US-Russian agreement
on plutonium disposition


Office of the Press Secretary
(Moscow, Russia)

Excerpts from White House press briefing held in Moscow.

For Immediate ReleaseSeptember 1, 1998






Hotel National
Moscow, Russia
September 1, 1998

[ begin ~ 3:48 P.M. ]

COLONEL CROWLEY: Good afternoon. Behind some of the issues that have drawn many of the headlines this week with regard to the summit meeting -- on economics, on politics -- there are some of the traditional security, nonproliferation, and arms control issues that have been among the cornerstones of the U.S.-Russia relationship and U.S.-Russia partnership. So here to brief [ you ] on some of those aspects today we'll provide you with two briefers and then four distinguished individuals to answer your questions afterwards.

Briefing first will be Robert Bell, who is the Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, to talk about agreement on exchange of information on missile launches and early warning. And he will be followed by Gary Samore, who is the Senior Director for Nonproliferation at the National Security Council, who will talk about an agreement regarding plutonium disposition.

[text cut]

MR. SAMORE: Hello. I'd like to brief you on an important agreement that the Presidents will sign tomorrow on the management and disposition of weapons plutonium, which is significant both from the standpoint of arms control and from the standpoint of nonproliferation. And afterwards, myself and Debra Cagan, who helped to negotiate the statement, will be happy to answer your questions.

Under the terms of this statement, both the United States and Russia have agreed to withdraw approximately 50 metric tons of weapons plutonium from their nuclear weapons program, which is enough plutonium for thousands of nuclear weapons and represents a very significant portion of the total plutonium holdings in both countries.

Furthermore, both countries have agreed to cooperate in transforming this weapons plutonium into a form that cannot be used -- physically cannot be used for nuclear weapons. And we and the Russians have identified two technical methods that we believe are most appropriate for carrying out this transformation. One is the use of this material as fuel in nuclear power reactors to generate power. And second is to mix the plutonium with high-level radioactive waste and then store it in a nuclear waste repository. Both of these techniques have the advantage of changing the plutonium so that it can no longer be used for nuclear weapons and, therefore, could not be used either in our arsenal, the Russian arsenal, nor would it be available for other countries.

In addition, the two Presidents have directed their experts to begin negotiations promptly and to seek to complete a detailed bilateral agreement by the end of this year which would lay out the timetable and a number of the details necessary in order to carry out this very ambitious program.

Such an agreement would include the schedule for building facilities both in the United States and Russia in order to carry out these two processes. It would include international verification measures so that both countries would be confident that the transformation was taking place and that the material could not be returned to nuclear weapons. It would include appropriate provisions for safety and for the protection of the environment. It would include security and accounting procedures for the nuclear material. And finally, it would have to include financial arrangements.

Although I can't give you a precise figure, this is likely to be a very expensive program, running into hundreds of millions of dollars in both countries, and so, therefore, we'll have to work with the Russians to establish appropriate financial arrangements. And in that regard we are hoping that other countries which share our interest in arms control and nonproliferation will be willing to contribute in this project -- and, in particular, the G-8 have expressed an interest in working with the U.S. and Russia, both technically and financially in order to carry out this program as quickly as possible.

And finally, I want to mention that Senator Domenici, who is with us, with the President's delegation here in Moscow, has been a very strong supporter of this program, and we're counting on the Senator's leadership in Congress in order to help us carry this program out. Thank you.

Q: Can I just ask you a question on the plutonium? How much plutonium does the U.S. and Russians have? Have the Russians made any commitment as to what they might do with the plutonium that they're left with, or do they intend to retain that as some sort of good? And basically -- I know you haven't worked out the details, but how long a process is this likely to be? Two years? Ten years?

MR. SAMORE: Those are all very [ good ] questions. I can't tell you exactly what the Russian stockpile is, but we believe that the 50 tons that we're talking about does represent a significant amount, as much as 25 percent of their total holdings. On the U.S. side, it's even a larger percentage, as much as 50 percent of our total holdings of plutonium.

Now, obviously both the U.S. and Russia -- and my colleague, Bob Bell, could speak to this better than I can -- we have embarked on a very ambitious arms control program. As we reduce the number of nuclear weapons, that frees up more plutonium and more highly-enriched uranium, which we then have to figure out a way to safely store it until we can dispose of it. And one of the most important cooperative efforts we have in place with the Russians is to find a way to utilize that material so that it's no longer available for nuclear weapons and can't possibly contribute to proliferation.

In terms of the time frame, we would like to do this as quickly as possible, but because it's such a large amount, and because there are limits on the extent to which you can burn this material in existing reactors, I think we are talking about a number of years. So at least on an interim basis, for several years at least, we're going to have to focus on making sure that this material is safely stored. In fact, we have a program in place with the Russians to build a storage facility at Mayak, which is scheduled to be completed in the next few years. We will try to burn the plutonium as quickly as possible, but I think it's likely to be at least five years and perhaps more until we can get through this 50 tons.

Q: Are you saying that as weapons are dismantled the stores of plutonium increase, even as plutonium is being stored and disposed of in some way?

MR. SAMORE: The 50 tons is a big chunk for us to deal with right now, so I can't tell you what we will do as we get down to lower and lower numbers, and therefore additional material becomes available. But, in theory, obviously, as we have less need for plutonium and highly-enriched uranium as our nuclear weapons arsenals become smaller, I think we then have to start thinking about how to, A, store that material, and, B, how to dispose of it.

[text cut]

Q: The President talked yesterday about the danger of Russian arms or Russian nuclear products falling into the wrong hands, particularly with the pressure of economic troubles. What's your assessment of the current situation and whether there's an increased danger of the spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear technologies because of what's going on right now?

MR. BELL: Well, I think the whole point of the President being here and the engagement that he's involved in with President Yeltsin today is to keep us on a path where Russia is making political and economic reform and the command and control of the military remains very intact and very secure. That's certainly been the assessment of senior American military leadership up to now. When General Habiger was here just a few months ago and was given unprecedented access to the Russian nuclear establishment, including the first visit by a senior American military official to a tactical nuclear storage facility and a submarine launch ballistic missile base, his conclusion was that Russian nuclear weapons are under secure control.

We have seen, of course, nothing in the last week that would put that assessment at risk and I just don't want to speculate about scenarios in terms of which way this current crisis could proceed down the road that would bring that into question.

Ted Warner is the Senior defense official in charge of the Nunn-Lugar program, which is designed precisely to maintain this pattern of cooperation with the Russians in this area. So let's ask Ted to comment.

MR. WARNER: That would be another point, beginning with the Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction program in the early 1990s, some of its early emphasis was on the security of the Russian nuclear weapons and nuclear material at their various depots and as they were moved about, particularly in that early stage when we were reducing the -- bringing weapons out of other parts of the former Soviet Union.

We have continued that effort. When Secretary Cohen was here in February, he and Marshal Sergayev went out [ to ] Pasad, northwest of Moscow, and visited a facility which is really the transfer point for additional materials -- both physical materials for physical security and materials to keep working on the personal security issues. We continue to cooperate in that area. I mean, it had been a high priority for us; it remains a high priority. The Department of Energy has similarly been working with the institutes in Minatom on that kind of security in the research establishment.

So this is a longtime staple of our strategic partnership of this decade. It's one that remains very important and in this situation I think is even more important. We will continue that cooperation.

[text cut]

Q: Is the end result of the direction you're going with this agreement the abolition of all nuclear materials so that there could be no -- for weapons purposes, that is -- so there will be no nuclear weapons? Is this route the route that will get there?

MS. CAGAN: No, I think that we, of course, are committed to, as we said in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, eventually to nuclear disarmament. But we're not at that point yet -- so we're not moving in that direction yet. What we are doing is, both the United States and Russia are firmly committed to further reducing their nuclear stockpiles. And as we break up the remnants of the Cold War, we have to do something with this material.

The Plutonium Disposition Agreement, like the Highly-Enriched Uranium Agreement, are designed to dispose of this material in an irreversible way so that it can never again be used in a nuclear weapon. Now, the reasoning behind this if you just have it laying out there it become[s] potentially a target for someone who might want to smuggle it -- which is why we had a couple of years ago the G-8 action plan on illicit nuclear smuggling, which has worked very, very effectively. And the idea is to take the material out of the nuclear warhead, dismantle it appropriately, store it safely and securely -- which is the program that Ted was talking about, some of the DOE programs on materials, physical protection control and accounting, and then get rid of them through ... either MOX fuel or as Gary said, immobilization or in [ the case of ] uranium, through blending the uraniums to be used in commercial reactors. And that's what we're trying to do, so it's not just laying around out there for easy pickings.

Q: About the plutonium, you said that it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. I guess the Russians can't be too thrilled about that, and I was wondering whether the G-8 participation in the financial aspect would be a condition for the Russians to sign on --

MR. SAMORE: Obviously, one of the most important details we'll have to work out of the financial arrangements. So I can't tell you exactly what that's going to look like. Certainly the U.S. hopes --

Q: -- there was interest in the G-8 --

MR. SAMORE: Yes, certainly the countries in the G-8 that have been most interested in working with the U.S. and Russia to deal with this problem are Japan, France and Germany. And we certainly hope that we can expand that to the other G-8 countries. We think this is a goal that all of the G-8 share and we hope that there will be a role for all of the G-8 countries to play. But that's something that we'll need to work out in the course of this year as we pursue these negotiations.

Q: But the financial agreements would have to be sorted out before the Russians sign on the deal, or no?

MR. SAMORE: No, I think the two things work in parallel. I mean, we've already identified the technical processes that make the most sense in terms of transforming this material as quickly as possible -- the two techniques that I mentioned to you. We still need to work out a lot of details, not only the finances, but also verification arrangements and safeguards and so forth.

I think it's quite possible this is a situation where you have to work on both the finances and those other kinds of details at the same time, and I hope that the agreement we reach with the Russians at the end of this year would include a framework for both finances as well as the technical and the political aspects of it.

[ text cut ]

Q: Two questions. Just checking the facts. Was it 50 tons on each side, or combined?

MR. SAMORE: Yes, 50 tons on each side.

[ text cut ]

[ end ~ 4:24 P.M. ]

[ The Dangers of Encouraging Plutonium Use ]
[ Bomb Makers Speak Out Against Plutonium ]

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