U.S., Russia Sign Plutonium Accord

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The United States and Russia finalized an agreement Sept. 15 resolving a long-standing dispute on a bilateral program to dispose of excess nuclear weapons material. Yet, even though the signing marked the highlight of a recent Washington visit by a senior Russian official to discuss a range of nuclear matters, the program's future still remains in doubt.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak signed the agreement along with Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International security Robert Joseph at what the two sides termed the inaugural meeting of a new "strategic security dialogue." In addition to Joseph, U.S. representation also included officials from the Pentagon and the National security Council, a Department of State official told Arms Control Today Sept. 19.

The agreement settled an issue that had been helping to block the United States and Russia from fulfilling a program to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium each. Concluded in principle in 1998 and formally launched in 2000, the program stalled because of a disagreement over assigning responsibility for accidents or damage caused by US. personnel working inside Russia. The Kremlin interpreted previous liability formulations as protecting U.S. personnel even if they committed intentional acts of damage.

Negotiators reached a preliminary agreement to resolve the issue in July 2005, but Moscow took more than a year to vet the document through its bureaucracy before signing it. (see ACT, September 2005.)

The agreement addresses Russia's earlier concerns by establishing a process for the two governments to hold consultations in the case of alleged deliberate damage. If the two sides are unable to reach a settlement within 90 days, the accused personnel could be subject to Russian claims or legal proceedings. Under the settlement, the U.S. government or a private U.S. corporation could not be held accountable for an individual's transgressions.

Washington is treating the liability protocol as an executive agreement, meaning it does not require Senate advice and consent to take effect. The Kremlin, however, has indicated it will treat the measure as a treaty and seek approval from Russia's legislature. But Moscow also has asserted it can provisionally apply the agreement if the need arises.

Noting that the total material slated for disposal by the stalled program was equivalent to 16,000 nuclear weapons, secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman Sept. 15 hailed the signing of the liability agreement. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) also praised the move the same day as "a significant step forward."

Yet, support for the program has receded in Congress, and its funding is in jeopardy. Led by House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee Chairman David Hobson (R-Ohio), the House cut $320 million from a program for building U.S. facilities to convert the excess U.S. plutonium into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for nuclear reactors. Hobson has defended the action both as saving money and sensible because Moscow is no longer interested in the MOX approach. …