A joint statement was signed on 2 September by Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton preparing the way for an increase in the reprocessing of weapons-grade plutonium.

Russia’s Atomic Power Minister Yevgeny Adamov explained that an agreement had already been signed covering the first steps of this process. The new statement re-affirmed the intention of both parties to withdraw 50 t of plutonium from their nuclear programmes and convert it into forms that cannot be used for military purposes. Adamov said that under the 24 July agreement Russia had two years to prepare plutonium for processing. But he noted that, “the political situation is developing more swiftly than the technological.” Now “we are being offered a different scenario” – to move quickly from attempts to process just small quantities of nuclear material to getting rid of it in vast amounts. Proposals on how to speed up the utilisation of plutonium are now being drafted.

Adamov cautioned, however, that from the beginning of talks on plutonium Russia and the US had taken different approaches. What the US suggests is to vitrify and bury plutonium, said Adamov. MINATOM, however, believes the plutonium is a highly valuable energy material and its use at nuclear power stations would save resources. “From the point of view of a specialist, rather than a Minister,” emphasised Adamov, “what is being sought today is how quickly to get rid of plutonium, but a quick fix is far from the best”.

Disposal plans for plutonium

MINATOM has outlined a draft programme for future management of weapons-grade plutonium – in particular, plans to use it as fuel in civil power reactors. The programme would run in parallel with an established plan for the eventual use in Western power reactors of blended-down military-origin Russian HEU under the terms of a bilateral political agreement with the US signed in 1994. Under the programme, all weapons-grade plutonium released as a result of nuclear disarmament – excess military plutonium – will belong exclusively to the Russian state.

Russia already has the facilities necessary to start a small-scale programme of this kind, which would develop existing “closed fuel cycle” technologies and industries. The draft programme specifies that, if a political decision were to be taken to “accelerate” the transfer of released weapons-grade plutonium into forms unsuitable for military use, Russia would also be able to undertake a larger-scale programme.

The United States has adopted a “dual track” approach, keeping its options open for MOX fuel or permanent immobilisation.