Wednesday, March 14, 2001

Roundtable on Plutonium Disposition

Alex Flint
, partner with Johnston & Associates, LLC; formerly the Clerk of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development
Laura Holgate, Vice President for Russia and the FSU Nuclear Programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative Foundation; formerly the Assistant Deputy Administrator for Fissile Materials Disposition at the Department of Energy
John Tuck, Senior Public Policy Advisor at Baker, Donelson, Bearman & Caldwell; from 1989 to 1992, Mr. Tuck served as Under Secretary of the Department of Energy in President Bush's Administration

Rose Gottemoeller, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Leonard Spector, Monterey Institute for International Studies

The Carnegie Non-Proliferation Project and the Monterey Institute for International Studies co-sponsored a roundtable to discuss the challenges facing the international effort to dispose of excess weapons plutonium in the United States and Russia at the Carnegie Endowment on March 14, 2001. Speakers Alex Flint, Laura Holgate, and John Tuck discussed the history of these initiatives, their current status, obstacles to success, and recommendations for the future.

While disposing of excess Russian and U.S. plutonium remains an important strategic goal, the disposition of weapons-grade plutonium has proven to be one of the most difficult tasks facing the two countries. The panelists pointed to plutonium disposition as a key initiative in the overall set of U.S. non-proliferation programs with Russia, and voiced their hope that the new administration would recognize the need to dispose of this material as a high priority. They expressed their concerns, however, that initial moves by the administration were not giving this project the emphasis needed to deal with the threat posed by these materials.

The speakers noted several obstacles to the continued success of plutonium disposition. Disposal of excess plutonium in the United States is reaching a critical stage, moving from the drawing board to the actual construction of facilities. At a time when budget increases are essential to the physical implementation of this effort, funding appears to be shrinking beyond current levels, and is falling hundreds of millions of dollars below program requests. This not only reduces the likelihood of successful implementation, but also calls the U.S. commitment to plutonium disposition into question. Moreover, the speakers noted that the failure of European governments to view disposition as a top national security interest and to commit significant funds has further exacerbated the funding issue. The lack of Russian personnel, infrastructure, and industrial involvement is also complicating the process.

The panelists also offered recommendations for maintaining this vital program. They called for a strong domestic political commitment, both in fighting for increased funding and in obtaining stronger international support from European countries and Japan for the Russian plutonium disposition effort. They suggested that lackluster European involvement signals a need for a larger role to be taken by the United States. The speakers also suggested that creative alternatives to supplement, but not interfere with plutonium disposition, such as the purchase of plutonium, need to be examined.

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