US and Russia request IAEA monitoring of plutonium disposition

In his speech to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General Conference in Vienna earlier this September, the organization’s Directo General, Yukia Amano, announced that the IAEA had recently received a joint US-Russian letter ‘requesting IAEA assistance to independently verify implementation of their agreement on the disposition of plutonium no longer required for defence purposes.’ The letter refers to the September 2000 Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), subsequently amended in April 2010, which calls for each country to dispose of no less than 34 metric tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium. The combined 68-ton total represents, according to the US State Department, enough fissile material for nearly 17,000 nuclear weapons.

The 2000 text of the PMDA stated that the process of plutonium disposition in both countries would involve the use of light-water reactors, although Russia also enshrined the right to use its BN-600 fast-neutron reactor at Beloyarsk. However, as Elena Sokova has written for the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an advocacy group, ‘implementation of the agreement was delayed, partly because of Russia’s reluctance to devote significant resources to a programme that would be based on light-water reactor technology.’ Among other changes, including a doubling of US financial contributions to Russia’s disposition efforts (from $200m to $400m), the 2010 amended version of the PMDA expands Russia’s right to use fast-neutron rectors in the implementation of the agreement. In addition to its BN-600, the 2010 text—designed to make the PMDA more compatible with Russia’s long-term energy strategy—allows Russia to use its more advanced BN-800 fast-neutron reactor as well.

In terms of verification, the text of the PMDA (in both versions) notes that both parties ‘shall have the right to conduct and the obligation to receive and facilitate monitoring and inspection activities’ in order to confirm that the agreement is being followed correctly. The need to involve the IAEA is reaffirmed in the 2010 version of the agreement, which states that: ‘Each party, in cooperation with the other party, shall begin consultations with the International Atomic Energy Agency at an early date and undertake all other necessary steps to conclude appropriate agreements with the IAEA to allow it to implement verification measures with respect to each party’s disposition programme.’

Specific verification arrangements, however, have yet to be finalised. The joint letter to the Agency, signed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, asks that the Agency ‘engage in all necessary [verification] efforts…with the goal of preparing the necessary legally binding verification arrangements in 2011.’ According to a State Department press release issued on the day of the PMDA’s amendment, actual disposition is set to begin at some point before 2018, ‘after the necessary facilities are completed and operating.’ Given the importance of irreversibility to nuclear disarmament efforts, and the need for transparency highlighted in the Final Document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference, ensuring that the implementation of the PMDA is effectively verified will be essential to the ultimate success of the process and its wider impact on the NPT regime.

David Cliff, Vienna.