Closed nuclear city in Siberia ramping up industrial plutonium-based fuel production

The railroad entry to the closed nuclear city of Zheleznorogsk. (Photo: Rosatom)
The railroad entry to the closed nuclear city of Zheleznorogsk. (Photo: Rosatom)

Publish date: September 14, 2015

Written by: Charles Digges

Russia’s Zheleznogorsk Mining and Chemical Combine is ramping up production of mixed uranium and plutonium oxide fuel, or MOX, in a push toward creating a closed nuclear fuel cycle, with the country’s BN-800 fast neutron reactor as its centerpiece.

Zheleznogorsk’s general director, Pyotr Gavrilov, said in a side interview last week at the World Nuclear Association’s annual symposium that production of MOX by the MCC is expected to jump from 20 fuel assemblies this year to 400 by 2017. The hike requires regulatory approval, which Gavrilov said he expects, to get.

His remarks mark a significant step forward in Russia’s decades-long flirtation with producing plutonium-based reactors whose spent fuel can essentially be reused as fuel, thus closing the nuclear fuel cycle.

This step has long worried environmentalists and nuclear experts with Bellona, who point to the untested nature of the reactors required to close the cycle, and the possibility that accidents with them could prove far more serious than those in conventional reactors.

zheleznogork road entry The checkpoint to the closed nuclear city of Zheleznogorsk. (Photo: Wikipedia)

In August, the MCC reported it had completed tests on putting together the first fuel assemblies for use in the sodium-cooled BN-800 reactor, located at the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant in Russia’s Sverdlovsk region, World Nuclear News and Russia’s RIA Novosti reported.

RIA Novosti said this signaled Zheleznorgorsk’s readiness to being producing MOX for the reactor at industrial levels.

Project Breakthrough

Zheleznogorsk’s production line for MOX is located 200 meters beneath the closed nuclear city. It went into full operation at the end of 2014 as part of Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom’s “Proryv” – or “Breakthrough” – program, which is geared toward leading Russia’s nuclear industry to a closed cycle, Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the Environmental Rights Center Bellona has said.

The idea behind the Project Breakthrough effort has to do with Russia’s intent to use fast neutron reactors – or, simply, fast reactors – to loop up the nuclear fuel cycle, with the goal being more efficient utilization of uranium resources and reduction in the buildup of spent nuclear fuel.

It is believed that Russia’s proved reserves of natural uranium will not be sufficient to support a sustained development of the thermal-neutron-based nuclear energy industry in the long term, said Nikitin.

By contrast, with the BN series fast reactors, proponents say that five times as little natural uranium could be used than in thermal-neutron reactors operated in the once-through cycle.

bn800 The BN-800 reactor, one of Russia's two fast neutron reactors, under contstruction. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Furthermore, the spent fuel – the bulk of which Russia currently places in storage – is supposed to be almost fully reprocessed into fresh fuel.

Economic and safety issues with fast reactors

But Russia’s BN reactors come at a price tag that’s significantly higher than thermal neutron reactors – so significant, said Nikitin, who sits on Rosatom’s public council, that the industry itself is somewhat skeptical it can foot the bill.

Further, possible accidents with fast reactors where MOX and sodium coolant are used could lead to consequences far more dire than those that would come of an accident at a thermal neutron reactors, Nikitin said.

The serious risks arising with operating BN reactors are associated with the use of sodium as the coolant, as sodium ignites upon contact with water and air, as well as of the highly toxic plutonium, which may cause severe ecological damage if it escapes into the environment, Nikitin added.

Despite the risks and economic difficulties, Russia continues to pursue in BN series reactors. In 2014, the new BN-800 unit achieved first criticality, Nikitin said, and achieved criticality again in August 2015.

The following December, Russia’s nuclear utility Rosenergoatom, said it wanted to push back the reactors operational date for further fuel development. The BN-800’s start up date is now slated for the end of this year, reported WNN.

At the World Nuclear Association symposium, Gavrilov was quoted by WNN as saying the Rosenergoatom’s decision to delay the operation date was not related to the fuel his enterprise was producing, and that Zheleznogorsk would push though the technical process required to produce the fuel at industrial levels.

“There has been no pause in the process of producing MOX fuel and the first fuel assemblies are already being produced,” the agency quotes Gavrilov as saying. “We are working on developing the technical process to improve the production level, to reach the point of 400 fuel assemblies per year within three years.”

Nikitin said design work is underway on the next fast reactor modification, the BN-1200. At this stage, however, the BN-800, and its predecessor, the BN-600, also at Beloyarsk, are still listed as “experimental” rather than “commercial.”

Other developments at Zheleznogorsk

Zheleznogorsk, whose chief enterprise used to surround its now-decommissioned weapons plutonium reactor, has significantly retooled.

Since 2012, it’s been operating a dry interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel produced by Chernobyl-style RMBK reactors.

WWN reported that the facility at the stage would be used to store 8,129 tons of spent RBMK fuel that has emerged from the Leningrad, Kursk and Smolensk nuclear power plants.

Later the facility will host spent nuclear fuel from Russia’s VVER-1000 reactor, which are located at the Balakovo, Kalinin, Novovoronezh and Rostov nuclear power plants. Much of this fuel has already arrived, WNN said. The spent fuel storage facility will eventually hold 38,000 tons of RMBK and VVER fuel, Gavrilov told the agency, adding it may have room for foreign spent nuclear fuel as well.

Zheleznogorsk has also recently been the site of public hearings on plans by Russia’s National Operator for Radioactive Waste Management (NO RAO) to build a laboratory to study possibilities for building a long-term nuclear waste repository.

The lab is expected in nine years time to determine the fitness of the Nizhnekansky Rock Mass in the Krasnoyarsk Region to hold medium and high-level radioactive waste for thousands of years.

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