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September 10, 09

NEWS / United States, Russia Seek Cut in Excess Weapons-Grade Plutonium

Surplus plutonium to be converted into fuel for nuclear power generation

By Carlos Aranaga
Staff Writer

Washington — The United States and Russia have reaffirmed a commitment by which each nation will dispose of no less than 34 metric tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium, U.S. officials said.

The pledge follows from the Moscow Summit, held July 6–8 between Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, at which the two countries reaffirmed their readiness to implement commitments made in the 2000 Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA).

The PMDA program includes U.S. assistance for plutonium disposition efforts in Russia. In November 2007, the U.S. energy secretary and the director of Rosatom, Russia’s state corporation for nuclear energy, signed a statement reaffirming the commitment to dispose of Russia’s surplus plutonium. The statement outlined a technically and financially credible approach for Russian plutonium disposition, consistent with Russia’s national energy strategy, and relying on both existing and planned Russian fast nuclear reactors.

The joint effort seeks to convert excess weapons-grade plutonium held by both countries to a form roughly as difficult to use in weapons as the plutonium in commercial spent fuel. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union produced plutonium for use in nuclear arms. At the end of the era, both nations declared tons of the material to be surplus.

Key to U.S. efforts to ensure that the excess plutonium no longer can be easily used in nuclear weapons, while also creating a fuel source for domestic power generation, is the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Fissile Materials Disposition Program. The NNSA is part of the Energy Department; its work includes disposition of surplus plutonium and surplus highly enriched uranium. The agency also provides support for disposition of surplus weapons-grade materials in Russia.

Conversion of the U.S. surplus plutonium into fuel elements will take place at the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Energy Department’s Savannah River Site at Aiken, South Carolina. The new facility will be licensed and regulated by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The MOX facility will include three major components: one to disassemble the cores of nuclear weapons, another to turn their fissile material into MOX reactor fuel, and the third to dispose of the liquid waste created in the conversion.

Under International Atomic Energy Agency accounting, the 34 metric tons of excess plutonium would be enough to produce more than 4,000 nuclear weapons.

MOX design, procurement and construction are on schedule and within budget, the NNSA said. Plant operations are set to start in 2016.

“Progress made on the construction of the facility over the past two years brings us one step closer to eliminating surplus plutonium in a transparent and irreversible manner,” said NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino, speaking at Savannah River.

The Savannah River MOX facility is expected to remain operational into the 2030s.

A White House report states that the plutonium disposition program takes advantage of lessons learned from European MOX fuel fabrication units that have worked well over the last 30 years.

D’Agostino, reporting to the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee on July 15, called long-standing bilateral relations with Russian counterparts “a key partnership” in U.S. nonproliferation efforts.

“Historically, nonproliferation has been a bright spot in U.S.-Russian relations,” D’Agostino told the committee, which has oversight of U.S. defense activities. Recalling President Obama’s strategy to eliminate nuclear arms, unveiled in Prague on April 5, D’Agostino said a plan lists the areas in which the NNSA will focus its nuclear security efforts, chief among them the president’s call to “secure all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world within four years, expand our cooperation with Russia, (and) pursue new partnerships to lock down these sensitive materials.”

President Obama in Prague called for the United States to host a global summit on nuclear security within the year.

“NNSA stands ready to convert these international commitments into concrete actions and progress,” D’Agostino said. The departments of State, Defense, Homeland Security and others also will play a role in achieving these goals, D’Agostino said.

As to achieving the four-year timeline for securing vulnerable nuclear materials, D’Agostino outlined the scope of work needed to accomplish President Obama’s mandate. Actions include:

• Expanding nuclear security cooperation with Russia and other key partners.
• Securing nuclear material at the most vulnerable sites worldwide.
• Removing and eliminating weapons-usable nuclear materials where possible.
• Strengthening international nuclear security standards, practices and safeguards.
• Improving international capacity to stop smuggling of nuclear materials, and preventing terrorists and proliferators from using the international market to access dual-use and nuclear weapons-related equipment and technologies.


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