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Report: Russia hasn't violated MOX-related plutonium pact

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

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

There is "no indication" Russia has breached the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, an accord between Washington and Moscow that gave rise to the failed Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, according to a new report prepared by the U.S. Department of State.

Russia's suspension of the agreement, however, has raised repeated concerns about the country's willingness to cooperate or comply in the future, the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance noted in the executive summary of its April 2020 Compliance Report.

The worries "may be" assuaged "one way or the other," the report reasons, once the U.S. is properly positioned to engage Russia about its Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility alternative, known commonly as dilute-and-dispose.

The U.S. and Russia roughly 20 years ago signed off on the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, each consenting to eliminate 34 metric tons of plutonium from their defense programs – enough material for thousands of nuclear weapons in a post-Cold War environment. And as the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission wrote, "Neither country wanted this material" to be used for such.

The PMDA was later amended, leading to the MOX project at the Savannah River Site. The facility – never completed, costing billions of dollars and, now, a potential springboard for a nuclear weapons mission – was designed to turn the U.S.' surplus plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors.

MOX, however, was nixed in October 2018, months after then-Secretary of Energy Rick Perry told congressional defense committees he was dropping the ax.

The Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance's August 2019 report said the federal government's decision to cancel MOX did not violate the U.S.-Russia plutonium pact.

Perry and National Nuclear Security Administration chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty have championed dilute-and-dispose: taking the surplus plutonium, mixing it with inert and inhibiting materials, and shipping it to southeast New Mexico for burial at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

The cross-country nonproliferation effort, though, could be hobbled by mercurial funding, programming changes and public perception woes, according to an interim report handled by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The August 2019 Compliance Report noted dilute-and-dispose, as well as the related congressional climate, needed cementing before Russia could be approached.

Russia maintains that pivoting away from MOX – long before the contract was terminated two years ago – violates the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement. The State Department disagrees. The assertion "remains without merit," according to the August 2019 report.

In an interview with the Aiken Standard last year, NNSA's Gordon-Hagerty said the U.S. was not abandoning the plutonium agreement and, in fact, welcomed a dialogue with Moscow.

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