Deal Sealed to Dispose of Plutonium Stocks

WASHINGTON -- U.S. and Russian officials have reached an agreement on how to dispose safely of 34 tons of Russian weapons-grade plutonium, overcoming a major hurdle in a joint nuclear-nonproliferation effort that at times has been close to falling apart.

The two countries, in a joint statement Monday, outlined a plan where Russia agrees to modify its fast-neutron reactors so they can burn the plutonium, yet ensure that additional plutonium will not be produced.

In turn, the United States, which also will dispose of 34 tons of excess plutonium from its weapons program, will continue to help Russia pay for construction of a plant to turn the plutonium into a mixed oxide fuel for reactors and research for a more advanced reactor that could speed up disposal.

The two countries tentatively agreed to the plutonium disposal program seven years ago, when it was hailed as a breakthrough in safeguarding some of Russia's nuclear material. But progress stalled because of a variety of disagreements, most recently over how Russia would destroy the plutonium.

Russia's ambivalence in turn caused the U.S. Congress to balk at approving money for the U.S. portion of the plutonium disposal effort, because of what lawmakers called the apparent inability to get Russia to agree on a disposal plan.

A joint statement issued by U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman and Sergei Kiriyenko, director of the Federal Atomic Energy Agency, outlined a "mutual understanding" as to how Russia's plutonium would be disposed of and reiterated both countries' commitment to the program.

William Tobey, deputy administrator at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration, said the agreement should resolve some of the key concerns in Congress and keep the U.S. program on track.

"We nailed down some important details," said Tobey.

Among them, he said, was assurance from the Russians that the reactors used to dispose of the plutonium would be modified to burn more than they produce, that the plutonium they produce would not be weapons grade, and that the U.S. contribution would be capped at $400 million.

The plutonium disposal is expected to take decades and cover only a fraction of the weapons-grade plutonium the countries possess. The United States is believed to have about 100 tons of weapons-grade plutonium and Russia about 140 tons.

The agreement calls for 34 tons of Russia's excess plutonium to be turned into a mixed-oxide fuel and then burned in its existing BN600 fast-neutron reactor and in a larger version, the BN800, which has yet to be built. It also calls for continued U.S. help for Russian development of a more advanced gas-turbine reactor that could be used to speed up the plutonium disposal.