According to the 2000 Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), updated in 2010, Russia and the US agreed to transparently dispose of weapons-grade plutonium, thereby preventing it from being reused for military purposes.
The parties agreed that each country would dispose of 34 metric tons of the material – enough to make 17,000 nuclear weapons. The deal says the US is to recycle it into fuel for nuclear power reactors, a process that was supposed to happen at the MOX (mixed oxide fuel) plant in Savannah River, South Carolina. The agreement specifies that the United States will dispose of its plutonium by burning it in light water reactors (Article III.2).
Changing the disposition method requires formally amending the agreement, which cannot be done without Russia's consent. The facility in South Carolina isn't complete. This year the US Energy Department decided to change the plans in favor of «a cheaper, faster alternative».
It cited cost overruns as a reason. Obama's Fiscal Year 2017 budget proposal calls for the termination of the MOX project.
Instead the proposal wants a «change in plutonium disposition» and would appropriate $285 million for the Energy Department to «complete pre-conceptual design» for 'downblending'. It means that instead of transforming plutonium into nuclear fuel, the Savannah River Site facility would be used to dilute plutonium and dispose of it at the waste isolation pilot plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Unlike the US, Russia has carried out its obligations. Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear corporation, announced last September that it had started producing MOX fuel.
Russia has gone to great lengths to uphold its end of the bargain. It has built a MOX fuel facility in the city of Zheleznogorsk in Eastern Siberia. It has also invested in BN-600 and BN-800 fast neutron reactors, which will use MOX fuel made of weapons-grade plutonium and ensure it is unusable for nuclear warheads.
On April 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin said President Obama’s decision to abandon the plutonium recycling project in South Carolina violated the PMDA. «This means that they preserve what is known as the breakout potential, in other words it can be retrieved, reprocessed and converted into weapons-grade plutonium again. This is not what we agreed on. Now we will have to think about what to do about this and how to respond to this», he explained the Russia’s position, addressing the third Truth and Justice regional and local media forum. «We signed this agreement and settled on the procedures for the material’s destruction, agreed that this would be done on an industrial basis, which required the construction of special facilities», Putin said. «Russia fulfilled its obligations in this regard and built these facilities, but our American partners did not.»
The violation was one of the reasons the Russian President skipped the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) held in Washington, DC on March 31-April 1, 2016.
Russia’s view is shared inside the US. Before the decision to change the uranium disposal policy was announced, former US Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson said a change in the approach to disposing of weapons-grade plutonium threatens US credibility in non-proliferation agreements with Russia. «I hear reports that because of the cost, the MOX facility will be shut down, and I am warning the public that it would jeopardize the US plutonium agreement with Russia», he stated.
Richardson, who helped negotiate the original plutonium disposal agreement, raised his concern that changing the mission of the MOX facility would hurt the US-Russia relationship «more than it already has been hurt».
Tim Scott, Republican Senator for South Carolina, issued a statement on the proposed change, in which he said: «The United States cannot just terminate the MOX project and walk away from our long-standing international agreement with Russia to dispose of a total of 68 metric tons of weapons-grade nuclear material. Throughout the Obama administration, his Department of Energy has consistently worked to undermine this vital project and attempted to spread misinformation about its progress.»
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson has filed a lawsuit to force the US Department of Energy to finish the mixed oxide fuel fabrication, or MOX, project at the Savannah River Site, the same day President Barack Obama submitted his final federal budget proposal to Congress calling for the program’s termination. «The Department of Energy has continually shown disregard for its obligations under federal law to the nation, the State of South Carolina and frankly the rule of law. The federal government is not free to flout the law. This behavior will not be tolerated. We are committed to using every legal avenue possible to ensure compliance», Wilson said in a statement.
The debate on the uranium disposal agreement is far from being an isolated controversial issue. It has been put into limelight against the background of arms control regime balancing on the brink of collapse – the approaching crisis media have given little attention to.
For over half a century, starting with the signing of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the international binding framework has limited the nuclear potentials and prevented further proliferation of nuclear weapons. This period of history appears to be nearing its end. The arms control process is stalled. Nearly all negotiations on nuclear arms reduction and non-proliferation have come to a stop. Political events and technological achievements gradually erode the existing treaty structures. The deterioration of the Russia-US relations has undermined the hopes to make the risk of nuclear war a thing of the past. With the Cold War ended over a quarter of a century ago, the whole arms control process is on the verge of disintegration.
The two key agreements between Russia and the United States to limit offensive nuclear weapons – the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-3) and the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty – are still in force, but their future is in doubt. For instance, the US has recently accused Russia of violating the INF.
The US officials have so far failed to specify which exactly weapons system allegedly violates the treaty’s provisions. It should be noted, that the deployment in Romania and Poland of Mk-41 Aegis Ashore launchers capable of firing ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) is an outright violation of the INF. It makes Washington’s accusations sound like the pot calling the kettle black. In 2002, the United States abandoned the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to greatly complicate further arms control talks. The document had been the cornerstone of the strategic weapon limitation process for the previous thirty years. The US created a problem of ballistic missile defense (BMD) sites located in the vicinity of Russian border. It has not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) two decades after it was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1996. The Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), signed in 2002, has never been fully functional because the parties failed to agree on counting rules and verification provisions; the United States demanded maximal allowances and minimal restrictions.
And now the United States has openly violated the uranium disposal deal – another major arms control agreement.
The prospects for the future are dim. For instance, there is a slight chance that tactical nuclear weapons would be included into the bilateral arms control agenda. Russia considers US forward-based tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe as an addition to the American strategic arsenal that is capable of striking deep into Russian national territory. Moscow has, therefore, demanded that the United States withdraw these weapons (which amount to about 200 air-dropped gravity bombs in the process of being upgraded) from Europe as a precondition to any possible discussions on the issue. Substrategic nuclear weapons therefore present a special and extremely complicated aspect of arms control kept out of the contemporary nuclear security discourse.
Third countries refuse to join the process of nuclear disarmament without further progress on nuclear arms reductions by Russia and the United States.
Furthermore, the United States enjoys a lead in long-range offensive non-nuclear weapons. Add to it the expansion of NATO, the worldwide and regional destabilization, the buildup of military infrastructure around Russia, the implementation of the Prompt Global Strike concept and the militarization of outer space.
Just a couple of weeks ago the US has taken a decision to deploy an armored brigade in Europe starting from 2017 fiscal year adding to the forces deployed on rotational principle for increased number of exercises and storage of pre-positioned equipment for would-be reinforcements.
As mentioned above, Moscow has refused to participate in the Nuclear Security Summit, which was held in Washington in 2016. It found unacceptable the proffered agenda and saw no prospects for any progress on the nuclear security issues under the circumstances. Before that the 2015 NPT Review Conference ended in failure against the backdrop of North Korea’s increasing nuclear potential.
The plutonium disposal agreement is just a part of a bigger picture. Looking back at the recent history, one can see the US taking one decision after another to undermine the arms control regime that has served as a pillar of international security for dozens of years. For the foreseeable future, there is little prospect of the United States accepting new obligations. It has damaged its reputation as a trusted partner. The US credibility is the root of the problem. The decision to renege on the plutonium deal commitments is another proof of this fact.