations and addressed the outstanding uncertainties,
which involve technical arrangements, financing -including possible
involvement of private sector bodies- and implications for nuclear fuel
manufacturers in western Europe.
also admitted that details of Russia's military plutonium stocks remain
classified from US negotiators, as the Russians declined to share isotopic
details and the US, for its part, declined to share details of plutonium
mass with their Russian counterparts. However, once the deal is complete,
details of plutonium delivered to processing sites in Russia (and similarly
in the US in its own disposition program) would be verified by the International
Atomic Energy Agency, once it was declassified and placed under safeguards.
Guhin said since being appointed in January 1999 he has made 16 trips
to Moscow, and a further five 'round robin' trips to western European
capitals, plus "hours on the phone", as part of the complex negotiations
finalised in Moscow on 4 June this year by Presidents Putin and Clinton.
He said the final agrement was "now on Treaty Paper ready for signing
by US Vice President Gore and Russian Prime Minister Kasyanov."
financing, he said the July 21 commitment, at the G-8 Heads of Government
summit in Okinawa (Japan), by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to make
available some £70 million (US$ 105 m) over ten years as the first pledge
by one of the other G-7 states to back the plan with real resources
was "very helpful." The US has so far pledged US$ 400 million, of which
US$ 200 million has already been appropriated for preliminary work.
But he recognised that there was much work to do to secure the remainder
of the US$2 billion needed to finance the Russian plutonium disposition
deal, which will now only involve converting the 34 tonnes declared
surplus-to-military-needs by Russia into MOX fuel, with none being immobilized
as was originally envisaged.
US plans to immobilize some 17 tonnes of surplus weapons plutonium with
about 33 tonnes destined for conversion to MOX fuel.
the G-8 summit in Cologne in Germany in 1999, Japan already committed
some US$33 million in a bilateral agreement with the Russians to fund
joint work on fast reactor fuel development, but this is outside of
the current plutonium disposition deal. Dr Guhin raised the prospect
of private sector finance being brought in as partnership support, indicating
some preliminary approaches had received positive responses, but he
declined to name any of the companies involved. The next diplomatic
step is to agree a multilateral financing plan within and without the
G-8 by the next G-8 summit in Genoa, Italy in June 2001.
said that the Russians had insisted on MOX conversion for all its surplus
stockpile, rather than immobilization, arguing that the plutonium was
a valuable energy resource, and, in any case, MOX manufacture was deemed
more proliferation resistant than immobilization or plutonium stored
as a metal. Although this meant the US backing off on the dual- track
( ie MOX & immobilization) approach for Russian plutonium disposition,
it was preferable to converion of the plutonium into fast reactor fuel,
which is the Russian prefered option, except they are unable to finance
Russians would also like to sell some of its MOX to western European
countries, with Switzerland already showing an interest, but this would
provide competition for existing MOX fabricators such as COGEMA & BNFL.
Dr Guhin said: "Sure there are upsides and downsides ... the nuclear industry
will have to judge if it is better off on the inside [of Russsian plutonium
disposition] or on the outside. " But, somewhat as a contradiction he
added, "This is not a program to build a new MOX market." The timetable
so far agreed for implementation of the plan was sensitive to the availability
of the equipment from the MOX plant in Hanau in Germany being shipped
to Russia and reassembled. Laura Holgate, head of the US Department
of Energy's disposition program has already made clear that the Russian
MOX program could not meet its start up deadline of 2007 unless the
Hanau technology was transferred. But German Foreign Minister Fischer
has refused to sanction the transfer.
liability, Dr Guhin made clear that the US was not prepared to let any
responsibility fall either on Government or US contractors. He said
that the liability issue had been "kicked down the road" to allow progress
be made in completing the treaty. However it was recognised that the
resolution of the liabilty issues was essential for the overall completion
of the agreement. The Russians have not presently ratified the international
conventions covering nuclear liability, but it is hoped they will do
so in good time. In the past the Europeans have agreed to an exemption
to Russia on liability, said Dr Guhin, but they will not let this continue
for the plutonium disposition program.
of the liability issue is a key matter, as the use of MOX in reactors
is acknowledged to pose greater risks than uranium fuel. Recent studies
by the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington DC and by a former senior
Russian nuclear safety inspector (published by EcoDefense in Moscow)
suggest that up to 25 % more people could be killed or seriously
contaminated in a severe Chernobyl-type accident at a MOX-fuelled reactor
(with 40% MOX core) compared to a uranium fuelled PWR/VVER-1000 type
reactor. Western European states are still paying hundreds of millions
of dollars a year (via the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development)
for the clean-up and restoration required following the Chernobyl nuclear
accident in 1986.
demonstrates very clearly why the liability issue needs resolution.
There also remains the liability issues concerning both radioactive
and toxic releases from the plutonium disposition infrastructure plants
(plutonium purification, MOX fabrication and scrap/waste management).