Nuclear Nonproliferation and Safety:

Uncertainties About the Implementation of U.S.-Russian Plutonium Disposition Efforts

RCED-98-46: Published: Jan 14, 1998. Publicly Released: Jan 20, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on: (1) the goals of the Department of Energy's (DOE) plutonium disposition program and the impediments facing its implementation; (2) U.S. government officials' views on the importance of a U.S.-Russian agreement on plutonium disposition and the status of efforts to negotiate an agreement; (3) the costs to implement plutonium disposition programs in the United States and Russia; (4) experts' views about the potential nonproliferation impacts of the U.S. plutonium disposition program; and (5) surplus nuclear weapons that are among the sources of plutonium for DOE's disposition plan.

GAO noted that: (1) DOE's plutonium disposition program seeks to decrease the risk of nuclear proliferation by reducing U.S. plutonium stockpiles by about half over the next 25 years and by influencing Russia to take reciprocal actions, with the goal of reducing Russia's stockpiles to U.S. levels; (2) achieving these mutual reductions is a challenge because DOE's immobilization and mixed oxide fuel technologies have not yet been demonstrated on an industrial scale in the United States, and licensing, regulatory, and environmental issues will need to be addressed for both options; (3) the Russian plutonium stockpile is estimated to be about twice as large as the U.S. stockpile, and Russia may not have the financial resources to implement its program in a time frame comparable to that of the United States; (4) according to some U.S. executive branch officials, the success of the U.S. plutonium disposition program depends on Russia's implementing a similar program because a U.S.-only program could be seen as putting the United States at a strategic disadvantage and would not be supported by Congress or the international community; (5) executive branch officials told GAO that a plutonium disposition agreement between the United States and Russia should be negotiated before large-scale expenditures are made for U.S. plutonium disposition facilities; (6) no formal negotiations have begun to implement such an agreement; (7) DOE's preliminary estimates indicate that implementing the U.S. disposition program, which focuses on two technologies to convert plutonium to safer, more proliferant-resistant forms, could cost approximately $2.2 billion over the next 25 years; (8) the cost for a similar program in Russia could range between $1 billion and $2 billion, according to DOE's estimates; (9) U.S. assistance to Russia's program is expected to total between $40 million and $80 million over the next 5 to 7 years and includes plans to construct a pilot-scale plutonium conversion facility; (10) differing views exist about the potential nuclear nonproliferation impacts of DOE's plutonium disposition program and include: (a) a contention that DOE's consideration of burning plutonium in commercial nuclear reactors may pave the way for plutonium recycling and reverse a long-standing policy; and (b) a concern that an industry for mixed oxide fuel would be created in Russia that would increase opportunities for diversion and theft of nuclear materials; and (11) Department of State officials state that these and other issues will have to be addressed in a future binding agreement with Russia.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Committee Report 105-581, attached to H.R. 4060 (FY1999 Energy and Water Appropriations), dated June 16, 1998, stipulates that DOE should not go forward with plutonium disposition efforts with Russia unless an agreement is signed. The Senate Appropriations report contains similar language. DOE believes this is reasonable and plans to continue working with Russia on negotiating and signing a comprehensive agreement on various aspects pertaining to a plutonium disposition agreement.

    Matter: Because of the uncertainties about Russia's commitment to implement a program similar to the U.S. program, Congress may wish to consider linking DOE's future funding requests for large-scale projects to design and construct plutonium disposition facilities in the United States and Russia to the progress being made in negotiating and signing a bilateral agreement.

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Committee Report 105-581, attached to H.R. 4060 (FY1999 Energy and Water Appropriations) dated June 16, 1998, stipulates that DOE is expected to report on progress made in achieving an agreement with Russia on plutonium disposition. The Senate report contains similar language. DOE has reported on the status of obtaining a comprehensive agreement in numerous briefings to House and Senate committees during fiscal year 1999.

    Matter: Congress may wish to consider requesting that the Department of State, and other appropriate agencies, report periodically on efforts to conclude a plutonium disposition agreement between the United States and Russia.


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