Russia suspends weapons-grade plutonium deal after Obama scraps South Carolina plant

The Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.
The Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.

President Vladimir Putin suspended a 16-year-old deal with the United States to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium on Monday, further calling into question the future of the beleaguered mixed oxide facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

The Kremlin cited the “inability of the U.S. to deliver on (its) obligation” to uphold its end of the nonproliferation deal in which both countries agreed in 2000 to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium.

In April, the Obama administration effectively scrapped the unfinished nuclear facility in Aiken, South Carolina, which is billions over budget and years behind schedule. The Department of Energy instead backed an alternative, cheaper method called downblending, but it had not secured Russia’s permission to change the terms of the deal.

This is not what we agreed on.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in April 2016

“This is not what we agreed on,” Putin responded in April, according to a translation provided by the Kremlin. “Russia fulfilled its obligations in this regard and built these facilities, but our American partners did not.”

Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, South Carolina’s Republican senators, had warned in the spring that Russia would see the Obama administration’s move to pull the plug on the plant as a breach of the treaty.

On Monday, Graham slammed Obama. “Russia abandoning one of the most important underpinnings of our nonproliferation regime is just another example of how President Obama will be leaving office with the world a much more dangerous place than it was when he was elected,” he said.

The Kremlin’s statement Monday indicated that Russia’s withdrawal is a “direct result of this administration’s mishandling of the MOX project,” Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., told McClatchy.

2048current completion date for MOX plant

“Time and time again, President Obama has tried to close the facility for political, inaccurate reasons, without any concern for what the implications would be for the international community,” he said.

Scott said the Obama administration’s opposition to finishing the plant was “nonsensical.”

“We are once again seeing the ramifications of the current administration’s unfocused and reckless efforts in dealing with dangerous actors like Russia,” he said.

The plant is $12 billion over budget and potentially decades away from completion, according to the latest estimates, released last month by DOE officials. At the current pace, it could take until 2048 to complete the facility.

$17 billionEstimated cost of Savannah River Site MOX plant

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has pushed for the Obama administration to honor their agreement to finish the plant at the current site, which currently employs 2,000 workers. At Haley’s request, state Attorney General Alan Wilson sued the Energy Department in February over its failure to complete the plant.

Disposing of the plutonium in South Carolina would cost the government an estimated $800 million to $1 billion annually for several years. The downblending alternative would dilute the plutonium, package it and send it down to a federal repository in New Mexico, saving the government $400 million per year, according to a Department of Energy report.

On Monday Russia said that despite the suspension of the deal the Russian weapons material would not be used for military purposes.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen