February 7, 2000
Moscow Takes Step to Ease U.S. Fears on Plutonium Use
Join a Discussion on Russia after Yeltsin
By JUDITH MILLER
In a major agreement aimed at
safeguarding nuclear fuel that could
be used to make weapons, Russia has
promised to stop making plutonium
out of fuel from its civilian power
reactors as part of a $100 million
joint research and aid package from
the United States, Clinton administration and Russian officials say.
While the administration has several collaborative programs that enhance the safety and security of plutonium produced by Russia's military, this is the Energy Department's first major attempt to secure
Russia's huge civilian stockpile of
plutonium, from which 3,000 nuclear
weapons could be made.
"It's a bold initiative to reduce a
30-ton plutonium threat from Russia's civilian nuclear sector," Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson said
in a telephone interview. His department is to make public Russia's moratorium on plutonium reprocessing
today when it unveils its budget for
the next fiscal year.
Administration officials and arms
control experts were particularly
pleased with the deal, more than a
year in the works, because it comes
at a time of growing strains in relations with Russia over its war in
Chechnya, policy toward Iraq, and
access to Russian nuclear facilities.
The agreement is also likely to
place added pressure on other nuclear powers like Japan, Britain and
France to follow suit, arms control
experts said. Because of concerns
about the environment and the
spread of nuclear materials to countries like Iran, Iraq and North Korea,
the United States has not reprocessed fuel since 1978.
Part of the accord -- $25 million
for long-term joint research that is
most attractive to Russia -- is contingent on an end to new sales and
transfers of nuclear technology to
Iran. Washington believes that those
transactions are helping Tehran acquire nuclear weapons.
"The money for this research will
be in our budget," said Ernest P.
Moniz, the Undersecretary of Energy, who was in Moscow last week to
discuss the agreement. "It's now up
to Russia to decide if they want it."
But the bulk of the money will be
given in exchange for Russia's decision to halt reprocessing nuclear fuel
from its 29 civilian power reactors.
That will include, if Congress approves, $45 million to better secure
spent fuel already stored at Mayak, a
once closed nuclear complex in the
southern Urals, and to build a large
dry storage site elsewhere in Russia.
Yevgeny Adamov, Russia's atomic energy minister, insisted in a telephone interview from Moscow that
despite the agreement, Russia would
not stop competing to sell new light-water power reactors to Iran.
At the same time, he said, Russia
has lived up to the commitments
made to Washington last year not to
provide sensitive material or technology to Iran. But it was willing in
principle to discuss additional safeguards and "more commitments for
greater transparency to remove
Mr. Adamov also stressed that
Russia was not abandoning its belief
that plutonium, which is produced by
all nuclear reactors, could eventually be used to fuel a generation of
"safe" reactors, not yet developed,
that would produce waste more difficult to recycle into weapons.
"We're talking in terms of decades," for the moratorium on plutonium reprocessing, he said. "At least
two may be enough."
Russia, officials said, already possesses about 150 metric tons of plutonium and 1,200 metric tons of highly
enriched uranium, both of which can
be used in nuclear weapons.
Given that, said Thomas Graham
Jr., a former arms control negotiator
who now is president of the Lawyers
Alliance for World Security, an arms
control group in Washington, "it is
important to stop the accumulation
of material that some rogue nations
would love to get their hands on."
"This is a very important agreement," he added.
In 1998 alone, Energy Department
officials said, Russia's 29 civilian reactors produced 798 metric tons of
spent fuel. Normally, Russia would
send this material to Mayak for reprocessing -- that is, the separation
of plutonium, which can be used in
weapons, from the rest of the fuel.
But under the new agreement, the
plutonium will not be separated out.
Instead, the unreprocessed material
will be stored at a new site somewhere in Russia that the United
States will finance.
The location and ultimate cost of
the site are still not determined, but
Mr. Adamov said he was leaning
toward Krasnoyarsk-26, a once
closed nuclear city where the Russian military made plutonium.
William C. Potter, the director of
the Monterey Institute's Center for
Nonproliferation Studies, in California, particularly praised an allocation of $3 million in the aid package
aimed at helping Russia reacquire
Soviet-era fuel from countries like
Belarus, Ukraine and Yugoslavia. He
fears that the material is vulnerable
to diversion or military use.
Since the end of the cold war, the
United States has spent billions of
dollars to protect nuclear materials
in Russia and the former Soviet
Union and to prevent them from falling into the hands of Iran, Iraq or
other aspiring nuclear powers. As of
this year, Washington has spent
about $1.2 billion to help prevent the
loss or theft of material that could be
used in nuclear weapons.
At Mayak, the United States is
already financing the construction of
a warehouse to protect bomb-grade
plutonium extracted from nuclear
warheads. A recent American visitor
there said that some plutonium was
still being stored in milk-pail-size
canisters in a wooden storage shed
secured mainly by a padlock.
Since 1993, Washington has bought
500 metric tons a year of highly
enriched uranium from Russian
weapons, sales worth more than $400
million a year to Russia. The uranium, which is blended down and
sold as reactor-grade fuel for power
production, meets about half of
America's nuclear power fuel requirements.
The new aid package for Russia
would provide $45 million for the dry
storage site and security upgrades
for the stockpiled civilian plutonium
and $30 million for new efforts to
safeguard material from the military sector.
It would also provide $20 million
for collaborative research into devising reactors and fuel that cannot be
used to make weapons, and $5 million for research into the design and
development of a permanent geological repository to store used fuel. Administration officials stressed that
only those last two items, which are
longer-term projects, hinge on an
end to Russian nuclear sales to Iran.
Mr. Adamov said on Saturday that
Washington would be "wrong" to believe that a $100 million assistance
package would prompt Russia to forgo revenue from future reactor
sales, each of which could be worth
up to $1 billion dollars.
"These are huge orders for our
industry, and we'll aggressively pursue these orders and win them," he