SUPPORTING NUCLEAR NONPROLIFERATION
Weapon-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) are the critical ingredients for making a nuclear weapon. With the end of the Cold War, hundreds of tons of these materials were determined to be surplus to U.S. and Russian defense needs. Denying access to plutonium and HEU is the best way to prevent nuclear proliferation to rogue states and terrorist organizations. The most certain method to prevent these materials from falling into the wrong hands is to dispose of them.
During the April 2010 Nuclear Security Summit, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signed a protocol amending the 2000 Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), which commits each country to dispose of no less than 34 metric tons (MT) of excess weapon-grade plutonium and envisions disposition of more weapon-grade plutonium over time. The combined amount, 68 metric tons, represents enough material for 17,000 nuclear weapons.
The Protocol reaffirms both countries’ commitment to nuclear disarmament under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by ensuring that excess weapon-grade plutonium is never again used for nuclear weapons or any other military purpose; by ensuring it is disposed of in a safe, secure, transparent and effective manner; and by strengthening barriers against accumulating newly separated weapon-grade plutonium.
RUSSIAN PLUTONIUM DISPOSITION
Russia plans to dispose of its 34 metric tons of weapon-grade plutonium by fabricating it into MOX fuel and irradiating it in fast reactors. Key nonproliferation conditions will apply to this process:
- The fast reactor will operate as a plutonium burner;
- The IAEA will verify Russia’s plutonium disposition process;
- There will be no reprocessing of the spent PMDA MOX fuel or reactor blanket assemblies for the duration of the agreement;
- There will be international monitoring of any reprocessing after termination of the agreement; and
- There will be no reuse of disposition plutonium for military purposes in perpetuity.
Irradiation in fast reactors is a technically credible approach for Russian plutonium disposition that is consistent with Russia's national energy strategy, relying upon the use of both existing and planned Russian fast reactors.
Under the PMDA, the United States commits to provide up to $400 million to assist Russia in the disposition of Russia’s plutonium. The majority of funds will be used for implementing the IAEA Verification Regime, long-term storage of the spent fuel that Russia otherwise would reprocess, and IAEA confirmed disposal of Russian weapon-grade plutonium.
U.S. PLUTONIUM DISPOSITION
The current strategy to implement this agreement in the United States involves the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), under the Office of Fissile Materials Disposition, building a Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility, a capability to disassemble nuclear weapons pits and convert the resulting plutonium into a form suitable to be made into MOX fuel, and a Waste Solidification Building to handle the waste resulting from pit disassembly and MOX operations at the Savannah River Site (SRS).
However, unanticipated cost increases for the MOX project and plutonium disposition program have prompted the Department to slow down the MOX project and other activities associated with the current plutonium disposition strategy while determining whether there are options to complete the mission more efficiently.