U.S. and Russia Sign Plutonium Protocol

WASHINGTON -- The United States and Russia have resolved a major hurdle in their negotiations to dispose of tons of excess plutonium, announcing an agreement on a severe liability issue that has stymied the program for years.

The two countries signed a protocol that provides a framework for dealing with the issue of liability, the U.S. Energy Department announced Friday.

Other issues remain to be worked out, however, including details of how Russia will dispose of 34 tons of plutonium from its weapons stockpile under the agreement.

At the same time, the future of the U.S. disposition program also has become clouded.

The Energy Department said it was ready to break ground this fall on a plant in South Carolina that would convert its 34 tons of excess plutonium into a mixed oxide, or MOX, fuel to be burned in a commercial power reactor. The U.S. House of Representatives, however, has eliminated money for the program from spending plans for the budget year beginning Oct. 1.

Future financing for the MOX conversion plant to be built at South Carolina's Savannah River complex will depend on whether Congress will restore money in the coming weeks.

The program has been described as a major nonproliferation effort as it would remove 68 tons of plutonium in the two countries and not make it susceptible to potential future diversion.

But the program, praised six years ago as a breakthrough in safeguarding Russia's nuclear materials, has stalled over not only the liability issue but also disagreement about how Russia could get rid of its share of the plutonium.

"This agreement [on liability] demonstrates that both countries continue to be committed to this important nonproliferation program," U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said in a statement Friday.

The two countries have been at odds since 2003 over liability. The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush wants language that would absolve the United States and U.S. contractors in the event of an accident related to work on the Russian program, including construction of disposal facilities.

Linton Brooks, head of the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration, said the new protocol "formally resolves the issue" on liability. He also has acknowledged further discussions are needed "on the next steps" in implementing the agreement.

Among those is the Russian disposal problem. Russia recently said it did not want to convert the plutonium to MOX fuel, as is the U.S. plan, but to burn it in a high-speed reactor.