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State Department: U.S., Russia have not violated nuclear nonproliferation pact

April 26, 2018

The U.S. and Russia have not breached their shared agreement to dispose of weapons-usable plutonium despite the lack of actual disposition and recent disagreements with each other, a new U.S. State Department report states.

The pact, the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, was first signed in 2000. The PMDA requires both countries to eliminate 34 metric tons of plutonium – in the name of nonproliferation – from their respective defense programs.

“Neither side is in violation of the PMDA,” the report reads, “and neither side has begun implementation of its disposition program.”

The 34 metric tons each country has set aside is enough to create thousands of nuclear weapons.

In 2010, the PMDA was amended to specify the plutonium in question be turned into mixed oxide fuel, a product bound for commercial reactors and created in the U.S. via the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility.

MOX, a facility under construction at the Savannah River Site, is approximately 70 percent complete, according to local experts. It was initially set to open in 2016.

Since the amendment, the U.S. has repeatedly shied away from supporting MOX – President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2019 budget request expressly terminates it – and Russia, in response, suspended its involvement in the pact in 2016.

“Washington’s actions ... were a violation of the agreement as the U.S. administration took steps to change the method of disposition without securing Russia’s consent, which runs contrary to the agreement provisions,” the State Department report reads, citing a 2017 statement issued by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The U.S. is now actively pursuing dilute-and-dispose, a MOX alternative that involves blending plutonium with inert material for burial elsewhere, in this case the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. Russia does not approve, according to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The president’s fiscal year 2019 budget request includes nearly $60 million for dilute-and-dispose expansion at the Savannah River Site.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry believes dilute-and-dispose to be the cheaper, more efficient approach to handle the 34 metric tons of plutonium. The National Nuclear Security Administration agrees.

Russia’s suspension of the PMDA has no “clear legal meaning,” according to the report, which was issued April 17 by the State Department’s arms control and compliance bureau.

The suspension does, however, prove concerning, the report continues, because it calls into question the country’s cooperation moving forward. Russia did say, though, the 34 metric tons would not be returned to the stockpile.

The amended nuclear agreement does not detail legally binding deadlines for plutonium disposition. A non-binding disposition start date was set for 2018, according to the report.

This is the second year the U.S.-Russia accord has been analyzed in the State Department’s compliance report.

On April 24, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a press release, said the U.S. “is deliberately misrepresenting the reasons for Russia’s decision to suspend” its PMDA play.

The same statement says Russia is ready to resume PMDA work once the U.S. returns to the MOX approach and settles “damage done” by “ill-considered” international actions and policies.