AIKEN - The United States and Russia have signed an agreement that reaffirms their commitment to get rid of 34 metric tons of weapons grade plutonium, federal officials announced Thursday.
"This statement is a clear sign of our mutual commitment to keeping dangerous nuclear material out of the hands of terrorists," said Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, who signed the agreement on behalf of the United States.
Under the original pact signed in 2000, the two countries planned to simultaneously build MOX, or mixed-oxide, factories that turn plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear power plants.
The United States plans to start building its MOX plant at Savannah River Site this fall. But Russia has backed away from the technology and will construct a "BN-600 fast reactor" instead, according to an Energy Department news release.
Construction on the U.S. MOX plant has been repeatedly delayed, in part because of liability concerns over the Russian MOX program. Now, it appears the Russians might actually start neutralizing their plutonium before the United States does.
According to the Energy Department, fast reactors in Russia will begin disposing of plutonium between 2010 and 2012. The MOX factory at SRS, meanwhile, isn't expected to start converting plutonium until 2015, six years later than originally expected, Mr. Bodman wrote in a February assessment of the program.
Given those delays, local leaders and SRS observers weren't that excited.
"I'm certainly pleased that they're keeping their agreement with the Russians," Aiken County Councilman Chuck Smith said. "Now I'd like to see them keep their agreement with South Carolina."
Mr. Smith spearheaded the county's lawsuit last year against the Energy Department, which asked the agency to stop receiving plutonium at SRS until it provided a plan to get rid of it. The lawsuit is pending.
Even vocal MOX boosters such as Mal McKibben, the executive director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, weren't exactly cheering.
"To me, it doesn't matter how they get rid of it, as long as they get rid of it," he said of the Russian technology shift.
Congress is still debating how much money to spend on the MOX program next year. And a key player, U.S. Rep. David Hobson, a Republican from Ohio who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, wasn't moved, his spokesman, Sara Perkins, wrote in an e-mail.
Mr. Hobson has voted not to fund the MOX project in next year's budget.
"The Russians are backing out of the original agreement to use MOX fuel ..." Ms. Perkins wrote. "This agreement seems to say that the U.S. is OK with that approach, but that wasn't in the original agreement,"
Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A cost and schedule analysis of Russia's new method to dispose of plutonium is due to U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman by Dec. 25.
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