Skip to comments.US, Russia resolve plutonium dispute
Posted on 09/16/2006 1:50:09 PM PDT by NormsRevenge
WASHINGTON - The United States and Russia have resolved a major hurdle in their negotiations to dispose of tons of excess plutonium, announcing an accord Friday on a liability issue that has long stymied the program.
The two countries signed a protocol that provides a framework for dealing with the liability problem, the Energy Department announced.
However, there are other issues still to be worked out, including details on how Russia is going to dispose of its 34 metric tons of plutonium from its weapons stockpile under the agreement.
At the same time, the future of the U.S. disposal program also has become clouded.
The Energy Department said it is ready to break ground this fall on a South Carolina plant that would convert its 34 metric tons of excess plutonium into a mixed oxide, or MOX, fuel to be burned in a commercial power reactor. However, the House has eliminated funding for the program for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
Future funding for the MOX conversion plant to be built at the Savannah River complex near Aiken, S.C., will depend on whether Congress restores the money.
The program has been described as a major nonproliferation effort as it would remove 68 tons of plutonium in the two countries and not make it susceptible to potential future diversion.
But the program, hailed six years ago as a breakthrough in safeguarding Russia's nuclear materials, has stalled over not only the liability issue, but also disagreement on how Russia is to get rid of its share of the plutonium.
"This agreement (on liability) demonstrates that both countries continue to be committed to this important nonproliferation program," Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said in a statement Friday.
The two countries have been at odds since 2003 over the liability issue, with the Bush administration wanting language that absolves the United States and American contractors in event of an accident related to work on the Russian program, including construction of disposal facilities.
Linton Brooks, head of the DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration, said the new protocol "formally resolves the issue" on liability. But he also has acknowledged further discussions are needed on the next steps in implementing the agreement.
Among those issues is to resolve how Russia will dispose of its 34 tons of plutonium. Russia recently said it did not want to convert the plutonium to MOX fuel like the U.S. plan but to burn it in a high-speed reactor.
Critics have said that could lead to more proliferation and not less since such a reactor also can be designed as a so-called "breeder" that produces plutonium.
Current discussions focus on details on the design of such a reactor if it is to be used under the plutonium disposition agreement and not "breed" more plutonium.
Under the agreement, first unveiled in 2000, each country agreed to dispose of 34 tons of excess plutonium now part of their weapons stockpile. In all, the U.S. is believed to have about 100 metric tons of plutonium and Russia about 145 metric tons.
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It is ridiculous for Congress not to fund this facility. The US is obligated under the agreement to convert this plutonium to MOX fuel. Currently the US ships it to France to have it converted and back to SC to be stored or used.
The Catawba Nuclear station's two reactors are the only ones in the US currently using MOX fuel. (I live within a mile of CNS) Within the next two years the McGuire station's (Charlotte, NC) two reactors should be refitted to use MOX.