Up & Atom

Russia recently suspended or terminated its nuclear agreements with the United States, further deteriorating diplomatic relations between the two countries. Russia’s actions place on hold or end certain collaboration efforts between the two nations on peaceful uses of nuclear technologies. However, these actions do not suspend or terminate the umbrella US-Russia nuclear cooperation agreement (123 Agreement) that both countries entered into under Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act. Accordingly, the US government has a legal basis to authorize nuclear exports to Russia, and vice versa. Political forces, however, make those exports uncertain.

First, on October 3, 2016, Russia rejected the Obama administration’s alternative proposal for the disposition in both the United States and Russia of 34 metric tons each of surplus weapons-grade plutonium. This agreement, which originated in 2000 and was revised in 2010, is known as the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement. The United States intended to fabricate the mixed-oxide fuel in a facility under construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. However, because of increasing cost estimates for that facility and other strategic reasons, US President Barack Obama proposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin an alternative “dilution and disposal” path for US plutonium. On October 3, President Putin rejected the alternative and suspended the agreement, stating that he would consider reinstating it if the United States agreed to several conditions, such as reducing military presence in countries that border Russia and canceling financial sanctions against Russia.

Second, on October 4, Russia issued Order No. 2071-r, which will terminate a 2010 agreement (2010 HEU Agreement) between the US Department of Energy (DOE) and Rosatom, the Russian Federation’s national nuclear corporation. The agreement focused on US support to develop feasibility studies to convert Russian research reactors from high-enriched to low-enriched uranium fuel. The 2010 HEU Agreement will terminate 90 days after Russia delivers the termination notice to the DOE.

Finally, on October 5, Russia issued Order No. 2072-r, suspending a 2013 nuclear research and development cooperation agreement (R&D Agreement) with the United States. The R&D Agreement promoted cooperation through joint projects and exchanges of scientific, R&D, engineering information, and educational programs in nuclear-related areas. However, the United States had unilaterally ceased its activities under the R&D Agreement in April 2014, so Russia’s suspension was a proclamation with no effect on ongoing activities.

Russia’s actions appear to be the result of deteriorating diplomatic relations arising from a number of issues, such as enhanced US military support to NATO in countries bordering Russia, events in Crimea, and the differences between the two countries over Syria. For example, President Putin stated that Russia terminated the 2010 HEU Agreement because of “the emergence of a threat to strategic stability and as a result of unfriendly actions by the United States of America towards the Russian Federation.” Despite the chill to activities performed under these specified nuclear cooperation agreements, Russia’s actions do not appear to suspend or terminate the umbrella US-Russia 123 Agreement under which the US government issues licenses for exports to Russia. However, because US government export approval typically requires both countries to successfully exchange diplomatic notes to provide various retransfer and nonproliferation assurances, it is unclear if political forces will prevent the two countries from such an exchange.