The Unmourned Plutonium Disposal Deal

Exclusive: An apparent casualty of the New Cold War was a U.S.-Russian agreement for eliminating weapons-grade plutonium but the deal’s death is not being mourned by either side, as Jonathan Marshall explains.

By Jonathan Marshall

Despite America’s constant demonization of Russian President Vladimir Putin, few world leaders have collaborated as effectively with Washington on matters of critical national security, including overflight rights to Afghanistan, disposal of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks, and the agreement to prevent Iran from undertaking a nuclear weapons program.

Now he’s done it again. In the guise of punishing the United States by suspending a nuclear disarmament agreement, Putin has generously relieved the Obama administration of a budgetary headache of Excedrin proportions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin answering questions from Russian citizens at his annual Q&A event on April 14, 2016. (Russian government photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin answering questions from Russian citizens at his annual Q&A event on April 14, 2016. (Russian government photo)

On Monday, Putin issued a decree suspending a bilateral agreement for the disposal of each side’s weapons-grade plutonium, complaining that Washington’s economic sanctions and military buildup in Eastern Europe have “radically changed” relations between the world’s two major nuclear powers.

“The Obama administration has done everything in its power to destroy the atmosphere of trust which could have encouraged cooperation,” the Russian foreign ministry explained. “We want Washington to understand that you cannot, with one hand, introduce sanctions against us . . . and with the other hand continue selective cooperation in areas where it suits them.”

An instant analysis by Stratfor, a private risk consulting firm, warned that “other nuclear disarmament cooperation deals between the United States and Russia are at risk of being undermined. The decision is likely an attempt to convey to Washington the price of cutting off dialogue on Syria and other issues.”

There’s some truth to that gloomy forecast. But Putin was well aware of Washington’s own eagerness to find a way out of the agreement due to the spiraling cost of compliance. He thus succeeded in sending a message without risking serious additional damage to the already frayed U.S.-Russia relationship.

The Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, signed in 2000, commits the United States and Russia to dispose of a total of 68 tons of weapons-grade plutonium, enough for 17,000 nuclear weapons, rendered surplus by the easing of Cold War tensions.

Besides signaling other countries that the United States and Russia were serious about slashing their nuclear arsenals, the agreement aimed to get rid of the plutonium in a way that minimizes the risk of nuclear theft or diversion.

The two parties agreed to dispose of most of the plutonium by mixing it with uranium to create “mixed-oxide” (MOX) fuel for “burning” in commercial nuclear reactors. But that step required construction of special facilities to create the fuel.

In the United States, planning began for the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina. After years of research, development, and initial construction under the Bush and Obama administrations, however, the Department of Energy announced in 2013 that “This current plutonium disposition approach may be unaffordable, though, due to cost growth and fiscal pressure.”

Indeed, the total cost of the MOX program, including the plant and its operation, had soared from an estimated $3.1 billion in 2002 to $18 billion. This year, the Department of Energy reported that the MOX facility won’t be ready until — no joke — 2048.

Worse yet, commercial nuclear utilities don’t even want the fuel, whose use would raise a host of technical issues.

For its part, Russia agreed to dispose of most of its excess plutonium in special “fast-neutron” reactors optimized for the use of plutonium. Russia’s latest such plant was finally connected to the electric grid late last year, 31 years after the start of construction. Despite Russia’s pride in this technological achievement, construction cost billions of dollars and the reliability of the units has yet to be proven. One wonders if the Putin administration is also having second thoughts about the cost of compliance with the 2000 agreement.

Cheaper Disposal Options

Both countries have potentially much cheaper disposal options, including encasing and then burying the plutonium in a pit, which the Department of Energy estimates could save taxpayers $30 billion over several decades.

 Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventy-first session. 20 September 2016 (UN Photo)

President Barack Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly’s seventy-first session on Sept. 20, 2016 (UN Photo)

“The Obama administration actually approached Russian officials several years ago, seeking a potential modification to the agreement that would open a path to that approach,” notes Patrick Malone, a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity.

“The Russians’ announcement, as a result, is hardly a further blow to relations between the two countries. It means that Washington’s hands are arguably no longer tied by the agreement, allowing the next president to proceed with the burial option once the Energy Department solves a few remaining technical concerns.”

Or as noted arms control advocate Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, put it in a tweet, “There is a bright spot in the breakdown of the Russia plutonium deal: no need for the nuclear facility that’s costing US taxpayers billions.”

The only loser, ironically, stands to be the hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, who dropped his usual opposition to arms control to embrace the plutonium accord because the giant MOX facility would bring jobs to his state.

The downward spiral of U.S.-Russia relations is very real and very dangerous. But it’s nonetheless reassuring that President Putin found a way to express his displeasure with Washington that simultaneously signals to insiders his continued willingness to cooperate.

Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international affairs, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic (Stanford University Press, 2012). Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Obama Flinches at Renouncing Nuke First Strike,” “Dangerous Denial of Global Warming,” “How Arms Sales Distort US Foreign Policy,”  “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and “Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.

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15 comments for “The Unmourned Plutonium Disposal Deal

  1. evelync
    October 5, 2016 at 10:35 am

    Wow, thanks for digging behind the headlines on this to explain the subtle nuances that make this story less worrisome in the immediate future.
    John Queally, staff writer for Common Dreams, has a piece on the escalating tensions and refers to Robert Parry’s recent piece. “Do we really want nuclear war with Russia?”.

    http://www.commondreams.org/news/2016/10/04/amid-escalating-tensions-40-million-russians-practice-nuclear-emergency

  2. Wobblie
    October 5, 2016 at 10:52 am

    Doesn’t sound like much of anything to me.

    Why bury nuclear waste? That doesn’t seem safe. Why can’t we just shoot it off into space or toward the sun? Won’t that REALLY get rid of it?

    https://therulingclassobserver.com/2016/10/01/squandering-our-most-precious-resource/

    • Curious
      October 5, 2016 at 11:26 am

      Wobbie,

      Don’t put too much faith in the current US rocket system. Remember Challenger? And while you are reading about that tragedy, please remember the failed attempts by Space-X recently, costing millions in satellite technology.

      Can you imagine the results regarding widespread nuclear contamination causes by an exploding rockets near the ground level?

      Next idea?

      • Realist
        October 5, 2016 at 1:32 pm

        You are certainly right about the risks inherent in attempting to shoot the stuff off into space. However, burying it is tantamount to leaving our descendants with a lethal surprise they may not be able to deal with. In a thousand years or two or ten, if they don’t development clean, reliable energy supplies to power their industrial needs, and if the state of technology and an awareness of history, culture and science declines to that of a new Dark Age, we may just be delivering our species a coup de grace should they unwittingly dig up such a surprise. I daresay no one on the planet will be speaking any extant language by then, so any warning signs we put up may not be understood. An added kicker is that tectonic activity over such long intervals of time may well fracture any sealed compartment we choose to put this stuff in and spread it through the environment. Not only humans, but nature will be cursing our memory. People in general are not aware that Plutonium is not only dangerous because of its radiation, but because it is the most poisonous element (with any long-term stability) on the Periodic Table.

        • TheFecklessLeft
          October 5, 2016 at 2:05 pm

          Just thought I’d add this, though it’s not to say I’m in favour of simply burying the waste either:

          Right now in the USA, perhaps Nevada but I’m not sure, they have put together a clever warning/optical illusion to prevent future peoples from entering the disposal site. It is a giant mirror of some sort that as you walk closer makes the viewer look as they are near death or something. Maybe it superimposes a skull on their face. I’m unsure of the details. Should be easy to find with a search or two.

          Not to say it’s a good solution but it’s certainly a creative response to your worries.

        • October 7, 2016 at 2:35 pm

          I believe incasing it and burying it in a hole 1000 feet deep in the wastelands of Nevada is the safest solution. It is extremely unlikely any future project in that hideous place would require a thousand foot foundation. In any case we will have ceased to exist as a specie by the time anyone would find that area useful for anything, but burying unwanted, dangerous crap.

    • Zachary Smith
      October 5, 2016 at 1:33 pm

      hXXp://www.popularmechanics.com/space/rockets/a21896/why-we-cant-just-launch-waste-into-the-sun/

      Key phrase: …launching anything to the sun is really damn hard.

      And impossibly expensive. Getting to the sun costs a lot more than throwing something entirely out of the Solar System.

      And as Curious says, the danger is a major factor too.

      Mr. Marshall puts a different ‘spin’ on the plutonium story than I’d seen before. Here in central Indiana it’s impossible for me to say what’s true and what’s not in the various versions. But just for comparison purposes, here is what has been written on a Russian site.

      2) Let’s remember what this pact is about. We agreed with the United States that both sides would dispose of 34 tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium. Back then, we had piled up 125 tons, while the Americans had 100 tons. The pact unequivocally refers to non-recoverable utilization i.e. the impossibility of further use for military purposes. Which means that the sides were denied the possibility of making at least 5,000 nuclear warheads! What more could one ask for?

      But the difference in implementation was enormous. The US was ready to provide Russia with money for processing our plutonium into a useless form. Moscow insisted that this was a valuable resource and it would be wiser to process it for fuel (Mixed-Oxide fuel) for nuclear power plants. This can be done in specially built plants – like the one in Zheleznogorsk near Krasnoyarsk. We also built a reactor already loaded with the first batch of fuel. But the “advanced” Yankees wasted $8 billion trying to build a similar plant, ceasing construction midway. We managed to build both plant and reactor at only 3% of the cost wasted by the Americans, who failed. Or were they fooling us?

      The White House is refusing to process weapons-grade plutonium into fuel, preferring storage, from which weapons-grade plutonium can be recovered..

      Notice the claim that Russia has already built a functioning disposal reactor. This might be true, and it might not. But that’s the story from the other side.

      http://russia-insider.com/en/politics/us-plutonium-deception-it-will-not-pass/ri16829

      • David Smith
        October 6, 2016 at 10:24 am

        Z.S., you are correct. The Russian proposal was to “mix” their plutonium with uranium to create MOX and use this as fuel in a fast breeder(fusion) reactor. Japan, Germany, and France have all failed in their breeder program. The Russian media claim that the Russian fusion reactor has passed the startup phase and is now connected to the electric grid. Proponents of breeders claim the reactors “burn” plutonium, produce more fuel than they consume, and result in 1/10th the rad-waste of a fission reactor. I cannot see how all three statements can be true, or if any are. Suspiciously, the proponents seem highly organized, even on “comments” of articles. Only Sweden and Finland have a clear “scheme” for high-level rad-waste disposal, and they have pre-cambrian rock(Canadian Sheild) as a site. Bizarrely, both sites are spitting distance from the Baltic, and not as deep as previously hyped. Discussions of storage time comedically, and seriously, take into account a future ice age. Better than in the Reactor-By-The -Sea in California, where spent fuel rods will buried in sand next to the InterState that connects LA and SF…….

        • Evangelista
          October 6, 2016 at 8:16 pm

          David Smith,

          “fusion reactors” are not the same as “breeder reactors”.

          The first difference is that “fusion reactors” do not exist on Earth. The nearest one is Sol, our solar system’s solar center. “Fusion reactions”, meaning atomic recombinations that produce more stable product (that is, that free energy by putting matter together, starting from extremely light , and simple matter atoms, e.g., hydrogen) have been achieved, but at Earth-containable scales require more energy input than the reaction is able to output, for which they are not sustaining, for which “reactors”, devices maintaining the process, do not exist at our scale.

          “Breeder reactors” are fission reactors, reactors that utilize reactions that free energy by encouraging atomic decomposition, the breaking down of extremely heavy fuel matter atoms. Above a certain level of instability the natural decay ‘chains’, which maintains the reaction process so that it continues, until the fuel degrades to a fizzle-level, where the fuel atoms will no longer chain, but do continue random decay, which produces what we call radioactivity, hence, forming radioactive waste. “Breeder reactors” produce waste-product that contains separale isotope that is more unstable and reactive (more actively decomposing) than the fuel used. Separating and concentrating the more active component of the waste produces more “fuel grade” isotope, hence, the “breeding” and “plutonium fuel” as a waste-product. The plutonium, separated from the other waste product, is a ‘hotter’ (more unstable, more radioactive) isotope. It is too hot in pure form for safe commercial use. That is why the mixture with uranium to make a MOX controllable in a reactor (and also difficult to separate the plutonium component back to plutonium from). The alternatives that the U.S. prefers, are storage, from which the plutonium needs only be retrieved to make weapons of again, and dilution, mixing down in a matrix the plutonium can be easily separated from again, to make weapons again. The agreement was to make the plutonium “non-recoverable”.

    • Joe Tedesky
      October 5, 2016 at 3:04 pm

      Wobblie, interesting idea you have, but I respectfully would like to point out that we have a space junk problem as it is, and we should clean it up. Although, we won’t clean up all the junk we left out in space, because we seem to be the generation who is leaving all the hard stuff to the next generation, or two, or three. After all we are the exceptional generation!

  3. ltr
    October 5, 2016 at 3:17 pm

    I mourn, surely I do.

  4. Zachary Smith
    October 5, 2016 at 4:30 pm

    Considering how hare-brained US bloggers can be, it’s clearly quite risky to link to a Russian guy talking about this Plutonium deal. But his piece does have the virtue of linking some of the confusing things I’d been reading elsewhere about Russia’s withdrawal.

    I think that in order to understand the scale of this incident, it is necessary to pay attention to the fact that Putin has not simply taken Russia out of a contract. He has announced the possibility of returning to it, but he has furnished certain conditions.

    Let’s look at these conditions: (1) the US must lift all sanctions against Russia; (1) compensation should be paid not only for the losses from American sanctions, but also for the losses incurred by Russian counter-sanctions; (3) the Magnitsky Act should be repealed; (4) the US’ military presence in Eastern Europe should be sharply reduced; and (5) the US should abandon its policy of confrontation with Moscow. Only one word fits in determining the essence of Putin’s demands: “ultimatum.”

    That’s not to say I believe the blogger’s ‘take’ on this makes sense, but he sure ties it together in a nice little package. More:

    Russia’s tough and almost immediate reaction followed the statements of the US Secretary of State’s spokesperson to the effect that Russia will have to start sending its troops home from Syria in body bags, is going to start losing planes, and that terrorist attacks will begin to plague Russian cities.

    In addition, the State Department’s statement was immediately followed by the Pentagon’s announcement that it is ready to launch a preventative nuclear strike on Russia. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs also reported that Moscow knows about the US’ intention to launch an air war against Syrian government forces, which also means against the Russian contingent legally stationed in Syria.

    The first part refers to the dipstick Kirby’s threats, and the second part I couldn’t really locate. I’d have guessed it was a reaction to the Defense Department Secretary giving a raw-meat speech to the missile troops in South Dakota.

    hXXps://www.rt.com/news/361141-us-nuclear-concern-russia/

    But if that’s not the case, the the State Department must also be making nuke threats. Something else the Russians didn’t overlook was when some of our Good Terrorists fired some mortar rounds at the Russian Embassy in Damascus. Yes, our neocons really do seem to want a live-ammunition shooting match. But why, and why now?

    My imagination isn’t up to this question – all I can think of is that a new Cuban Missile type-Crisis in 2016 would give Israel cover to assist in attacking/land-grabbing Syria. In smashing Lebanon. Or to finally death-march the Palestinians in the West Bank AND the ones who are ‘officially’ Israeli citizens off into a desert somewhere. Who would notice in the atmosphere of total panic?

    Again, I don’t really understand all the ramifications connected with this Plutonium issue, but my gut feeling is that none of it is trivial.

    http://www.fort-russ.com/2016/10/raising-stakes-putin-slams-us-nuke.html

  5. Evangelista
    October 5, 2016 at 8:30 pm

    The object of the disposal method specified in the original agreement to destroy excessive nuclear stockpiles was to effectively destroy the weapons-grade plutonium of both nuclear powers, so that it could not be “recovered” for return to use as, or in nuclear weapons.

    The United States has balked, waffled and quibbled, attempting to push the agreement over to allowing ‘storage’ and ‘dilution’ methods that would be ‘disposal’, instead of disposal, meaning that would leave the plutonium ‘recoverable’, for return to weapon use. In the case of ‘dilution’, the diluting would be approximate to the ‘dilution’ used to make tactical nuclear weapon pyro-kinetic penetrators, commonly known as ‘depleted uranium munitions’, and not classified as nuclear, to avoid nuclear weapon controls and procedures and regulations.

    It appears that while Russia has gone forward with the original plans for actual disposal of the stockpiles of cold-war nuclear arsenal in its possession, the United States has, meanwhile, faked and dodged and sought to phony-destroy, to store instead of destroy, and to convert to other weapon-type uses, or source material, instead of destroy.

    Since Russia has built a plutonium destroying system, which it will now, presumably, put into mothballs while re-arming to match the ‘re-arming’ United States, whenever a new disarmament plan is floated (assuming a Trump victory in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, followed by a Trump de-escalation of tensions, and that preventing a President Hillary providing the world an Ultimate Clinton Foundation Charity To the World, through depopulating the northern hemisphere in a nuclear conflagration), the new agreement should be quick and easy to negotiate by just changing the names on the agreement forms from the disposal of Syrian chemical weapons and Iranian surplus reactor fuel, to have the United States ship its plutonium stocks to Russia for disposal, as Syria and Iran did their dangerous wastes previously.

    With Russia being, apparently, the only nation who can be trusted to actually dispose of the dangerous byproducts of military madnesses past (and present [I’m not prepared to predict a future]), mankind might maybe should think about naming a holiday to celibrate the goodness of Russia in its willingness to undertake the disposal of these wastes that the irresponsible puffers and posturers and posers of our military elites have left us all saddled with.

  6. Gregory Macy
    October 6, 2016 at 5:06 am

    Sbasiba, Putin!

  7. Evangelista
    October 6, 2016 at 8:28 pm

    The desire to take possession of Russia’s ex-Soviet Union stockpiles of plutonium “to destroy”, by the United States, in 2000, when the United States had no means to destroy it (which it still does not have, and has dawdled and fiddled and apparently just blown money without making progress beyond a “doing studies” and “engineering analyses” stage), very strongly suggests that the United States was not dealing honestly. That the United States was angling to get possession of all of the plutonium stocks in the world, to have and to hold as “The World’s Sole Super-Power”. This would certainly be in keeping with the actions of the Neo-Con Aristocracy of the Commercial U.S. Elite, and would fit with that Elite’s indicated intentions to make itself a World Elite, with control of all the weapons needed to coerce submission by all others, all the peoples of the world, including those of the United States not “blessed” to be of The Elite’s Aristocracy…

    It is pretty scary what the World Elite might have been able to pull off had it been trusted as it pretended itself to be worthy to be.

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