A 22-year effort by Russia and the United States to permanently dispose of tons of plutonium that once fueled thousands of their nuclear weapons experienced a new setback this week, when Russian president Vladimir Putin abruptly announced his country’s withdrawal from an agreement spelling out how the work was to proceed.
Putin’s Oct. 3 announcement blamed the withdrawal in part on “unfriendly actions by the United States,” without specifying any. But the Obama administration hasn’t been bashful with the Russians, or with the public, about its own desire to step away from the agreement, because of the work’s high costs and technical challenges – not because of notably worsening relations.
The disposal method that Washington has been pursuing – and which is spelled out in the now-cancelled agreement – involves building a plant at the Savannah River Site nuclear installation in South Carolina to convert 34 tons of weapons-usable plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear power plants while Russia converted a like amount. But a report by the Department of Energy and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last month said construction of the so-called Mixed Oxide (MOX) plant alone would not be complete until 2048 and that it would cost more than $17 billion, or roughly four times the cost promised in 1994, when the deal with Russia was initially struck.
In response to that new cost estimate, the Department of Energy – which manages this work – reiterated that it is eager to dispose of the plutonium instead in a burial pit, a less technically challenging alternative that it has said could bring a savings of up to $30 billion over the life of the project. 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.
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 (the optimum disposal site, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, has been closed since February 2014 due to a radiation leak caused by a drum of nuclear waste that ruptured underground).
At a State Department press briefing on Monday, Oct. 3. spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau called Putin’s decree, along with Russia’s refusal to take part in the final Nuclear Security Summit of Obama’s presidency last April, “the latest in a series of steps by Russia to end longstanding cooperation on nuclear security.” She said it was “disingenuous of Russia to cite the United States’ threat to strategic stability as a reason for this decision,” Trudeau said. “The United States seeks a constructive dialogue with Russia on strategic issues, but it is Russia instead who continues to engage in destabilizing activities.”