Russia details plutonium agreement suspension

A vintage plutonium bomb. US, 2013. [Mark Mauno/Flickr]

Russia’s Ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, has provided an account of Moscow’s 3 October decision to suspend a  US-Russia agreement, signed in 2000, which commits the two sides to dispose of surplus plutonium originally intended for use in nuclear weapons.

Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended the treaty with Washington on cleaning up weapons-grade plutonium on Monday, signalling he is willing to use nuclear disarmament as a new bargaining chip in disputes with the United States over Ukraine and Syria.

The plutonium accord is not the cornerstone of post-Cold War US-Russia disarmament, and the practical implications from the suspension will be limited. But the suspension, and the linkage to disagreements on other issues, carries powerful symbolism, Reuters commented.

“Putin’s decree could signal that other nuclear disarmament cooperation deals between the United States and Russia are at risk of being undermined,” Stratfor, a Texas-based global intelligence company, said in a comment.

“The decision is likely an attempt to convey to Washington the price of cutting off dialogue on Syria and other issues,” Stratfor said.

Speaking to, Chizhov, who serves as Russia’s ambassador to the EU since 2005, explained that the 2000 agreement, which entered into force in 2011, concerned the conversion of surplus plutonium, beyond the quantities the two superpowers need for nuclear arms.

Russia stopped producing weapons-grade plutonium a quarter of a century ago, but has a surplus produced during decades prior.

According to the agreement, Chizhov explained the two sides undertook the commitment that each of them will build installations for converting 36 tons of weapon-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors.

He said the construction of the special equipment was a “hugely costly exercise”.  Russia invested the necessary funds and built this infrastructure in Siberia, he said, while the US started building a facility in South Carolina, but then froze the project. Washington later explained that they will find a cheaper way of disposing of the surplus plutonium.

Chizhov claimed that the US told Russia that it will mix the plutonium with certain chemicals and bury it underground. For Russia, this solution was not good enough, the diplomat explained, because the plutonium could be easily recovered and recycled.

The essence of the agreement was to make the plutonium unusable for military purposes, he underlined.

On the political side, Chizhov said, it is wrong for the US to impose sanctions on his country, and seek cooperation when this suits Washington.

The draft law sent to the Russian parliament mentions unfriendly steps taken by the US in recent years, such as economic and political sanctions, including a beefed up military presence along Russia’s borders, its development of an antiballistic missile system, adopting laws interfering in Russia’s internal affairs, including so-called Magnitsky law, and a law in support of freedom in Ukraine, Chizhov explained.

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“The agreement on plutonium has been suspended. We can return to fulfilling, the agreed date for starting conversion being 2018,” he said, adding that if the Americans fulfil their obligations and the conditions outlined by Russia, “we can proceed accordingly”.

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