President Putin has suspended a key agreement with America for the disposal of enough weapon-grade plutonium to make 17,000 nuclear bombs.
In the latest sign of distrust between the two countries, Mr Putin issued a decree halting the deal, citing “a drastic change in circumstances, the appearance of a threat to strategic stability as a result of unfriendly actions”.
The Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PDMA) was agreed by Mr Putin and Bill Clinton in 2000. It provided for both sides to get rid of weapon-grade plutonium, preventing it from being reused for military purposes.
Under a protocol signed a decade later, each side was to build facilities that would dispose of 34 metric tonnes of plutonium by using it as fuel in civil power reactors to produce electricity.
A Kremlin spokesman said that Mr Putin had taken the decision to scrap the deal because the US was “fulfilling provisions of this document in a way which retained [plutonium’s] redeployment potential”. Moscow had been “unilaterally fulfilling the agreements for a rather long time,” the spokesman added, but “the Russian side no longer deems it possible to continue doing so, given the general tensions”.
In 2010 the US State Department called the agreement “an essential step in the nuclear disarmament process” and said that the 68 tonnes of plutonium to be destroyed would be “enough material for approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons”.
“This means they preserve what is known as the breakout potential. In other words it can be retrieved, reprocessed and converted into weapons grade plutonium again,” Mr Putin said.
The International Panel on Fissile Materials, an independent body based at Princeton University, said that the US had “indeed encountered significant problems with implementing its original plutonium disposition plan”.
That plan envisaged the construction of a processing plant that would use the plutonium to fabricate mixed-oxide fuel, which would then be used in existing nuclear power reactors.
However, in 2014, President Obama’s administration halted construction of the plant at Savannah River in South Carolina after it became clear that it would cost in excess of US$30 billion.
As an alternative, the US decided on a “dilute and dispose” method in which plutonium would be mixed with an inert material and buried in an underground repository. It is that process that Mr Putin suspects is reversible.