The End of the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement: A Dark Cloud with a Silver Lining

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President Putin’s October 3rd executive order suspending the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA) is the latest manifestation of the rising tensions between Russia and the United States. Signed in 2000, the PMDA committed Russia and the United States to the disposal of at least 34 tons of their respective stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium. Plutonium can be a central element in the creation of a nuclear weapon, and removing excess plutonium prevents it from falling into the hands of terrorists or from being used to build more nuclear weapons. Thus, the PMDA had a sound objective and the agreement was a valuable component of U.S.-Russia nuclear non-proliferation cooperation.

Russia’s PMDA withdrawal is an ominous sign for non-proliferation, once seen as an untouchable aspect of the U.S.-Russia relationship despite times of animosity. Though President Putin announced that he would not use any excess plutonium for the development of new nuclear weapons, there are no official oversight mechanisms for ensuring that both countries are, in fact, disposing of their weapons-grade plutonium. That opens the possibility that plutonium disposal could stall, leaving weapons-grade plutonium at risk of theft or being used to create additional nuclear weapons.

Russia cites various U.S. actions as the cause for suspending the agreement, including the Magnitsky Act, economic sanctions relating to Russia’s activity in Ukraine, and the increased presence of NATO in Europe. This signifies further muddling of nuclear non-proliferation issues with conventional bilateral disputes. Non-proliferation commitments have traditionally transcended conventional diplomatic disagreements, but now Mr. Putin has brought nuclear security back to a place of uncertainty where, considering its importance, it simply does not belong. Moreover, the collapse of the PMDA represents a dangerous step backward for nuclear security cooperation because it sends a global message that international non-proliferation is less important than bilateral disputes, and can be made less of a priority by other countries as well.

Despite these concerns, the suspension of the PMDA may have one positive outcome for the United States. The agreement mandated that the United States transform its plutonium into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for civil nuclear reactors, and that adoption of a different method requires agreement from both parties.

Yet the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility, located at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, has experienced severe delays and run considerably over-budget. The original start date for MOX fabrication operations was listed as March 2007 with a total cost of about $3 billion. Now, the Government Accountability Office estimates a 2019 start date with a total cost of about $15.7 billion. But a more recent independent assessment estimates the total projected lifecycle cost to fall between $27.2 billion and $29.8 billion (Fiscal Year 2014 dollars), depending on the annual investment dedicated to the project. Furthermore, the Department of Energy, the agency tasked with building and operating the facility, has yet to find customers for MOX fuel once it is produced.

The Obama Administration and some experts contend that a more viable option exists, one that would not have been technically possible under the PMDA without Russian approval (which they refused to give before withdrawing from the agreement). The “dilute and dispose” method would mix the plutonium with an inert material and store the composition underground, likely through the Waste Isolation Pilot Plan (WIPP) in New Mexico. Once completed, this would make it extremely difficult to separate and retrieve the plutonium for later use in a nuclear weapon or improvised device. In the Budget for FY2017, President Obama actually included measures to stop the MOX program and switch to the “dilute and dispose” program. However, congressional opposition, particularly from the South Carolina delegation, has hampered progress toward implementing alternatives to the MOX program.

There is an argument that the PMDA agreement was the only justification for maintaining the maligned MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility, and so the United States is now free to switch to the WIPP program, saving taxpayers significant amounts of money, potentially up to $16.7 billion (Fiscal Year 2014 dollars).

Make no mistake: Russia’s withdrawal from the PMDA is a step backward for non-proliferation cooperation and threatens stability by allowing diplomatic tensions to have nuclear repercussions. However, the United States could take advantage of the one possible silver lining in Russia’s decision and save billions of dollars by disposing of its plutonium more efficiently.