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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S., Russia Reach Deal on Plutonium

In a major agreement aimed at safeguarding nuclear fuel that could be used to make weapons, Russia has promised to stop making plutonium out of fuel from its civilian power reactors as part of a $100 million joint research and aid package from the United States, Clinton administration and Russian officials say.

While the administration has several collaborative programs that enhance the safety and security of plutonium produced by Russia's military, this is the Energy Department's first major attempt to secure Russia's huge civilian stockpile of plutonium, from which 3,000 nuclear weapons could be made.

"It's a bold initiative to reduce a 30-ton plutonium threat from Russia's civilian nuclear sector," Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson said in a telephone interview.

Administration officials and arms control experts were particularly pleased with the deal, more than a year in the works, as it comes at a time of growing strains in relations with Russia over its war in Chechnya, policy toward Iraq and access to Russian nuclear facilities.

The agreement is also likely to place added pressure on other nuclear powers like Japan, Britain and France to follow suit, arms control experts said. Because of concerns about the environment and the spread of nuclear materials to countries like Iran, Iraq and North Korea, the United States has not reprocessed nuclear fuel since 1978.

Part of the accord - $25 million for long-term joint research that is most attractive to Russia - is contingent on an end to new sales and transfers of nuclear technology to Iran. Washington believes that those transactions are helping Tehran acquire nuclear weapons.

"The money for this research will be in our budget," said Ernest Moniz, the undersecretary of energy, who was in Moscow last week to discuss the agreement. "It's now up to Russia to decide if they want it."

But most of the money will be given in exchange for Russia's decision to halt reprocessing nuclear fuel from its 29 civilian power reactors. That will include, if Congress approves, $45 million to better secure spent fuel already stored at Mayak, a once-secret nuclear complex in the southern Urals, and to build a dry storage site elsewhere in Russia.

Yevgeny Adamov, Russia's atomic energy minister, insisted in a telephone interview from Moscow that despite the agreement, Russia would not stop competing to sell new light-water power reactors to Iran.

At the same time, he said, Russia has lived up to commitments made to Washington last year not to provide sensitive material or technology to Iran. But it was willing to discuss additional safeguards and "more commitments for greater transparency to remove American concerns."

Adamov also stressed that Russia was not abandoning its long-standing belief that plutonium, which is produced by all nuclear reactors, could eventually be used to fuel a generation of "safe" reactors, not yet developed, that would produce waste more difficult to recycle into weapons.

"We're talking in terms of decades" for the moratorium on plutonium reprocessing, he said. "At least two may be enough."

Russia, officials said, already possesses about 150 metric tons of plutonium and 1,200 metric tons of highly enriched uranium, both of which can be used in nuclear weapons.

Given that, said Thomas Graham Jr., a former arms control negotiator who now is president of the Lawyers Alliance for World Security, an arms control group in Washington, "it is important to stop the accumulation of material that some rogue nations would love to get their hands on."

"This is a very important agreement," he added.

In 1998 alone, Energy Department officials said, Russia's 29 civilian reactors produced 798 metric tons of spent fuel. Normally, Russia would send this material to Mayak for reprocessing.

But under the new agreement, the plutonium will not be separated out. Instead, the unreprocessed material will be stored at a new site somewhere in Russia that the United States will finance.