Russia suspends plutonium disposal cooperation with U.S.

Production of nuclear fuel pellets at the Machine Building Plant in the city of Elektrostal, Moscow region.

Production of nuclear fuel pellets at the Machine Building Plant in the city of Elektrostal, Moscow region.

Sergei Fadeichev/TASS
The Russian president has signed a decree suspending Russian-U.S. agreements on the use and management of plutonium. A Russian expert suggests that while this is merely a political step, a halt to nuclear cooperation between Russia and the U.S. is a dangerous development.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree suspending Russia’s work under its agreement with the U.S. on the joint disposal of weapons-grade plutonium.

As reasons for this decision, the decree, signed on Oct. 3, mentions “a threat to strategic stability resulting from unfriendly actions on the part of the U.S. and the United States’ inability to ensure the fulfilment of the undertaken obligations.”

Earlier, in April 2016, Moscow accused Washington of failing to meet the terms set in those agreements.

A troubled agreement

Russia and the U.S. agreed to take joint action to dispose of plutonium no longer required for defense purposes back in 2000. Under that deal, both sides undertook to dispose of 34 tons of weapon-grade plutonium each, processing it into MOX (mixed-oxide) fuel. This means of disposal makes it impossible to reuse the plutonium for weapons or any other military purpose.

According to pundit Alexei Arbatov, head of the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, the implementation of that agreement came up against certain problems.

“Russia has built a plant for processing plutonium into MOX fuel for nuclear power plants,” he told RBTH.“The U.S. has not.”

Officially, the United States remains committed to fulfilling the plutonium disposal agreements, a source in the U.S. Presidential Administration told the TASS news agency in April 2016.

The problem is that Washington wants to dispose of plutonium in another fashion, without processing it into MOX fuel – a move that is met with mistrust from Moscow.

Mikhail Ulyanov, head of the department for nonproliferation issues at the Russian Foreign Ministry, has said that the method of plutonium disposal proposed by the Americans allows for the possibility of reusing the plutonium for weapons production.

Undermining global nuclear security

Alexei Arbatov points out that while the plutonium disposal dialogue has indeed reached a deadlock, its formal suspension is not that significant and is caused largely by the overall deterioration of bilateral relations.

“It is a formality, yet another move on Russia’s part aimed to show that we do not need cooperation with the U.S. Meaning, if you don’t want it, we are fine with that,” he said.

At the same time, Arbatov continued, the curtailing of cooperation between Russia and the U.S. in the nuclear sphere is making the world increasingly less safe.

“Now all cooperation between Russia and the U.S. in ensuring the safety and security of weapons-grade nuclear materials – both uranium and plutonium – has been suspended. This is a very bad and alarming thing,” he said.

Arbatov went on to add that now, when the threat of terrorism is rising globally together with the risk that extremists may get their hands on nuclear materials, the lack of dialogue between the two major nuclear powers is further undermining global nuclear security. 

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