U.S., Russia Negotiate Spent Fuel Reprocessing Moratorium

Article excerpt

DESPITE DENIALS BY a high-level Russian official, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) says that it has reached an agreement "in principle" to suspend Russia's reprocessing of civil reactor-generated spent fuel. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced the "new initiative" in a February 7 statement accompanying the release of DOE's fiscal year 2001 budget, which requests an additional $100 million for non-proliferation efforts in Russia. The timing of the announcement appears to have been intended to ease congressional approval of the requested funds. However, following Richardson's speech and press reports indicating that a deal on a moratorium had already been concluded, Richardson's Russian counterpart publicly denied that any agreement existed.

News of the deal first appeared in The New York Times, which reported February 7 that Russia had "promised to stop" producing plutonium by reprocessing civil spent fuel. The following day Richardson was quoted by The Washington Post as saying, "We have an agreement in principle. The Russian assurances are strong enough so that we put it in our budget." A reaction from Russian Minister of Atomic Energy Yevgeny Adamov quickly followed. "There are no agreements with the United States on plutonium, there have not even been any official talks to that end," he said in an interview with Interfax published February 9.

Senior DOE officials maintain that an agreement on a reprocessing moratorium had evolved in negotiations over the past several months and was reportedly confirmed during a January visit to Moscow by Undersecretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. However, as a result of the premature U.S. announcement, Adamov appears to have come under fire from other ministries in the Russian government and been forced to state publicly that no agreement had been formally negotiated.

Persuading Russia to stop reprocessing spent fuel from civilian reactors has been a stated U.S. policy goal since President Carter announced in 1977 that the United States would cease reprocessing civil spent fuel. Despite U.S. persistence, Russia has continued reprocessing spent fuel from some of its 29 civilian reactors, as well as spent fuel returned from Eastern Europe, generating almost a ton of weapons-usable plutonium every Vear. …