The three plutonium production reactors in Siberia will not become entirely civilian by the end of this year as the United States and Russia agreed upon earlier. It means that plutonium production in Russia will not cease in the near future.
In June 1994, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and U.S. Vice President Al Gore signed an agreement committing Russia to end plutonium production at the three remaining military reactors no later than the year 2000. However, the project seems to be shelved as Russia says the reactors are the major source to heat and electricity for the neighbouring cities.
The two reactors in question are located in Seversk and one in Zheleznogorsk, central Siberia.
In compliance with the 1994 agreement, the U.S. was to help Russia to replace the reactors with fossil fuel plants within the agreed time frame for ending plutonium production. But then, in 1996, Russia and the U.S. reached a new agreement, which stipulated conversion of the reactors to civilian purpose only, rather than replacing them.
The reactors use specifically designed fuel with non-standard cladding. Once the fuel is irradiated inside the reactors it has very limited storage time and has to be reprocessed shortly. The reprocessing leads to production of some 1.5 tons of weapon-grade plutonium annually.
Reactor core conversion
Given the reactor cores are converted, the use of fuel with a non-standard cladding and higher enrichment would be reduced resulting in, at least, 10 to 100 times less plutonium output compared to the current rates. The plutonium from the converted reactors is not a weapon-grade. Secondly, and most important, the spent fuel would not require reprocessing.
According to the original agreement in 1996, the reactor core conversion should have been completed by the end of 1999. Now the plan seems not to be on schedule. The Russian State Nuclear Inspection, the Gosatomnadzor (GAN), has not yet completed the licensing of the reactors. The GAN opposed the reactor core conversion program all the way since it had first been proposed as an option back in 1996. Last year, Bellona Web quoted head of the GAN, Yuri Vishnevsky, saying: "The continued operation of the two reactors at Seversk is fraught with danger of a Chernobyl type accident to the Tomsk region." Vishnevsky said the reactors had already twice exceeded their service lifetime and the safety risks in their continuous operation were rather obvious.
The two reactors in Seversk, which stay in operation and which will be converted, started up in 1965 and 1967 respectively. The remaining reactor in Zheleznogorsk started up in 1964. However, a worst case scenario accident with this reactor is considered less dramatic since it is sealed inside an underground nuclear complex, which will prevent radioactivity fallout.
Russia’s most dangerous reactors
The two reactors in Seversk are considered to be the most dangerous operating reactors in Russia. They are graphite moderated, water-cooled reactors, and share basic design with the RBMK reactors at the civilian nuclear power plants like Chernobyl, Leningrad and Ignalina. The coolant from the reactors is used to heat the city of Seversk. A part of it is also transported via pipelines to heat houses in Tomsk, some few kilometres south of Seversk.
As far as Bellona Web can judge, GAN’s objection to the conversion project focuses primarily on the proposed cooling systems for the reactors. The GAN is also sceptical to the sustainable operation of the reactors under the proposed power output levels.
HEU instead of LEU
The initial conversion plans suggested that the reactor cores must be fuelled with low enriched uranium, but nobody has so far approved the engineering analyses to determine whether it is feasible for the reactors in Seversk from an engineering point of view.
In a recent interview with highly respected U.S. newsletter Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor, Co-operative Threat Reduction (CTR) Deputy director, Col. Jim Reid, says: "It is agreed that the first core will be highly-enriched uranium (HEU)." The core conversion process is a part of the CTR-funded program in Russia. No LEU fuel elements has ever been certified for use in these reactors cores, and, according to Col. Reid, such certification automatically generates a significant time element into the use of the LEU. "We’re working diligently now to get GAN to certify these reactors based on a fuel element that they already know and understand and have been using for years and years."
The progress in the reactor conversion is going to take time. Nobody believes anymore that Russia will be ready to halt its plutonium production as agreed upon back in 1992, when Boris Yeltsin formally committed Russia to do so by the year 2000. As it looks today, the plutonium production will continue at least until 2002 or 2003, adding another 3 to 4.5 tons of weapon-grade plutonium to the Russian stocks.