The Obama administration risks giving the Kremlin a pretext to ban inspectors from Russia’s plutonium-breeding fast reactors because of a U.S. budgetary policy change.
Lawmakers and diplomats are concerned that the administration’s handling of cost overruns on a controversial U.S. Department of Energy project will hand Russian President Vladimir Putin an unexpected victory.
At issue is the administration’s unilateral cancellation of an American commitment to destroy 34 metric tons of military-grade plutonium by recycling it into a civilian fuel for nuclear power.
“Do we have a signed agreement with the Russians? Do we know what they’re going to ask in return, if anything, to approve of this? Because, you know, they’re pretty good deal makers,” Mike Simpson
(R-ID), chairman of the energy subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, told Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz at a March 1 budget hearing.
Both Russia and the United States are committed to destroying the same amount of material, equivalent to 17,000 nuclear warheads each, under a Clinton Administration agreement with Moscow in 2000. The agreement called for each side to recycle plutonium from the equivalent of 17,000 nuclear warheads into fuel to generate commercial electricity. Then, last month, the administration unilaterally canceled the U.S. commitment to convert the plutonium into mixed-oxide or “MOX” fuel in its 2017 budget request, citing cost overruns.
Lawmakers worry that the cancellation gives Putin the excuse either to kick out the international inspectors who will monitor Moscow’s compliance with the agreement, or to extract further concessions from the United States.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Moscow last week did not have the MOX issue on the agenda, despite weeks of congressional concern.
“It is frustrating to me and what I would need to see, frankly, is a signed agreement with Russia that this is going to be okay because I want to know what I’m getting into,” Simpson said.
Moniz admitted that talks with Russia are at a very low level and have not reached the State Department. “We have not, you know, kind of triggered the formal process, which exists in the agreement, to see about endorsing the change,” he told Simpson.
So far, the talks have been limited to Rosatom, the Russian state energy corporation.
“As you indicated and as we have discussed previously, we’ve had certainly a number of discussions. I’ve had a number of discussions with Rosatom, the [U.S.] deputy secretary [of energy] as well with their deputy. They have expressed a – certainly a willingness to listen,” Moniz said.
A willingness of Russian nuclear engineers to listen is a long way from getting the Kremlin leadership to agree. Some nonproliferation experts consider the program absurd, with the administration strengthening Putin even further.
“The Russians are using it in a breeder that’s making more plutonium than they’re getting rid of,” Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Education Center, told the American Media Institute. “Somehow that’s okay.”
Sokolski cautioned that the agreement is not a treaty, and that, even then, any trust in Putin is misplaced.
Then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton agreed in 2010 for Russia to feed its weapons-grade plutonium into breeder reactors. However, the administration bound the U.S. to continue building its own multibillion-dollar MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
Before and after zeroing out funding for the MOX plant in February, the administration had yet to engage Russia diplomatically. The talks are important because Moscow considers deep-ground burial of the diluted weapons-grade plutonium isotope to be a form of long-term storage for re-conversion to nuclear weapons.
Moniz told President Obama last year that discussions on the issue remained low-level and inconclusive. In a November 20, 2015 memo to Obama, marked “sensitive but unclassified,” the energy secretary said that the discussions had not reached the level of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or MFA, and he had no indications on how the Kremlin’s diplomats would respond.
“[W]e will need to continue talking with the Russians about the change of disposition approach and I discussed this with John Kerry and [National Security Advisor] Susan Rice,” Moniz told Obama. Moniz’s interlocutors at Rosatom, including its director, Sergei Kiriyenko, “are amenable to discussion.” However, Moscow’s foreign ministry had remained silent. “So far, we have no read on MFA response,” Moniz said in the memorandum. “This issue will need further inter-agency work in the context of overall, complicated U.S.-Russia relations.”
A week later, on March 9, Moniz told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that talks with Russia still had not progressed.
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and others are concerned that the change, which typically would follow years of diplomatic negotiations, would allow Putin to make even more plutonium with no international scrutiny.
The issue is getting between the U.S. and France, whose Areva nuclear energy firm is a major technology partner in the South Carolina project. French sources say that just before Kerry went to Moscow for talks last week, France’s Ambassador to Washington, Gérard Araud, asked the State Department if the U.S. had begun negotiations with Russia about modifying the plutonium agreement. The State Department, which would be the lead agency to conduct the negotiations, told France that it had not.
Moniz said that he expected Congress to approve termination of the MOX program before approaching the Russians. He told Simpson: “Until I think we see, you know, with the Congress what our pathway is, we have not certainly had a kind of a formal initiation of a process.”