THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL
ON PLUTONIUM DISPOSITION AGREEMENT
3:30 P.M. (L)
MR. HAMMER: This afternoon we have a group of senior administration officials who will be briefing you on the agreements that have been reached so far during the course of this summit, including an agreement on weapons-grade plutonium, as well as on shared early warning.
Just to give you a sense today, the President met one on one with President Putin, starting about 1:20 p.m. Then they went into an expanded meeting, five on five. They've obviously gone right to work.
Let me just give the floor to one of our briefers.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. I'll be a very brief briefer. I'm just going to articulate what the two agreements are that we're covering this afternoon, the two agreements that have been brought to conclusion at the summit -- one on the disposition of plutonium coming out of nuclear weapons in both the United States and Russia; and the other on shared early warning.
As you may know, these were agreed in principle by the two Presidents in September of 1998, by Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin. Subsequent to that, there have been intense negotiations to bring those principles into practical working operating agreements. There have been a great many complicated issues arising during the course of those negotiations, a great deal of work on both sides. The two teams have used the summit, the approach of the summit, as a target to help come to closure on outstanding issues and to bring the agreements to a conclusion here.
These are highly significant agreements. They will result in tangible national and international security benefits. They will remove from possible circulation plutonium that is directly usable in weapons if the were to fall into the wrong hands. And the second, the shared early warning agreement, will answer a wide variety of concerns that have been raised about the risk of mistaken nuclear launch because of gaps in early warning coverage.
With that, let me invite one of our additional senior officials in a dark suit to -- (laughter) -- begin with the plutonium agreement.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you to the previous senior official in a dark suit with a white shirt. I'll tell you about the plutonium disposition agreement, which we just completed in the last day or so, and which President Clinton and President Putin will announce today at their press conference.
As John said, this is a very significant -- in fact, it's an unprecedented arms control and nonproliferation agreement because for the first time, it tries to deal with the problem of surplus plutonium, of surplus weapons grade plutonium that is coming out of nuclear weapons programs.
Before this, we have had in place a program to dispose of highly-enriched uranium, weapons-grade uranium that is coming out of the Russian and American nuclear weapons programs, but we've never had a comparable program in place for weapons-grade plutonium, which is the other type of fissile material that can be used for nuclear weapons.
In the agreement, both sides, both the U.S. and Russia will be required to dispose of 34 tons each of weapons-grade plutonium that is being removed from military programs -- 34 tons, just to give you an idea of the magnitude -- that's enough for thousands of nuclear weapons. And as the previous briefer said, this is very pure grade, weapons grade material that is directly usable for nuclear weapons.
So getting it out of the weapons program and rendering it technically into a form that is no longer suitable or useful for nuclear weapons is a very significant step. In addition, the agreement contains legally-binding political commitments on both sides that neither will use this material again for nuclear weapons or other military purposes.
Now, how are we going to accomplish this? The agreement lays out plans, schedules and proposals for disposing of this material in both the U.S. and Russia. In the case of Russia, the disposition will take place by converting this weapons plutonium into nuclear power reactor fuel. And this will be done under very strict monitoring and verification. Once the plutonium has been burned in power reactors, it's no longer usable in the same way for nuclear weapons.
In the case of the U.S., there will be two paths to disposing of this material. One will be to burn some of the material as nuclear power reactor fuel. And the other path will be to encapsulate this material with high-level radioactive waste and to store it in geological locations.
One of the big issues for the future -- because this is such an ambitious program, it's going to be very expensive to carry it out, and will take quite a period of time. Our current cost estimate for the program in Russia is about $1.75 billion; for the program in the United States, about $4 billion. So one of the big tasks we have ahead of us now is raising international funding in order to carry this program through from beginning to end.
The U.S. Congress, thanks to the leadership of Senator Domenici, has already appropriated $200 million for this program, which is enough to get started for the preconstruction stage, research and development and planning and so forth. And the U.S. has pledged to seek an additional $200 million toward the program in Russia.
But we really can't do it without help from the international community. And the G-8 in particular have expressed their political support for this plutonium disposition effort. And we are hoping that the U.S. and Russia will work together, first at the G-8 meeting in Okinawa in July, to begin to put together an international funding mechanism that will allow this program to be carried through from beginning to end over what is likely to be at least 20 years to finally dispose of all this material.
Why don't I stop there, and if you have any questions, we're lucky enough to have our negotiator, my colleague here.
Q Way back here. What argument are you going to use with other countries since they're not responsible for the nuclear craze that caused the pileup of all this stuff -- horrible stuff? How do you tell other countries they should kick in? What argument do you use -- that it's good for the planet? Isn't it really the U.S. and Russia's responsibility having amassed all this stuff?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Actually, there has been widespread recognition, particularly in the G-8, that this is a problem for everybody. I think they also recognize that if there is no international financing for the Russian Federation, that there will be no disposition in Russia. And if there is no disposition in Russia, there would probably not be disposition in the United States.
I say everybody recognizes that this is a security benefit, a major security benefit for them, just as much as it is for us. The idea of disarming and degrading this plutonium helps them just as much as it helps us. A very powerful argument, however, to those that are hesitant is, what is the alternative. And the alternative to not doing this is the continued storage of weapon-grade, the most sensitive, the most readily usable plutonium and weapons. And so it would be a store for anybody to put back into weapons if they ever decided to, or a small fraction of that in the wrong hands would be a threat for many. So I believe there is widespread recognition.
Q Has any document changed hands so far that you know of from either Russia or the U.S.?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Not to my knowledge.
Q What percentage of a surplus stockpile would this represent -- this 34 metric tons?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's hard to say, because, of course, the estimates related to the Russian stockpile are still classified. But this is a significant portion -- this is going to take 20 years in its own right. it would take several years to develop, design and build facilities, and then it will take several more years, 20 or so years to actually dispose of, to use this material to degrade it, to isolate it, to immobilize it. We hope this agreement is a framework. We hope that future excess material, as a result of further progress in arms control, will come under this agreement as well; we've provided for that.
Q Where is it? Is it in an actual stockpile? Will it come out on weapons?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's a good question. Roughly 75 percent of this will be actual what we call "pits or clean metal," which means it comes from weapons. And the other percent is very high-grade, weapon-grade, we call it, plutonium, which could be easily and readily used as well, but may not have been into weapons at this stage.
Q But is there any way for us to be able to say what the U.S. -- is that also classified? Can you say this represents half of the weapons-grade plutonium out there, or can you --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not in any position to say what percentage it is of our stockpile. I'm sure there is an unclassified number there, and I've never done the calculation of that unclassified number.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Why don't we try to check and see if we can --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We could certainly say it's a very significant portion of the U.S. plutonium stockpile and what we think is the Russian stockpile. But we'll try and see if we can get you more specific on that.
Q What's happening on the civilian front? I mean, there have been some efforts to broker and agreement which -- what's the status of that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We and the Russians have had very extensive discussions on our proposal to deal with the civil plutonium issue. Now, this is plutonium not from the weapons program, but from nuclear power reactor fuel, which Russia continues to separate at the rate of about two metric tons a year. And this material also presents a potential proliferation threat.
I would say that in our discussions with the Russians, both sides have agreed in principle to the concept of a long-term moratorium on further separation of this civil plutonium and on the desirability of working together to develop a more advanced type of power reactor that could ultimately use some of this plutonium as fuel and burn it up in the same way that we're proposing to burn up weapons-grade plutonium.
At the same time, we continue to have issues with the Russians that have prevented us from moving forward with this program, and in particular, we continue to be concerned about Russian nuclear assistance with Iran, which we're very concerned about because of what we think is Iran's efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon.
So we plan to continue to meet with the Russians on this issue. We're hoping we can resolve these outstanding concerns so that we can move forward with the civil plutonium initiative.
Q -- the end of the day, how much will the Russians pay towards their own program? Also, my second question is, are Russian power plants equipped at the moment to burn plutonium? If not, will we pay to convert them to do so? And also, in the U.S. where -- plutonium --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: These are all very good questions. Exactly how much the Russians will contribute to this program has yet to be determined. We're working both with the Russians and with the other countries to see how that will work out. The most we can say now is Russia will make a substantial contribution. It's not clear how much or if any of that would be in cash, however, but they will be providing land, they will be providing infrastructure, they will be providing uranium in addition to the plutonium to this program at no cost.
So they will certainly have a sizable in-kind -- we call that in-kind contribution. It's yet to be determined if there will be another Russian contribution, which means we are also looking not just at public funding. There will be a large public funding aspect of this; we can't avoid that. But we're also exploring, over time, potential revenue streams from the private sector, et cetera. So these are all elements that we need to look at in terms of putting together this financial mechanism or scheme.
Your second question was related to --
Q Are Russian power plants currently equipped to burn plutonium? Or do we have to pay for it?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, no, they are not. They have a very small research and prototype fast-reactors, which have, I think, will be easily upgraded to burn plutonium. And they have burned some plutonium in this small research. Their power reactors are not upgraded to burn plutonium mixed-oxide fuel. And indeed, yes, part of the costs -- let me say the costing scheme, we've included basic segments, and that is design, development, and construction of conversion and fabrication facilities for the fuel; then upgrading of the reactors to take this fuel. And that is a sizable cost.
Q -- question was, where do you put the plutonium in the United States? And so far, you know --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, in the United States there's already been an announced program, and that program is -- I mean, there's a consortium, and it's going to be in Savannah River. We plan to have both our fabrication and our mobilization facilities. And then, of course, reactors have already been designated and signed on to burn those. But those will have to go through a licensing process.
Q Can you explain why there's this dual approach in Russia and the U.S.? Specifically, since the Russians aren't equipped now to burn plutonium? I mean, it was a while ago that the U.S. decided that this was an unsafe and uneconomical way to go about developing energy. Why that? And also, specifically, what monitoring program is going to be in place on the Russian side? Will there be DOD, U.S. DOD officials there on site to watch this happen?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: First of all, let me say that we still believe this is an uneconomical way for the production of power. Nobody disputes that in the United States. Our policy is not to encourage the use of civil plutonium, or reprocessing of civil plutonium, for use as power reactors. One, it's not economical. And two, of course, we see problems and risks associated with that.
I would come back to -- why do we do that in this context? This is not a nuclear fuel cycle issue. The basic issue here is, what do you do with this plutonium coming out of the weapons program? And as I said before, the alternative to doing this -- these are the only two methods that have been basically accepted to date for degrading or disposing of this plutonium. The only alternative to that is storage of this most dangerous plutonium. And that alternative nobody likes. So I think that's the problem you're faced with on that side.
Q Why the dual approaches? Why the separate approaches for the U.S. and the Russian --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think this is an approach for each country to decide. The Russians see energy value in plutonium. They have a different concept of the fuel cycle; they believe over time, in some decades, they want a closed fuel cycle that uses plutonium. We do not. So there are simply different approaches here, but the one thing that was clear from the beginning is the Russians -- their interest was in utilizing the energy value of this and not -- not -- in simply disposing of it.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's a good question. We have not worked out the details for monitoring yet, but we have worked out several pages of rights and obligations and principles that will guide the development. It will be very clear that from the time that this material shows up at a conversion facility, from that time forward, there will be monitoring of this material. It's still going to be classified on both sides at that stage, but there will be monitoring to determine that each side disposes of 34 tons.
From the time it comes through that facility, we have also established that it must be unclassified totally, and so that we look forward to the International Atomic Agency being able to take on this task and follow the material the way it normally would.
Q You said that U.S. concerns about Russia's nuclear assistance to Iran has been one of the obstacles to coming up with an agreement on the civilian side. Did the issue of Iran come up in any way in your discussions today? And once this plutonium is transformed into nuclear energy kind of plutonium, is this the kind of material that could be used in the facilities --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know -- first of all, in the plutonium disposition negotiations, one of the interesting aspects of this is these negotiations I think have been insulated on the side from every single political wrinkle. Political wrinkles or problems or extraneous issues have not come up in these negotiations at all.
Q So these were very narrow discussions.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: These are how you deal with this plutonium coming from weapons programs. And it wasn't affected or in any way impacted by other issues that relate -- we both have this problem, how do we deal with this.
And your second question was what?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Just to address the more general, we take advantage of every opportunity with the Russians to raise our concerns about Russian assistance flowing to Iran's nuclear program, and that was certainly one of the issues discussed by the Presidents during these meetings.
Q So it did not come up in your meetings?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Correct.
Q And when this plutonium is transformed into the new safe plutonium, could that be used at a plant like Busher?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What do you mean, used as fuel?
Q Yes -- have to transport the fuel for those two nuclear reactors in Busher --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We have very strict conditions over -- none of this fuel can leave Russia without the prior written consent of the United States. None of it -- nothing -- in fact, it goes farther than that. Nothing ever goes through a facility --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The answer is technically, it could be if that reactor is modified. But we have consent rights over the export of that fuel under the agreement.
Q So we're just spending all this money to make this into another form of plutonium that in principle could be used in Russian plants to help other countries with nuclear reactors?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, they'd have to break the agreement.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They'd have to even build their own facilities. You're right, they'd have to break the -- the rights that we have established in this regard are rights that survive even the 25 or 20 years it will take for this agreement. Those rights go on forever. So they would have to break the agreement to do that.
Q Have you discussed any of the funding issue? How do you discuss this at all with any of the G-8 partners to this point? What type of reaction have they had? And are you looking to any G-8 partners in particular to help --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What was the second part?
Q Are you looking to any of the G-8 partners in particular to help you with funding?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't want to put them on the spot right now. Let me say, when -- I was laughing only because I leave at 5:00 a.m. tomorrow morning for Tokyo to meet with G-8 -- I have a G-8 group that's been working on this issue for several months now. And we have a smaller group that's been working even over a year. We're working a lot with them.
We have the Okinawa summit. We want to try to have a significant progress made at that summit. And I hope we will achieve that. And we are working closely -- we do expect -- I do not want to name names, but we have every indication that even at this early stage, that some of our colleagues will at least make indications or suggestions -- or maybe even announcements, we don't know that yet -- that they are willing to start contributing to the public side of this. But we do not know that yet.
Q But you said you have talked about this with the Japanese already. Have they given you any -- how has their response been? Has it been very positive?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Japanese response has been more cautious. The Japanese have already -- recall that a year ago the Japanese already said they were going to put $33.5 million into part of this program, one aspect of it. They sort of feel that they have already announced and given, whereas some of our other colleagues have not done that yet. So I think if you were looking, one would be looking more towards some of the others to see if there can be movement there.
Q I might have missed this at the beginning of your conference. I didn't know you had begun. But I'm wondering what you attribute today's breakthrough to? It's obviously been a long time in the making.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: To be quite honest, one, there's been about 15 months of very, very intense work. But the breakthrough came basically because of the President's visit and the emphasis and the senior-level attention that's gone into making this happen.
Q So at the G-8, your objective is to have some kind of announcement on funding from the G-8?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: At least our objective is -- G-8 has made announcements since '96 supporting this program. But now we are coming to a point where it gets harder, because you're not talking in theory in principle. Pretty soon you start talking about what are we going to do and contribute to this program? But we would hope that there will be at least a basic commitment to try to develop something in this regard over the next year.
Q Can you describe in a little more detail how the private sector -- what the private sector involvement might be? And secondly, when it comes to delivering funds into the Russian public sector, are there any safeguards that are going to be put in place? Will they go into central government funds, or will they go specifically to -- directly to the areas that it's meant to help?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, first of all, there will be no fund transfers. We don't transfer funds in this business at all. I mean, there will be contracts let under certain procedures; could be American, other, Russian. And then the funds will be going to contractors who will then be working to put these things together. There are no funds provided to Russia under this kind of program at all.
On the private, I can't get into -- there is a lot of private consideration being given to -- I think the easiest way to answer that would be, obviously there could be -- in fact, one country has announced last year, a Western country, that it was interested in burning Russian MOX fuel. If that country or others, once you do that, you now have a revenue stream for hard currency. And people are looking at how that mechanism, how selling MOX fuel to Western, developed countries would produce income, and how that might be developed and therefore help -- help -- support this whole program. In broad terms, that's what it's about.
Q Which country?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Switzerland announced it last year.
Q You said that on the American side, one of the alternatives will be to burn it as fuel in nuclear reactors. The other is to encapsulate it with nuclear waste and store it. Could you please explain that latter part in layman's terms? Where would this be stored?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We're laughing because we ourselves have been talking, how do you put it in layman's terms. There is almost no layman term. Let me -- it's not a layman's term, but what they will do with this material, they will take weapons-grade plutonium, they will blend it with another material into a kind of puck, a ceramic form. That will then go into a can about this big. And then several of those cans will go into a huge system in which they pour high-level radioactive waste. And this is all --
Q From --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, from whatever programs they've had it from. Whatever high-level radioactive waste we have or whatever waste could go there -- I mean, from past programs -- I don't know exactly where they will be getting that. We will say that is suitable for geologic storage. Now, obviously, there is no geologic storage site yet, but that system would be suitable for putting in geologic storage.
Q I'm just wondering how unusual this type of funding is. I mean, is there any precedent -- international funding of an arms control --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Absolutely. While this isn't an arms control, but you will recall the G-8 -- one of the major things they undertook a few years ago was the safety -- nuclear safety in Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere, and there have been mechanisms established through the European Bank and a lot of countries -- several, much broader than the G-8 -- contributing into these funds to enable this cooperation to go forward.
Chernobyl is a very basic one -- the cooperation on Chernobyl and making that safe and what do you do with that. So there are some precedents here. This is only different in the sense that you're talking about construction of major industrial-scale new facilities -- in that sense, but the mechanism -- we are going to look at all these precedents, because we have to, between now and I would hope next year, figure out not only how to finance it, but what kind of multilateral grouping do you put together to be able to carry this forward.
Q -- study forward?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think the first thing to keep in mind is what was exactly said in '98. And both at that time, President Clinton and President Yeltsin announced their intention to withdraw in stages, to withdraw in stages approximately 50 tons.
Now, why did we end up with 34? We ended up with 34 because when we looked at what had been declared excess in the United States and what was weapon grade, either directly from weapons or weapon-grade, the most readily usable material. That amount of plutonium was 34 tons on the United States side. That's what had been withdrawn. We have actually withdrawn others, but that's dealt with in a different way, it's not --
Q What is the 34 tons, metric tons -- what does it equate to in terms of tons of --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You're still talking about thousands of weapons, thousands of weapons.
Q What's the tonnage, though, do you know -- British -- 2000-pound tons.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Twenty-two hundred pounds, I guess, is the metric ton, so --
Q A little less?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Our ton is 2,000, so you're talking -- but this number represents thousands, literally thousands of nuclear weapons worth.
Q You had indicated that Japan had already pledged $33.5 million for this program. Has something already been going on on this, even before the formal announcement of the agreement today?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me say, a lot has been going on. As I say, the G-8 has supported these programs since '96. You will recall, the United States and Russia had a scientific and technical cooperation agreement in '98, and we've had an enormous amount of work -- research development, planning -- going on under that agreement.
Where Japan had come in was that Japan wants to work on the fast reactor and a new kind of fuel development, and they have done research development. And they look forward to spending more of this money over time for that. And another important thing is there is a trilateral agreement between the French, the Germans and the Russians, which has also predated our '98 agreement. And there's also been a tremendous amount of sort of development and design and planning under that as well.
They will not break ground for new facilities until 2007 at the earliest. I mean, there's a lot of licensing, regulation, demonstration, development and research that has to be done on all of this. But on the fast reactor where Japan is interested, that is ahead of some of the other work, and you do not have to build new facilities to do that work. It's only part, it's a small scale of the whole thing, but you can actually upgrade existing facilities in Russia for that purpose.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 4:03 P.M. (L)
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