In a statement made at the International Conference on Nuclear Security in Vienna, U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz announced that "the United States is beginning consultations with the IAEA to monitor the dilution and packaging of up to six metric tons of surplus plutonium at the Savannah River Site (SRS) in Aiken, South Carolina."

The material in question is part of the U.S. plutonium stock that was designated excess for military purposes. In addition to the 6 MT of non-pit plutonium covered by the current initiative, it also includes 34 MT of pit plutonium that was to be disposed as part of the U.S.-Russian Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA) as well as 7.1 MT of pit plutonium for which a disposition path is not yet assigned. The Department of Energy announced its intent to dispose of the 6 MT of non-pit plutonium in January 2016 (a formal record of decision was published in April 2016).

It appears that the United States will invite the IAEA to monitor the activities at the Savannah River Site, which include "blending the plutonium oxide with an adulterant, packaging the diluted materials in secure canisters, and preparing the canisters for permanent disposal in a geologic repository." The initiative does not seem to cover subsequent placing of the canisters in the WIPP geologic repository. [UPDATE 12/10/2016: U.S. officials indicated that the Unites States will be open to IAEA monitoring of the emplacement of plutonium to WIPP.]

The statement also does not say if the IAEA monitoring will be applied to the 34 MT of plutonium that was covered by PMDA. In 2010, the United States and Russia informed the IAEA of their intent to develop verification measures with respect to their disposition programs, but this arrangement is now in question after the United States indicated its intent to change the disposition method and Russia suspended the agreement in October 2016. It is likely that if PMDA is terminated, the United States will extend the transparency measures of the current initiative to the 34 MT of the plutonium as well. The statement make an implicit commitment to do so, as it states that "the total amount of surplus plutonium for which the United States has committed to verifiably eliminate to 40 metric tons."

Note that the Savannah River Site has already packaged some plutonium and prepared it for shipment to WIPP. Since this process began before the 2016 decision regarding surplus plutonium, it is not included in the 6 MT covered by the new initiative. As of the end of 2014, WIPP accepted 5.7 MT of plutonium.

The government of Japan estimates that it would take at least eight years to restart the Monju fast neutron reactor, should the decision is made to do so. According to this estimate, the cost of operating the reactor until the end of its life would reach ¥540 billion (about $4.82 billion). The estimate comes from the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum report, released in November 2016 (in Japanese).

Most of the cost, ¥320 billion, would be associated with operation and maintenance of the reactor (¥20 billion a year, assuming that the reactor operates for 16 years). ¥20 billion is allocated to the design of modifications required to comply with new safety rules, and ¥130 billion - to construction work.

An earlier estimate suggested that operating the Monju reactor for ten years would cost ¥600 billion. The cost of decommissioning the reactor was estimated to be ¥300 billion.

The reactor was shut down after a refueling accident in August 2010.

U.S. Department of Energy announced an agreement to sell depleted uranium to Global Laser Enrichment (GLE). According to the DoE press-release, the uranium will be supplied over a period of 40 years and will be used to "produce natural uranium which is used for production of fuel for civil nuclear reactors." It was reported that the deal includes the rights to re-enrich 300,000 tonnes of tails, producing around 100,000 tonnes of "natural-grade" uranium.

Global Laser Enrichment will build a new enrichment plant, Paducah Laser Enrichment Facility (PLEF), in Paducah, Kentucky next to the DoE site that hosted old gaseous diffusion enrichment plant (that plant was closed in 2013). The PLEF plant will use the laser enrichment technology known as Silex. In 2012 GLE obtained an NRC license to construct and operate an enrichment facility in Wilmington, NC. That license allows GLE to enrich uranium to 8% U-235. In 2014, it indicated its intent to submit an application for construction of the facility in Paducah. However, GLE told the industry press that it "has made no formal decision to proceed with licensing or construction of the facility."

Laser enrichment of uranium has raised proliferation concerns. For a detailed analysis of the physical principles and operationalization of uranium isotope separation through laser excitation and preferential condensation repression of uranium-235 hexafluoride which may be the basis for the SILEX (Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation) system used by Global Laser Enrichment - see Ryan Snyder, "A Proliferation Assessment of Third Generation Laser Uranium Enrichment Technology," Science & Global Security 24, no. 2 (2016): pp. 68-91.

On 13 October, in an interview with Russian and Indian news agencies leading up to his visit to the BRICs summit in Goa, President Putin of Russia outlined areas of nuclear cooperation with India. Along with building nuclear power reactors, President Putin announced that

Technological cooperation in the field of uranium enrichment is being established.

No further details were given by either Russia or India, but the two countries had signed on 24 December 2015 a "Programme of Action Agreed Between The Department of Atomic Energy of India And The Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation "Rosatom" for Localization of Manufacturing in India for Russian-Designed Nuclear Reactor Units." India plans to have 12 Russian-supplied reactors, of which up to eight reactors may be in the Kudankulam area.

It is not known if the 2015 Programme of Action mentions uranium enrichment. In March 2016, India's government told parliament that it "covers localisation in India for major equipment and spares as well as fuel assemblies for future Russian-designed reactors in India". Mr. Putin's comments seemed to suggest that along with nuclear reactor and fuel assembly technology transfer, Russia may be planning to supply India with uranium enrichment technology. This could be in the form of a centrifuge plant to provide low enriched uranium for fuel assembly fabrication in India for the Russian supplied reactors. Indeed, in 2010, Sergei Kiriyenko, the chief of Rosatom announced that "We plan to set up joint facilities for enrichment and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel in India ... In China we already have such facility."

Russia previously has built centrifuge enrichment plants in China with a total capacity of 1.5 million SWU, which are Chinese operated.

It is possible that Russian transfer of enrichment technology to India, which is not a party to the NPT, would not be compatible with June 2015 Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines.

These guidelines on special controls on sensitive exports state that

  1. Suppliers should exercise a policy of restraint in the transfer of sensitive facilities, equipment, technology and material usable for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, especially in cases when a State has on its territory entities that are the object of active NSG Guidelines Part 2 denial notifications from more than one NSG Participating Government.

(a) In the context of this policy, suppliers should not authorize the transfer of enrichment and reprocessing facilities, and equipment and technology therefore if the recipient does not meet, at least, all of the following criteria:

(i) Is a Party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and is in full compliance with its obligations under the Treaty;

In two decisions published today, the Russian government suspended the U.S.-Russian agreement on cooperation in nuclear- and energy-related research and terminated the Implementing Agreement between Rosatom and the Department of Energy on conversion of research reactors.

The cooperation agreement was signed in September 2013 and was intended to stimulate new cooperation projects. It included an annex that regulated questions of intellectual property and a list of organizations and facilities that may be used to conduct cooperative activities. The letter that accompanied the government decree explains the decision to suspend the agreement rather than terminate it:

Under this approach, the international legal framework of cooperation with the United States will be preserved. Russia will preserve the possibility of resuming cooperation under the Agreement when that is justified by the general context of relations with the United States.

The importance of this decision is difficult to estimate, since the role of the suspended agreement was not entirely clear. The legal framework for most cooperation projects was provided by other agreements - the Cooperative Threat Reduction umbrella agreement until 2013 and after 2013 - by a bilateral U.S-Russian protocol to the 2003 Framework Agreement on a Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Programme in the Russian Federation (MNEPR) after 2013.

The terminated Implementing Agreement was governed by the terms of the MNERP protocol since 2013. The agreement, signed on 7 December 2010, covered reactor conversion feasibility studies as well as work on development and testing of new fuels. It included cost-sharing provisions, with the United States covering the cost of fuel development and qualification and Russia supporting fuel fabrication. In 2014, the work under the agreement resulted in Russia's completing conversion of the Argus reactor at the Kurchatov Institute.

In justifying the termination of the reactor conversion agreement, the Russian government said that the work under the agreement has been largely completed and that no new projects under the agreement are being planned. It also referred to the U.S. decision to suspend cooperation that was made in April 2014.

Formally, the MNERP agreement and the bilateral protocol, which remain in force, could continue to support cooperation projects. However, Russia informed the United States at the last meeting of the joint working group, which took place in December 2014, that it intends to end all cooperation and gradually phase out joint projects in all areas in 2015. The decision to terminate the reactor conversion agreement simply codified the end of the program that happened in 2014.

In a decree published today (PDF, English translation), President Putin of Russia suspended implementation of the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PDF) that was signed by the United States and Russia in April 2010. In the agreement, the two states made a commitment to eliminate 34 tons of weapon-grade plutonium each.

The decree justifies the suspension of the agreement by the "fundamental change of the circumstances, an emerging threat to strategic stability that resulted from unfriendly actions of the United States toward the Russian Federation" and the "inability" of the United States to fulfill its plutonium disposition obligations. Also, the decree refers to "the need to undertake urgent measures to protect security of the Russian Federation."

Importantly, the decree states that the plutonium that was to be eliminated under PMDA "is not used for the purposes of manufacturing nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, or for research, development, design, or tests that are related to such devices, or for any other military purposes."

The mechanism of suspending implementation of the agreement chosen by Russia is not entirely clear. The agreement itself does not seem to have a termination or withdrawal mechanism. The presidential decree refers to the Russian law on international treaties and suggests that the suspension will enter into force 120 days after the Russian government notifies the U.S. administration to suspend implementation of the agreement.

The United States has, indeed, encountered significant problems with implementing its original plutonium disposition plan. U.S. administration suspended construction of the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility and plans to terminate it. This decision, supported by many experts, has met some resistance in Congress, where supporters of the U.S. MOX program pointed at Russia's concerns about the change of plans, publicly expressed by president Putin in April 2016, as a justification for continuing with the MOX route. The Obama administration and many U.S. experts were optimistic about the prospects of reaching an agreement with Russia that would accommodate any changes in the U.S. plutonium disposition program, but others were skeptical.

It is important to emphasize that Russia is likely to continue its plutonium disposition program that it created for the purposes of PMDA. However, it would be free not to implement certain elements of the agreement that deal with transparency and accountability.

On 22 September 2016, a draft text for a UN General Assembly resolution to start talks in 2017 on a nuclear weapons ban treaty was circulated by Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa. A vote in the General Assembly First Committee, which is responsible for disarmament, global challenges and threats to peace that affect the international community, is expected in late October, with a full UN General Assembly vote expected in early December.

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