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U.S.-Russia ink plutonium disposal deal

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By Roger Snodgrass

In another step toward reducing stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium in the world, the United States and Russia have agreed to a new plan.Sen. Pete Domenici, R.-N.M., who has supported the nonproliferation partnership with the Russians since 1998, said he was relieved to see the program advance.“I am relieved to finally see some progress from the Russians on this program,” he said in an announcement Tuesday. “I think too much time was spent reaching this point, but I hope we can now move forward cooperatively with this worthwhile nonproliferation project.”The agreement was signed by Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman and Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency Director Sergey Kiriyenko. Under the terms of the agreement, Russia agreed to convert 34 metric tons of plutonium manufactured for weapons purposes into fuel for an existing reactor at the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant, and another plan under development at the same site.“This joint statement between the United States and Russia reflects measurable progress toward disposing of a significant amount of weapons-grade plutonium in Russia,” Bodman said. An agreement in principal, the 2000 Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement has been delayed over the years by various technical and political complications, including liability issues and a divergence of technologies to be used.A spokesperson for the National Nuclear Security Administration said the negotiations to reach this phase of the agreement started eight months ago.“Congress appropriated $200 million in 1999 subject to the condition that the funds be spent in Russia and of a $400 million contribution to the Russian project, but the (House and Senate) appropriation committees will have to approve a budget justification for the use of these funds,” said John Broehm,” an NNSA spokesperson.In recent appropriation bills, Domenici’s announcement said, the senator has supported restricting funding to Russia and backed language that expressed frustration with the Russian efforts to fulfill the terms of the treaty.In September, Bodman announced that the United States was removing nine metric tons of plutonium from further use as fissile material. He made the commitment while speaking at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s annual general conference.An NNSA spokesman said the additional commitment, part of a pledge made in 2005 to remove a total of 200 metric tons of fissile material removed from dismantled warheads, was not related to the outcome of the current negotiations.“That was completely separate,” Broehm said. “It had no effect on the negotiations.”The 34 metric tons under the Russian agreement and the nine metric tons, unilaterally removed from the U.S. plutonium inventory, will be converted into mixed oxide fuel (MOX) that can be burned in commercial nuclear reactors to produce electricity.A recent article in the Actinide Research Quarterly published by Los Alamos National Laboratory noted that Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories along with Savannah River have been working on various aspects of making MOX fuels a reality since the early 1990s.“Still,” the background article reports, “the United States and Russia are years away” from burning their surplus plutonium in commercial reactors. MOX produced in France has been used in tests at a South Carolina reactor since the summer of 2005 with positive results.But the U.S. MOX fuel fabrication facility and a conversion plant for producing fuel pellets have yet to be built at Savannah River.