Jeffrey LewisProgess on CTR With Bolton Out the Door?

Joe Fiorill at Global Security Newswire has a nice summary of recent developments in the US-Russia nuclear liability issue, with a hopeful note of progress:

Meanwhile, a key U.S.-Russian agreement on locking down and destroying various materials in Russia is fast nearing expiration. Unless a new extension is agreed upon, the 1992 Cooperative Threat Reduction “umbrella agreement” will run out in the middle of next year.

The threat and deadline pressures could lead at last to a resolution to the dispute, officials and experts have indicated in recent interviews and public statements.

“They would like to get it done” within the next few months, a U.S. official close to the talks said in an interview this week. “We should have sorted this out a while ago.”

The disagreement centers on the extent to which U.S. officials and contractors should be shielded from lawsuits arising from their work in Russia to secure nuclear materials. Washington has until recently sought to impose, as a standard to be observed in all U.S.-Russian nuclear security agreements, broad liability protections such as those in the current umbrella agreement.

My favorite part of the article is the passage noting Linton Brooks’ explanation that “We don’t want to subject our companies to that” kind of liability, even though “Among those pushing for a quick resolution to the dispute, though, are many of the companies to which Brooks referred.”

Fiorill reports that an organization representing some of the contractractors called the Contractors International Group on Nuclear Liability wrote to Secretary Rice last month urging ratification of the IAEA Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage “as a long-term and comprehensive solution to the liability issue impasse.”

Of course, we’ve heard news about progress before. Outgoing Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham predicted “positive progress on the liability issue in the months ahead” during remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations in January. At the time, one colleague wondered:

A deal acceptable to the Russians, DOE and DOD has been on the table for months. The obstacle has been Bolton. I’m guessing here, but I wonder if the ‘progress’ isn’t as simple as [John] Bolton packing his desk?

That was certainly the impression given by Peter Baker and Dafna Linzer in the Washington Post, when they predicted progress at the G8 summit on US-Russian plutonium disposition efforts now that Bolton is out of the way.

I think it is pretty clear that Bolton really has been the obstacle. Michael Roston, writing at Arms Control, noted that Senator Pete Domenici became so incensed at Bolton’s foot dragging that he “took the unusual step of requesting to testify before Senator Richard Lugar’s Foreign Relations Committee” about Bolton’s efforts and told Bolton that he was “not sure to this point that [Bolton is] up to” resolving the liability dispute.

Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out, John.


  1. Tom Clements (History)

    If John Bolton did indeed hold up the US-Russia plutonium disposition agreement, as has been long rumored, then this may be the only thing he did right. That agreement, if implemented, will lead to the establishment of a plutonium fuel cycle in Russia, which is the last thing the world needs in a country with questionable security. Breeder reactor advocates in Russia are hoping to leverage a new BN-800 reactor out of the MOX program though it doesn’t seem that the G8 will be foolish enough to pay for that.

    At the site chosen for the US MOX plant – DOE’s Savannah River Site – the House is now raising the possibility of spent fuel storage and reprocessing. So, there are also those on the US side who hold on to the “dream” of a plutonium economy being established here.

    Given that DOE has now revived the “dual track” plutonium disposition program – by moving forward on planning for a vitrification plant at SRS – it may well be time for a thorough review of the entire program, with a focus on choosing the Pu disposition method which is cheapest, cleanest and which presents the least proliferation concern. Just as for HEU, stopping Pu separation (via reprocessing) and stockpiling and getting it out of commerce in all countries is the soundest policy to pursue.

  2. Michael Roston (History)

    Tom –
    Like you, I have misgivings about the MOX program, and think vitrification is a preferable option. I hope that review you propose can occur.

    But we cannot miss a very important point – the liability dispute between the US and Russia had already led to the discontinuation of many programs under DOE’s Nuclear Cities Initiative. There is evidence that the lack of resolution of this dispute was contagious and spreading to other Nunn-Lugar programs, which I suspect you are less critical of. Bolton was threatening the entire US-Russia framework, and not just MOX.

    Moreover, the intrasigence of Bolton and his ilk on the liability dispute had nothing to do with any of your concerns – it just had the side effect of delaying a program you rightly criticize. If Bolton had gotten his way, and the Russians conceded to the untenable position that he was seeking to put them in, the MOX construction would have gone forward.

  3. Pavel Podvig (History)

    The MOX program is in trouble mostly because there is no money there and Rosatom is not interested in the program if it has to fund it (

    As for the progress on liabilities, there were some reports about it as far back as in February ( I would say it’s not over till it’s over.

  4. Anonymous (History)

    Mr. Clements and Mr. Bolton turn out to have a lot in common. In their evangelical devotion to single issues – Busher for Mr. Bolton, plutonium for Mr. Clements – both would have us abandon opportunities for near-term risk reduction in favor of absolutist positions that may have only limited value. To make his case as persuasively as possible, Mr. Clements has misrepresented several issues. I offer the following response.

    First, as Michael Roston ably points out in his comment. Bolton’s position had nothing to do with his view of the MOX program but did delay – and in some cases destroy – CTR projects of which I assume Mr. Clements does approve.

    Second, the disposition of weapons-grade Pu via the fabrication of MOX fuel assemblies to be irradiated in civilian nuclear energy reactors does create a MOX fuel cycle in Russia (albeit one the Russians were developing prior to the agreement with the United States), but it does not create a “plutonium fuel cycle”. Mr. Clements conflates the two to increase the scare value of his comments. In essence, he is arguing that the reprocessing part of creating MOX fuel will give Russia the ability to separate plutonium, a capability which would then allow Russia to build and operate breeder reactors. As I’m sure Mr. Clements knows well, Russia has long had the ability to reprocess spent fuel and is no closer to building and operating breeder reactors than anyone else in the world. The U.S.-Russia Pu disposition project is hardly the sine qua non of Russian plutonium fuel cycle.

    Third, it is widely agreed that immobilization (which does differ technically from vitrification) would have been a less expensive way to manage weapons-grade plutonium. (Whether it would have been more effective is another question, dealt with below). However, Russia made it clear that MOX disposition was the only alternative they would accept. We are left to choose: a cheaper option that disposes 0 metric tons of Russian weapons-grade plutonium or a more expensive option that disposes of at least 34 metric tons.

    Fourth, the irradiation of MOX fuel assemblies results in an ELLIMINATION of a substantial portion of the Pu-239 (un-irradiated MOX assemblies contain >90 percent 239; irradiated assemblies contain

  5. Tom Clements (History)

    I will note that I have spoken with someone who was in the negotiating room with the Russians and, as reflectd in the US-Russia plutonium disposition agreement, they accepted Pu immobilization as an option and did not force MOX-only on the US. While many MOX boosters have used the “Russia made us do it” argument there has never been a shred of evidence presented to support that. Thus, a challenge to “anonymous” – produce some evidence to support the argument that Russia dictated US policy on this issue.