US and Russian Plutonium Disposition: The Trilateral Initiative

By Sarah Ong

The Trilateral Initiative was launched in September 1996 to develop a new IAEA verification system for weapons-origin material designated as released from defense programs by the US and the Russian Federation. IAEA verification of this initiative will promote international confidence that fissile material subjected to the IAEA by either the US or Russia remains irreversibly removed from nuclear weapons programs.

On 1 September 2000, Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov signed an agreement that will be monitored by the IAEA for the US and Russia to begin disposing of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium each–enough to make thousands of nuclear weapons. The agreement was reached in June 2000 by then-US President Clinton and Russian President Putin. However, the agreement only covered 34 metric tons, but the US Department of Energy estimates that the US has 50 tons of surplus plutonium but only considers about 38 tons of weapons-grade. Also, the agreement did not deal with nuclear power reactor fuel. New facilities are scheduled to be built in 2007 to convert some of the plutonium into energy for atomic reactors, while the remainder of the waste is expected to be buried. The US Congress approved $200 million in aid to help Russia carry out its side of the agreement. Disposing of the plutonium will cost an estimated $5.75 billion – $4 billion for the United States and $1.75 billion for Russia.

In September 2001, US Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, Russian Federation Minister of Atomic Energy Alexander Rumyantsev, and IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei met in Vienna to review progress on the Trilateral initiative. According to the three leaders, significant progress has been made in implementing agreements related to facility-specific information, reporting requirements, the technical criteria for verification, and the inspection procedures to be applied.

Specific storage facilities being considered under the agreement are the Mayak Fissile Material Storage Facility in the Russian Federation, the Savannah River K-Area Material Storage Facility, and the Lynchburg Babcock and Wilcox Uranium Deblending Facility in the US.

The three parties of the Trilateral initiative are also collaborating to develop and test special verification equipment for use with classified forms of plutonium. A prototype that will allow inspectors to derive sufficient information for credible and independent verification while prohibiting access to classified information has been demonstrated in the US. Currently, the US and Russia are developing contracts to design, construct and test a similar measurement system for Russia.

The three parties are also collaborating on an inventory monitoring system that will ensure the IAEA has continual knowledge of the material once it is verified and placed in storage to ensure it remains as declared by either state.

In March 2001, the US Department of Energy halted construction of the plutonium immobilization plant in South Carolina and cut funding for the project in the Fiscal Year 2002 federal budget. In January 2002, the Bush administration announced that it would convert the US surplus plutonium into Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel for use in nuclear reactors. Under the agreement with Russia signed by Clinton, only 25 of the 34 metric tons would have been converted to MOX fuel, and the rest was to be stored in glass containers for future burial. Power companies are reluctant to join the plutonium disposition program because it is considered a dangerous marriage of military and commercial nuclear programs. The MOX project would end the US moratorium on using military-generated plutonium fuel in atomic reactors, encouraging other nations to follow its lead, thereby undermining non-proliferation goals and increasing terrorism risks. Recent developments demonstrate that the US is not as committed to plutonium disposition as it has been telling the world.

The parties of the Trilateral initiative will meet again in September 2002 to review progress and oversee the initiative’s implementation.

Plutonium disposition is inextricably linked with efforts to reduce nuclear stockpiles and limit the use of plutonium worldwide. The US and Russia should only use an immobilization approach to dispose of all surplus plutonium, weapons-grade and non-weapons-grade. The MOX program should be terminated.