Third quarter of 2000

Russian plutonium politics hit by liability uncertainties

WISE-Paris, 28 July 2000
By David Lowry

[Posted 28/07/2000]

Plutonium 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.

In 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.

He 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.

Dr 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."

On 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.

The US plans to immobilize some 17 tonnes of surplus weapons plutonium with about 33 tonnes destined for conversion to MOX fuel.

At 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.

He 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 it.

The 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.

On 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.

Resolution 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.

This 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).

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