The breakdown of the accord has seemed possible for twenty years, as the Center for Public Integrity wrote in 2014. Almost immediately after President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed to limit and dispose of part of the two nations’ stocks of military plutonium, the U.S. preference for dilution and disposal and the Russian support for repurposing the plutonium as reactor fuel have been in conflict. Worries in Congress that Russia could produce and harvest more plutonium during the conversion process hung over the negotiations for about a decade, until South Carolina’s delegation in Congress finally swept those aside and persuaded Washington to approve a similar U.S. conversion plant in their state. Russia then rejected the Obama administration’s overture in 2009 to amend the disposal plan in a way that would have given the United States flexibility to draw down its plutonium stocks through other means.
So Putin’s decree isn’t a surprise.
At the same time, the Obama administration finds itself in the odd position of now being freed by Moscow to shift to a new approach – burial – that Congress hasn’t blessed. South Carolina’s politically powerful congressional delegation so far has beaten back the administration’s efforts to halt the MOX plant’s construction, keeping the project on life-support – a sort of low-speed construction – at a cost to federal taxpayers of around $350 million a year.
Ed Lyman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a proponent of diluting and burying the excess plutonium, called on Sen. Lyndsey Graham (R.-S.C.), its chief congressional proponent, to give up the fight. “Graham has cited the U.S.-Russian agreement as the reason for his continued support of the MOX program,” Lyman said in a written statement. “Now there’s no excuse to continue building the plant.”
Graham’s office did not respond immediately to several requests for comment.