December 4, 1997
(As Delivered November 21, 1997)

THE HONORABLE JOHN D. HOLUM, DIRECTOR
U.S. ARMS CONTROL AND DISARMAMENT AGENCY
REMARKS TO THE U.S.-RUSSIAN MEETING ON
PLUTONIUM DISPOSITION, CAMBRIDGE, MA

"Plutonium Disposition--Challenges Facing the Two Governments"

The Context

The U.S. and the Russian Federation together have already identified over 100 tonnes of plutonium excess to their military requirements. We can anticipate that these excess stockpiles will grow even larger as agreements are reached by the two sides on further reductions in nuclear weapons. The challenges posed by this accumulation and its disposition are daunting, but the mission is central to our mutual peace and security, and that of the international community.

Fortunately, our understanding of the technical issues and framework for cooperation is already well along, and we have much excellent work on which to base our plans. Notable examples include:

  • The U.S. National Academy of Sciences reports completed in 1994 and 1995;

  • The Joint U.S.-Russian Plutonium Disposition Study completed in 1996;

  • The report of the P-8 Technical Experts meeting in Paris in October 1996;

  • The DOE Record of Decision from January 1997 and its supporting analyses;

  • And, of course, the U.S.-Russian Independent Scientific Commission report from this summer.

This body of work has already resulted in a substantial degree of consensus on the dimensions of the problem and, in part, the nature of the solutions.

Unfortunately, the remaining political and financial issues will take us into new territory, and we have little time to solve them.

We do have some important markers to guide us on this journey. As I noted, there is a substantial bilateral and multilateral consensus on many critical points: for example, immobilizing excess plutonium or burning it as MOX fuel in existing reactors as the technical means of choice to meet the "spent fuel standard"; the application of transparency measures and IAEA safeguards as soon as practicable; and the importance of applying sound nonproliferation conditions throughout.

In addition there is international agreement on our broad directions. When the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was extended unconditionally and indefinitely in 1995, we agreed that our Article VI obligations as nuclear weapon states would include "the determined pursuit . . . of systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of eliminating those weapons ...." We also agreed that "nuclear fissile material transferred from military use to peaceful nuclear activities should, as soon as practicable, be placed under IAEA safeguards in the framework of the voluntary safeguards agreements in place with the nuclear weapon states."

We face many challenges. To solve them, we must share a common conception of our joint mission. Let me share some thoughts on a starting point, an endpoint, and four challenges in between.

The Starting Point: MPC&A

Job number one is to ensure that dismantlement of our nuclear weapons and nuclear complexes, and the interim storage of excess material, proceed under stringent conditions of material protection, control, and accountancy (MPC&A). These conditions must persist for many years, since the elimination of these stockpiles, through whatever disposition process is selected, will itself take many years, if not decades. Fortunately, we have in place now a number of cooperative programs that are fulfilling this objective, including on MPC&A, on storage, and on national systems of oversight.

Another challenge will be to coordinate these various programs with the goal of disposition. We now have at least one example of how this might be done -- in the Plutonium Production Reactor Agreement. Under it, weapon-grade plutonium still being produced by the three operating Russian production reactors would not be used for nuclear weapons and would be subject to monitored storage, but could be removed from such storage for "transformation into MOX fuel for declared peaceful use in reactors." Monitoring under the Agreement would cease once the material arrived at the MOX plant and was confirmed there, at which point it "would be subject to international verification measures in place under any other applicable agreements."

Other initiatives, some of which are just beginning, will also have to be coordinated with the plutonium disposition program. The Trilateral Initiative and the Mayak transparency arrangements are two examples.

But secure storage is just the beginning. We cannot leave these stockpiles in place indefinitely.

Defining the Endpoint

We also need to look far down the road, to see if what we are doing makes sense in the long run.

Fortunately, various experts that have reviewed this issue have given us an endpoint on which to set our sights. Both the Joint U.S.-Russian Plutonium Disposition Study and the Holdren-Velikhov Commission recommend that "disposition should proceed in parallel -- resulting, in time, in reductions to equivalent remaining quantities of plutonium and HEU in the two military stockpiles." Not equivalent reductions, but equivalent outcomes.

Reaching this goal will be our greatest challenge. It will require that we reach a better understanding of our respective programs, that we know how to define equivalency, and that we reach our goal with the transparency necessary to know when we have arrived there. Let's not kid ourselves; defining all this in practical terms will be difficult. But the means will be guided by the end, so we owe it to ourselves to devote some creative thought to the larger picture.

Of course between the beginning and the end, there is an array of other challenges. We have embarked on this mission of "irreversible dismantlement" together, and together will have to see it through. In other words, we are going to be seeing a lot of each other.

A First Interim Challenge: Achieving Irreversible Dismantlement

As we see it, the dismantlement process has two complementary aspects: first, political and legal commitments to remove stocks irreversibly from weapon programs, and, second, transforming those stocks so that they are unusable for nuclear weapons.

In May 1995, Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin already took the first step by committing not to re-use excess fissile material in nuclear weapons -- whether it be from dismantled weapons, from new production, or from civil programs. In the U.S., the first tonne quantities of excess plutonium have been under IAEA safeguards for over two years.

With President Yeltsin's recent statement, our two countries have now both made unilateral declarations of the current amounts of their excess material. We will likely each need to update these declarations in the future to reflect the dynamic nature of this issue.

In September, we took another step by signing the Plutonium Production Reactor Agreement, which commits us to cooperate in ending by the year 2000 further production of weapon-grade plutonium at the three production reactors still operating in Russia.

We will need to develop the proper mix of the political, legal, and material aspects of disposition, since they depend on each other for long-term success.

A Second Challenge: Financing and Coordinating the Roles of the P-8

The U.S. is committed to achieving the disposition of excess weapon plutonium and supports taking the necessary steps, with others in the Eight, to make it financially feasible for Russia. We are fully prepared to financially support a pilot-scale facility for disassembly and conversion of weapon components in Russia. And we believe a viable means of financing MOX fuel fabrication and other disposition efforts can be found and are encouraging and participating in efforts to develop such a mechanism.

Nevertheless, the roles of others in the Eight are not yet well defined -- whether France and Germany and their proposal to help build a pilot-scale MOX plant in Russia; Canada with its willingness to consider use of its CANDU reactors if needed for burning MOX; and Japan, which has expressed willingness to provide technical expertise.

Given the long lead-times needed for contracting, designing, licensing, and constructing facilities, as well as the hurdle of arranging financing, it will also be necessary to conclude specific implementing agreements involving our P-8 partners, if we are to realize our objective of beginning disposition on a pilot scale early in the next century.

A Third Challenge: Transparency

Implementing transparency within the weapon complex, where sensitive information and classified objects have traditionally been the norm, not the exception, also requires creative solutions.

We believe that priority should be given first to plutonium in weapon components and other plutonium that could easily be fabricated into weapon components, and most of this material involves sensitivities or classified information. For instance, there are several sensitive aspects of weapon components that we may have to address in the conversion process prior to disposition, including information related to shape, mass and isotopic composition.

Such information must be protected from improper disclosure. But we do not view these as insurmountable obstacles, and technical experts on both sides are already at work addressing them.

A Fourth Challenge: Meeting Nonproliferation Objectives

One of the prime nonproliferation goals of the U.S., as stated by President Clinton in 1993, is "to seek to eliminate where possible the accumulation of stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, and to ensure that where these materials already exist they are subject to the highest standards of safety, security, and international accountability."

We take this goal seriously, and it bears directly on what we will need to seek with regard to disposition strategies.

In this light, we believe it makes sense that any MOX burned within a disposition program should not be reprocessed to recover the plutonium until excess stocks of plutonium are eliminated. We sometimes refer to this as the theory of holes: "when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging."

We also believe that our first priority should be plutonium from dismantled weapons and from defense production facilities. Thus, we would want to come to an understanding of dedicating the use of MOX plants to material in those categories, at least until they are all consumed.

Finally, this will be an international effort and will warrant international safeguards, possibly supplemented with bilateral safeguards as appropriate. It will indeed be a challenge to integrate such measures into the multi-faceted programs we envision.

The Window of Opportunity Ahead

The time lines for critical decisions and subsequent agreements are unforgivingly tight. The next 2-3 years will be a crucial period in U.S.-Russian strategic and technical engagement concerning all aspects of the storage and disposition of plutonium.

Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that decisions taken and agreements reached between now and 2000 will establish the central directions of both countries' policies with respect to long-term arrangements for plutonium well into the next century.

There is little room for slippage in this time frame. Starting in 2000-2001, the capital costs of the U.S. national plutonium disposition strategy will ratchet upward, as the program moves from the design to the construction stage. Congress will undoubtably want to see clear and tangible evidence of progress with respect to the disposition of Russian plutonium before it will sign up to and underwrite these costs. The year 2000 will also be a presidential election year in both countries. The more that can be put solidly in place by 2000 in both countries, the more that our efforts are likely to endure and smoothly progress through the uncertainties and transitional dynamics of presidential election politics.

Within this limited time frame, our countries face several major tasks whose importance and complexity should not be underestimated. Briefly, we need to:

1. Conceptualize, negotiate, and conclude a comprehensive agreement on the storage and disposition of U.S. and Russian weapons plutonium -- in ways that satisfy the strategic, security, arms control, and nonproliferation interests and requirements of each. In this vein, we need also to develop with others -- France, Germany, Canada, Japan, others in the G-8 -- clear understandings of the roles and contributions that these countries might play, and how agreements on these various roles can fit within the basic U.S.-Russian agreement and framework.

2. To the extent that some external financing is almost certain to be needed, we will have to identify, understand, and establish viable long-term arrangements for the financing of Russian programs to store and dispose of weapon-derived plutonium.

3. And we need to develop an effective way to "manage" this process.

In the meantime, the two countries also need to jointly and cooperatively pursue the science, engineering, and technology dimensions of plutonium disposition -- in ways that will help inform the necessary strategic and political judgements, without at the same time prejudging what those political decisions might be. In the U.S., we plan to devote our efforts through 1998 to lab-scale R&D and the planning for construction of U.S. disposition facilities. But in three years, we plan to begin that construction.

The Nuclear Summit in April 1996, the Paris meeting the following October, and subsequent summits of the Eight in Lyon and Denver each have helped generate considerable momentum. But we do not yet have the necessary mandate for full-scale action. For that, we must work diligently together.

Given the range of decisions that need to be made, Russia is to be congratulated for taking the bold step of establishing its new interagency committee under the auspices of the Defense Council, and its appointment of Academician Velikhov to head those efforts. We greatly look forward to frank and creative discussions over the next two days with our distinguished Russian guests.