WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and Russia on Tuesday signed a deal to dispose of tons of weapons-grade plutonium, a sign of increased cooperation between the two former Cold War foes toward their joint goal of nuclear non-proliferation.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signed the agreement, which calls on each side to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium by burning it in nuclear reactors.
Lavrov said Russia would spend about $2.5 billion on the program, with the United States contributing some $400 million to help permanently destroy the material.
“Together that is enough material for nearly 17,000 nuclear weapons and we will put in place the framework and infrastructure needed to dispose of even more plutonium from defence programs in the future,” Clinton said at the signing ceremony, held on the sidelines of a global nuclear security summit convened by President Barack Obama in Washington.
Plutonium can be recycled by blending it with other materials to make a nuclear fuel for civilian reactors known as MOX. France, Britain, Russia, India and Japan are among the countries that make MOX fuel, with France’s Areva a top supplier and likely a beneficiary of the new U.S.-Russian deal.
Environmental activists and other critics dislike MOX fuel production because it relies on the transportation of spent nuclear fuel and highly toxic plutonium, leaving the nuclear material vulnerable to loss or theft.
The agreement implements a deal reached in 2000 but not yet in put force due to delays on both sides.
Lavrov said it would be transparent and mark a step toward the goal set forth in the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of general disarmament under strict and effective international control
“When this mechanism starts working we expect its positive influence on the process of nonproliferation including making the process of nuclear disarmament multilateral at some point, hopefully not very far from today,” Lavrov said.
Neither side said how long the destruction would take, nor did they give a percentage figure for the amount of their total plutonium stocks covered by the deal.
Tuesday’s signing came after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Obama signed the ‘New START’ treaty committing the two countries to reducing their deployed nuclear arsenals.
Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at Harvard University, said some U.S. critics question the deal because reactors used for the Russian plutonium could potentially be remodified to produce new weapons-grade plutonium.
But he said the move to destroy the existing plutonium stock was important in itself.
“The answer is basically that you’re taking weapons-grade plutonium that’s in separated form, ready to be put right into a weapon ... and putting it into a form that’s in spent fuel,” Bunn said.
“Yes, 30, 40, 50 years down the road they might reprocess that spent fuel and get some plutonium out of it, but you’re putting it in a much more secure form for decades to come.”
France, in a separate statement, noted its own expertise with MOX and said it stood ready to help qualified countries reprocess their nuclear material.
Reporting by Andrew Quinn and Steve Gutterman; editing by David Storey
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