The US government has not renewed a 1998 US-Russian cooperation agreement on plutonium disposition because of concerns that US officials and contractors were not sufficiently protected from liability.

The five-year Plutonium Science and Technology agreement, signed on 24 July 1998, covers scientific and technical cooperation for the fabrication of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel from Russian weapons plutonium. The agreement, did not, however, adopt the liability provisions of the “umbrella agreement” of the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programme as it did not envisage any actual construction. The umbrella agreement places nearly all liability for any accidents that take place during US-funded nuclear dismantlement and cleanup programmes in Russia on Moscow. The US State Department is now insisting all further accords in the plutonium disposition programme follow the CTR liability provisions.

Industry observers have noted that the 2000 Plutonium Management and Disposition agreement, in which both the USA and Russia agreed to each eliminate 34t of weapons plutonium, may provide a way out of the current impasse over the 1998 agreement. It contains provisions for facility construction, but was vague on issues of liability and put off their resolution until a future date.

Meanwhile, the Beloyarsk 3 BN-600 fast breeder reactor has burned 10kg of MOX fuel manufactured from weapons-grade plutonium. This was the first time MOX has been burned in a commercial power reactor in Russia.