Based on an agreement reached in 2000 that was revised in 2010, the U.S. and Russia agreed that each side will dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium by burning it in nuclear reactors. That quantity is large enough to make almost 17,000 nuclear weapons.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on October 3, 2016 suspending the agreement.
The decree states that the move was taken due to what Moscow calls “a drastic change in circumstances and the emergence of a threat to strategic stability as a result of unfriendly actions by the United States of America with respect to the Russian Federation." It also cites what it says is Washington's failure to fulfill the obligations for the disposal of surplus weapon-grade plutonium.
The decree says that the U.S. “is unable to ensure the implementation of its obligations to utilize surplus weapons-grade plutonium."
Russian lawmakers approved the deal 16 days later.
Joseph Cirincione, president of the nuclear non-proliferation think tank Ploughshares explained the U.S. position in an October 3, 2016 e-mail to Polygraph.info.
“Moscow is technically correct," he wrote. "The United States wants to dispose of its 34 tons of excess plutonium in a manner that was not included in the agreement. The U.S. needs Russia’s approval to do so. Russia has not given its approval.
"Russia has a different technical analysis of how best to dispose of plutonium,. But more importantly, it is driven by the demands of its nuclear industry which wants to feed the plutonium into a new generation of 'breeder' reactors that make more plutonium than they consume," he wrote.
"The U.S., driven by the demands of its nuclear industry, originally agreed to do something similar and use the plutonium for a mixed plutonium and uranium fuel. But it proved absurdly expensive to make this fuel, with the plant in South Carolina exploding in cost from $3 billion originally estimated to now $30 billion and growing," he wrote.
"The United States now wants to abandon that method and, instead, to mix the plutonium with an inert material, solidify it into glass logs and bury it deep within the Earth. This would make it enormously difficult for anyone to use it in the future for a nuclear weapon," he wrote.
RAND Corporation’s Intelligence Policy Center Director John Parachini wrote in an October 4, 2016 e-mail to Polygraph.info that the U.S. has struggled to find the most feasible method for disposal.
“The U.S. effort to dispose of this plutonium has foundered on different views in the U.S. on how to do it," he wrote. "The U.S. plan to convert excess plutonium from nuclear weapons into plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel for reactors has escalated from a $2 billion project when it was proposed 20 years ago to $30 billion.
"Even former proponents of the program have given up on it due to the cost escalation because they fear this cost will cut into financial support for other more important nuclear cooperation reduction programs,” he wrote.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau, responding to the Russian decree on October 3, 2016, said Russia is being "disingenuous."
“We regret Russia’s decision to suspend this agreement unilaterally," she said. "The United States remains committed to the agreement. We believe it’s in the best interests of both the United States and Russia as part of our efforts to secure nuclear materials and combat nuclear terrorism.
"I would note this is the latest in a series of steps by Russia to end longstanding cooperation on nuclear security and disarmament, including its decision to not participate in the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, and its unwillingness to continue strategic arms control reductions," she said.
"I would also note it’s disingenuous of Russia to cite the United States threat to strategic stability as a reason for this decision," she said. "The United States seeks a constructive dialogue with Russia on strategic issues, but it is Russia instead who continues to engage in destabilizing activities, and to suspend cooperation under existing agreements like this one that benefit international security.”
RAND analyst Parachini told Polygraph.info: “The Russians are taking advantage of an internal U.S. disagreement about how to handle the elimination of plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons. The Russians get maximum symbolic value out of a U.S. conflict about what to do with this material with no cost to themselves.”