The United States and Russia Tuesday finalized an agreement committing them to eliminate a total of 68 tons of weapons-grade plutonium. The deal was signed on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington.
The two major powers had agreed in principle on the plutonium disposal project at the end of the administration of former President Bill Clinton.
But disputes over how the operation would be financed and verified, which stalled the process for a decade, were finally cleared away by Tuesday's agreement signed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Under terms of the accord, each side is to dispose of at least 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, or enough to make about 17,000 nuclear weapons.
Much of it will be derived from weapons the countries are retiring under strategic arms reduction accords, including the one signed last week in Prague.
At the signing ceremony at Washington's convention center, Clinton said the plutonium will be "irreversibly and transparently" by disposed of its conversion to civilian nuclear reactor fuel.
"The agreement provides for monitoring and inspections that will insure that this material will never be again used for weapons or any other military purpose. By using civil nuclear reactors to dispose of the plutonium, we gain an added benefit: to produce electricity for our people even as we remove a potential serious danger."
U.S. officials say the accord could eventually mean the elimination of more than 68 tons of plutonium, given that the world's two largest nuclear powers will be further reducing their arsenals by 30 per cent under last week's New-START treaty.
Foreign Minister Lavrov said he hopes the show of U.S.-Russian cooperation can eventually bring the other nuclear armed states into the disarmament process as envisaged in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
"It's certainly a step in the direction of our shared goal of nuclear disarmament," said Lavrov. "Because apart from actual limitations and reductions in nuclear strategic offensive arms, you need to do something about the plutonium which is released because of that process. And the event which we are witnessing today is of, well maybe, not less important, but certainly it's of very significant importance."
The actual disposal operation will not begin until 2018, after the two countries build the necessary facilities.
Lavrov said Russia will spend nearly $3 billion on its part of the process, to which the United States will contribute $400 million.
The plutonium accord was the largest of several agreements announced this week, which Obama administration officials hope will build momentum toward the summit goal of eliminating fissile nuclear material that might end up in the hands of terrorists.
In a related development, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev told President Obama Tuesday Russia will shortly close its last reactor producing plutonium, a formerly secret plant in Siberia operating for 52 years.
Ukraine said Monday it is giving up its entire stockpile of 90 kilograms of high-enriched uranium - enough for several nuclear weapons - and will convert its nuclear research reactors to lower-grade fuel.
It was also announced at the summit that Chile has turned over to the United States 18 kilograms of highly enriched uranium that had been acquired during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
Nuclear experts say the agreements, though modest, are of significance.
Former Australian Foreign Minister Garth Evans, who co-chairs the International Commission on Nuclear non-Proliferation and Disarmament, said it is important that the summit be an occasion to "get people to the line" on very specific commitments.