Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 151

As concerns mount on both sides of the Atlantic over the implementation of a 1993 agreement calling for the United States to purchase the equivalent of 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia recently embarked on the even more difficult task of trying to safely dispose of some fifty metric tons of plutonium from the same source. During their working meeting in Moscow last month, U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko signed an agreement pledging to work together to explore and demonstrate methods of managing plutonium. This effort will focus on converting plutonium into an oxide to be used in mixed uranium-plutonium dioxide (MOX) pellets that would fuel nuclear power reactors.

This MOX approach has been a controversial one. American environmentalists have long urged the U.S. government to dispose of its weapons-grade plutonium by immobilizing it using such methods as encasing it in glass. However, the U.S. Energy Department supported both methods–in deference to the Russians who are convinced that this plutonium is a valuable national asset. The Russians want to profit from plutonium sales despite concerns that the use of MOX fuel in fast-breeder reactors could result in fissile material suitable for use in building an atomic weapon. The Russians have made it clear that they will need foreign funds to carry out their part of the agreement. On July 29, First Deputy Atomic Energy Minister Lev Ryabev said that, without outside money, the best Russia would be able to do would be to keep the plutonium “under scrupulous guard.”

The HEU agreement has also had its ups and downs, with the Russians once again focusing on the financial return. They are particularly suspicious over the recent privatization of the United State Enrichment Corporation (USEC), the American agent for the program. Due to the nature of the nuclear power industry and several American laws aimed at protecting the U.S. market share, the program operates in a rather convoluted way. The Russians dilute the weapons HEU down to the form of low enriched uranium (LEU) used in power plants and ship this fuel to USEC. It, in turn, sells the fuel to its customers–receiving dollars for the “enrichment component” plus a load of natural uranium equal to the original natural content of the LEU. Russia gets paid for the “enrichment content” but not immediately for the natural uranium content.

The New York Times recently termed this “a little like paying for the value of cleaning and pressing a shirt, but not the shirt itself.” Over the projected 20 years of the agreement, this natural content could amount to one-third of the $12 billion the Russians hoped to make in the deal. American law prohibits the “repatriation” of this natural uranium to Russia, so the Russians must try to sell it on the world market. This puts them in direct competition with USEC, and critics warn that profit concerns will make it less likely for the privatized USEC to offer the Russians a fair price for its LEU in the future. (Russian and foreign media, July 24-August 5)