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Plutonium pact between U.S., Russia faces precarious future, study suggests

MOX Poster, SRS Watch Forum (copy) (copy) (copy)

A poster showing the canceled Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site. This poster was on display at a Savannah River Site Watch public forum.

The status of a pact between the U.S. and Russian governments detailing the disposal of enough plutonium for thousands of nuclear weapons is nebulous, according to a lengthy, yearslong report published Thursday.

The "unclear" standing and "uncertain future" of the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement is driven by a contemporary Washington-Moscow deadlock, according to the National Academies' elaborate review of dilute-and-dispose, the alternative to the nixed Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site.

The "downward spiral in" broader U.S.-Russia relations has "negatively affected the longstanding and essential nuclear weapons risk reduction relationship between the two countries," said Kingston Reif, the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association. He noted tensions in the international relationship "appear likely to continue for the foreseeable future."

The U.S. and Russia approximately 20 years ago, in a post-Cold War environment, signed off on the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, committing to eliminate 34 metric tons of plutonium from their respective defense programs.

The accord, later amended, spurred the MOX project at the Savannah River Site south of Aiken.

MOX was meant to turn the surplus U.S. cache into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors. The National Nuclear Security Administration, though, killed the project in October 2018, months after then-Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said the project was done for and almost immediately after a federal appeals court rejected South Carolina's legal challenge.

The project was never finished. The bill: billions of dollars and more than a decade of work.

An August 2019 report from the State Department's Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance said the federal government's decision to cancel MOX did not violate the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement. Russia, however, waved off its involvement in the plutonium pact years ago, citing Washington's souring actions toward the federation and, more specifically, the MOX approach – something the newly released National Academies analysis acknowledges.

"The Russian Federation and the United States disagree on the current status of the PMDA," the 200-plus-page study reads, "with the Russian Federation suspending the agreement in 2016 but the United States considering it in effect."

Reif said Russia's suspension buttressed "the case for abandoning the MOX project."

The Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance's April 2020 Compliance Report said there was "no indication" Russia has breached the disposition agreement. The pause, however, has raised red flags about Russian willingness to cooperate moving forward.

Things "may be" mollified "one way or the other," the most recent Compliance Report continues, once the U.S. is prepared to engage Russia about dilute-and-dispose, the process of mixing plutonium with inert, inhibiting materials and trucking it to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico for burial.

The cross-country dilute-and-dispose method has been estimated to cost roughly half of what MOX would have – leverage Perry seized on two years ago.

National Nuclear Security Administration chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty in an interview with the Aiken Standard last year said the U.S. was not backing out of the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement.

"We welcome the opportunity to interact with the Russians on this and what our planned alternative is," Gordon-Hagerty said, "which is to go forward with the Surplus Plutonium Disposition, or dilute-and-dispose, project."

"Yet," Gordon-Hagerty continued, "the Russians haven't necessarily indicated that they would be interested in talking to us about that."

Renegotiating the PMDA, the National Academies study reasons, "may not be a reasonable near-term expectation" in light of the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and questions surrounding the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, often referred to as New START.

Reif, with the Arms Control Association, said amending the agreement to reflect the new U.S. approach should, in principle, be possible.

"The agreement has been modified in the past," he said. "But in reality any renegotiation will likely need to await a thaw in U.S.-Russian relations."

The State Department maintains Russia's assertion that dilute-and-dispose violates the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement lacks merit.

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