The government of South Carolina has demanded through its court system that the U.S. government observe its agreement with Russia on the disposal of weapon-grade plutonium. South Carolina is determined that the 2010 agreements with Moscow on the disposal of weapons-grade plutonium be kept. Experts believe that the time has come for Russia itself to withdraw from the agreement.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson has filed a lawsuit in the state’s federal district court demanding that the U.S. government observe its agreement with Russia on the disposal of weapons-grade plutonium, Vzglyad reported on Friday.
The defendants were the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration, which falls within its structure, and their individual heads, Ernest Moniz and Frank Klotz. The judge, Michelle Childs, who will be hearing this case, gave the defendants until April 25 to present their arguments. This was reported in the Aiken Standard, a local newspaper published in the Aiken, South Carolina area, where – on the Savannah River – U.S. authorities were supposed to build a facility to turn leftover plutonium into mixed oxide fuel (the alleged MOX fuel).
Carlsbad Nuclear Waste
The Savannah River plant has been under construction since 2007. There were plans to launch it this year. However, Washington concluded that the project was much more expensive than anticipated. As a result, NNSA decided to dilute the plutonium with inhibiting agents and hold it in that state in special containers in a radioactive waste repository in Carlsbad, New Mexico.
It should be recalled that the agreement on eliminating 68 tons of weapons-grade plutonium (PMDA) in excess of defense needs was signed by Russia and the United States as early as 16 years ago – in 2000. It was supposed to enter into force in 2009, but emerging disagreements on the volumes and sources of funding have stalled the process. Six years ago – in 2010 – a supplementary agreement was signed, stipulating that the disposal process must begin in 2018. That protocol was signed by the heads of the Russian and U.S. foreign affairs authorities, Sergey Lavrov and Hillary Clinton. According to the head of the Russian Ministry of International Affairs, the agreement was not being implemented for “technical reasons.” Lavrov confirmed that the signed protocol eliminated those obstacles, thereby helping to bring about the practical implementation of the agreement.
The U.S. State Department reported at the time that Moscow and Washington were planning to start the process by 2018, stating that the agreement “does not provide for a strict time frame” for the Russian and U.S. plutonium disposal programs. Still, “both countries will strive to act concurrently as much as this is feasible,” Washington promised.*
South Carolina’s Office of the Attorney General currently interprets these agreements in the following way: “In 2010, the United States and Russia amended the PMDA agreeing to begin plutonium disposition in 2018 and confirming that the MOX approach was the only option for plutonium disposition.” According to the lawsuit, the Savannah River Site is currently 68 percent ready. The delay is over 12 months long, laments the Office of the Attorney General.
Suspended construction in Savannah River was not only strongly opposed by South Carolina’s authorities, which are incurring significant financial losses, but also by congressmen representing other states. A few years ago, a whole host of members of Congress sent letters demanding an overhaul of those plans to President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Energy Moniz.
As Wilson noted in his complaint, “The United States, DOE, and NNSA have no viable and legally authorized or approved alternative to the disposition of defense plutonium or defense plutonium materials other than through the MOX Facility.”
How To “Dilute” Weapons-Grade Plutonium
“Just now, in December, we finally launched a BN-800 reactor. Disposing of those 34 tons of plutonium was indeed one of the reasons it was built,” former Deputy Minister of Atomic Energy Bulat Nigmatulin told Vzglyad. “This is the fourth unit of the Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), which cost 142 billion rubles, excluding the new fuel. Plutonium-239 is an explosive, and if it is turned into an even-numbered isotope – for instance, 240, 242 or 244 – it will not explode anymore. And then it would be too difficult to extract 239 from it.”
The fact is, the expert recalled, both countries are still likely to have a lot of fabricated weapons-grade plutonium in addition to those 34 tons, sufficient for a lot of warheads.
“I think that, on the Russian as well as the American side, this situation is just a pretext, one of the supporting arguments in the dispute. It seems that our diplomats were not extensively involved in preparing the nuclear summit for a variety of reasons and had no influence over the content of the summit’s final documents. But there was once a time when our opinion was closely heeded. It is also possible that our diplomats didn’t work hard enough,” Nigmatulin conjectured. “Thus, the president was forced not to attend, although we used to participate in these summits nonetheless.”
However, the expert believes that the actual reason lies elsewhere. “Americans withdrew from the ABM treaty, an increasing number of NATO bases is emerging in the vicinity of our country and nuclear warheads’ delivery time to our strategic objects is always declining. Thus, for us, having powerful nuclear weapons is the cheapest asymmetric response to that threat. We must have a lot of nuclear weapons and deploy them close to the U.S. territory so that the people there may understand that the damage resulting from retaliation would be unacceptable,” said the former deputy minister of atomic energy.
Any talk of nuclear disarmament is now out of the question for Russia, Nigmatulin believes. “You withdrew from the ABM treaty? You’re building bases. You’re making threats? What is this all about, guys? And don’t ‘dilute’ our plutonium now either. That’s it!” he exclaimed. “And disarmament – gladly! But only if it’s mutual. No military bases in the Baltic States, Poland, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic and no ballistic missile elements in the Far East!”
Currently, Russia doesn’t have as large an arsenal of high-accuracy weapons as the United States, he complained. “That means that our nuclear weapons have to be placed in various locations by mobile and clandestine means – on both land and sea. This is what will contain the implementation of the first preventive strike and the scenarios considered by our adversary,” emphasized the expert.
”Transform It Again into Weapons-Grade Plutonium”
Earlier, President Vladimir Putin announced that, unlike Russia, the United States is not fulfilling its commitments on the elimination of weapons-grade plutonium by retaining the latter’s breakout potential.
According to Putin, Washington has recently announced that the United States had unilaterally changed the plutonium disposal technique, “diluting it and disposing of it in certain volumes … This means that they’re retaining its so-called breakout potential – in other words, it may be extracted, processed and weaponized again,” the president explained. Putin added that this sort of behavior from the Americans was one of the reasons he decided to boycott a recent nuclear security summit in Washington.
“We communicate regularly with Russia on the subject of our mutual obligations under the agreement,” countered an unnamed White House representative. “Neither the United States nor Russia have begun to dispose of plutonium in accordance with the agreement. In February, during the appropriations hearings in Congress, the administration declared that it would adhere to the new method for plutonium disposal. We informed Russia of this decision, which fully complies with our obligations under the agreement. The new method will allow us to dispose of the plutonium a few decades earlier.”*
The director for nuclear threat reduction at the White House National Security Council, Scott Roecker, announced last week that Washington does not consider the new disposal technique a breach of the 2000 agreement.
Still, the fact that the United States is trying to essentially revise the agreement was already recognized two years ago by the current defendant himself, Mr. Moniz, recalled the TASS Russian News Agency. This took place at a Congressional hearing where the secretary of energy spoke of plans to “suspend” construction in South Carolina.
The White House is correct that the agreement is currently not in effect, acknowledged Bulat Nigmatulin. “First of all, we had a general falling out; second of all, why go when, presently, plutonium is simply lying around on both sides? Americans began to say that they will use other techniques to corrupt weapons-grade plutonium so that it could not be re-fabricated. We wanted to use it as fuel for BN-800. Our technique is irreversible; you cannot turn it into weapon-grade plutonium again. But the reactor will be serviceable even without this plutonium – it can fabricate MOX fuel with uranium or non-weapons-grade plutonium. The facility has been built, so we truly did fulfill our obligations under the 2000 agreement,” the expert summed up.
*Editor’s note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.