Plutonium Program Founders 6 Years On

APClinton and Putin shaking hands after signing a plutonium deal in June 2000.
WASHINGTON -- Hailed six years ago as a breakthrough in safeguarding Russia's nuclear materials, a plan to rid the world of tons of plutonium has foundered and achieved little.

Even though the United States has spent $1.4 billion, none of the plutonium has been removed from the weapons stockpile, nor is any expected to be destroyed anytime soon. In addition, Moscow recently changed the program to better suit its energy goals.

With the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush beginning talks with Russia on broader cooperation on nuclear energy, the troubled plutonium program sheds light on how difficult negotiations between the countries can be.

At the just-concluded Group of Eight summit, Bush and President Vladimir Putin promised continued discussions on the program, which calls on each country to eliminate 34 metric tons of plutonium from weapons stockpiles.

The program got under way with great fanfare in 2000 as an "unprecedented" initiative to curb nuclear proliferation. Putin and then-President Bill Clinton signed an agreement in the Kremlin under which Russia and the United States would work on parallel tracks to take the plutonium from warheads and blend it with uranium so it could be burned in commercial power-producing light-water reactors. The amount was a fraction of the militaries' plutonium stockpiles. While exact numbers are classified, the United States is believed to have about 100 metric tons and Russia about 145 metric tons. The program was seen as a way to get Russia to start destroying its excess plutonium, removing the possibility of theft in a country with fewer safeguards than the United States.

Originally both countries were to build a plant to convert the plutonium to a mixed-oxide fuel? a blend of plutonium and uranium. That led to a string of problems as Russia did not want to pay for its plant and there was a long dispute over who would be liable in case of worker injuries. Russian officials said this year that they were no longer interested in turning the plutonium into the mixed-oxide fuel, but wanted to burn the plutonium in a type of reactor that, under some conditions, can produce more plutonium than it burns.

Meanwhile, the estimated cost of the proposed U.S. conversion plant in South Carolina has jumped from $1 billion to $4.7 billion, and a second plant needed to take apart the plutonium pits removed from warheads has grown to $2 billion, four times what it was projected to cost five years ago, according to a U.S. House committee monitoring the program. "Somebody ought to rethink the idea," said U.S. Congressman David Hobson, chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee that this year eliminated money for the program. The full House went along.

A U.S. committee, however, wants to keep spending on the South Carolina plant -- $335 million next year to start construction. But to reflect its displeasure with Russia, the committee eliminated $35 million that was to go to advance the Russian program.

Matthew Bunn, a nuclear nonproliferation expert at Harvard University, said the original program is on the verge of collapse. "The idea of doing it in parallel, if not dead, is drawing its last breath," Bunn said.

Linking the programs was essential to nonproliferation efforts because it would push the Russians into a commitment to cut its plutonium stocks, he said.

"We've had a lot of diplomatic effort and spent a lot of money and we haven't gotten rid of a gram of plutonium," Bunn said.

Administration officials say the program is moving forward and that they want to start building the conversion plant this fall. They have accepted Russia's shift toward using a different kind of reactor, known as a breeder, and believe the Russians can start burning plutonium in four to six years.

"We're both going to get rid of it. They will be burning plutonium before we will," Linton Brooks, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said recently in response to questions about the viability of the program.

In a speech last week on nonproliferation, Brooks said the Russians "told us and told the international community that they remain committed to disposing 34 metric tons of plutonium. We expect them to keep this commitment and will work with them to achieve it."

But experts say Russia's small breeder reactor can accommodate less than one-third of a ton of plutonium per year, compared with four tons per year that the mixed-oxide program would have handled. They say Russia really wants financial help from the United States and others to build a larger fast-breeder reactor that could burn more plutonium -- and perhaps even produce new plutonium. "We have feared all along that the Russians would try to leverage the plutonium disposition program to get a new breeder reactor," said Tom Clements, nuclear nonproliferation adviser to Greenpeace International.

Brooks said the United States remains "opposed to fast reactors that are used as breeders." He noted that "fast reactors can be breeders or burners," depending on their configuration.

Hobson said he was convinced that the Russians never were interested in converting plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel to burn in a commercial power reactor. "The Russians will technically live up to their side of an agreement," Hobson said. "But you need to understand how they view these agreements. They view them differently than we do."

Hobson said the chief of Russia's civilian nuclear program made clear to him in a meeting last April that the Russians would not pay for any of the costs of building a mixed-oxide plant and wanted to use the breeder reactors -- presumably with help from the West. "I think the Russians are smarter about this than our people are," Hobson said.