U.S.-Russian Moratorium Proposed on Plutonium Production
By Michael Dobbs
The proposal for a U.S.-Russian moratorium on the production of plutonium is part of a new, $100 million assistance package put together by the Department of Energy for fiscal 2001. It's the first time that the United States has attempted to limit Russia's stockpile of civilian, reactor-grade plutonium, as opposed to the weapons-grade plutonium specifically designed for use in nuclear weapons.
U.S. officials and independent nuclear experts described the proposed moratorium as a potentially significant move toward controlling and eventually reducing the vast quantity of fissionable materials left in the former Soviet Union after the collapse of communism. But they cautioned that key issues remain to be worked out, including a marked reduction in Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran, which the Clinton administration fears could help Tehran acquire nuclear weapons.
In a telephone interview, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said he plans to hold talks with his Russian counterpart, Yevgeny Adamov, over the next two months to work out details of the agreement, first reported yesterday by the New York Times.
"We have an agreement in principle," he said. "The Russian assurances are strong enough so that we put it in our budget."
Until now, Russia has taken the spent fuel from its 29 civilian reactors and reprocessed it, producing about a ton of reactor-grade plutonium a year. Although the plutonium is not suitable for use in Russian nuclear weapons, it could be of interest to rogue nations or terrorist groups seeking to build crude nuclear devices and is therefore considered a significant proliferation threat by American experts.
The Energy Department's proposal includes a U.S. contribution of $45 million toward the design and construction of a dry storage facility in Russia for spent nuclear fuel that would otherwise be used for the production of plutonium. Also included in the budget request is $20 million for researching alternative nuclear fuel cycle options and an additional $30 million for safeguarding fissionable materials and for converting nuclear warhead production facilities.
If Congress approves the request, it would amount to a 40 percent increase in the cost of the Energy Department's nonproliferation efforts in Russia, now about $250 million a year.
U.S. officials said the research and development component of the program was contingent on Russia scaling back its transfer of nuclear technology to Iran. They cited, in particular, reports that Russian companies are considering supplying Iran with a heavy-water research reactor that could be used to produce plutonium.
Russia is believed to possess around 30 tons of civilian reactor-grade plutonium, enough to make 3,000 nuclear weapons. Estimates of its military plutonium stockpiles range from 100 to 150 tons.
Undersecretary of Energy Ernest P. Moniz, who was in Moscow last week to discuss the proposed agreement, said the United States was in the final stages of negotiating an agreement to reduce stockpiles of military-origin plutonium. He said the goal is to destroy two tons of weapons-grade plutonium each year starting in 2007.
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