Plutonium deal can be amended

Publish date: March 2, 2001

Written by: Vladislav Nikifоrov

US Department of Energy consciously suggests buying Russian plutonium stocks. Officials from Russian Ministry for Nuclear Energy reject such possibility and threaten to quit the US-Russian deal on decommissioning of plutonium given Western funds are not provided for the Russian MOX program.

On January 10th 2001, U.S. Department of Energy, DoE, published a report on the non-proliferation programs with Russia. The document also contains some new recommendations regarding plutonium handling.

The report suggests ways of plutonium disposal such as immobilisation (mixing with glass/ceramics with the following disposal), burning in the form of so-called MOX-fuel (uranium-plutonium blending for nuclear reactors).

On September 1st 2000, Russia and the United States agreed to decommission 34 tonnes of weapon plutonium each. The agreement stipulates burning of plutonium in Russia and immobilisation as well as burning in the USA. The new report contains also the following point: “Eliminating up to 100 metric tonnes of Russian plutonium by blending Fuel as mixed oxide fuel MOX-fuel and burning it in civilian reactors or immobilising it with high–level waste, as the US and Russia have agreed for an initial 34 metric tons. A “swap” of excess military plutonium with Western European countries, in exchange for civilian plutonium already being burned as mixed oxide fuel in these countries, would accelerate this process. Alternatively, the US could purchase excess plutonium from Russia, with the US either storing the plutonium or paying for it to be immobilised as waste

These recommendations are different from the policy previously followed by DoE in the part regarding buying plutonium and its immobilisation as waste. This idea appeared long time ago but was never pronounced on the official level. Probably this report will become the first step in the new discussions between two countries.

Russia’s attitude was very negative towards any transferral of the plutonium from the country. The official position of DoE was to allow to burn all Russian plutonium stocks in the form of MOX-fuel in Russia. Russian deputy minister of atomic energy, or Minatom, Valentin Ivanov said that Russia on no condition would sell weapon-grade plutonium abroad. “We can sell only fuel, which has plutonium as a component,” Ivanov added.

The Russian atomic ministry, however, has already sold 100 tonnes of weapon-grade uranium to the United States. First, the uranium is blended down in Russia and then used in the American nuclear power plants, which supply about 20% of the US electricity needs. From June 1995 and through October 2000, the United States paid Russia $1.6bn for slightly more that one-fifth of the 500 tons of uranium that United States agreed to buy between 1993 and 2013.

The Russian deputy minister said that plutonium could be effectively used only in fast breeder reactors, but development of such reactors requires big investments and time. Two billion dollars are needed for the Russian plutonium decommission. An international fund was to be established in order to collect the necessary sum. All the interested parties can make contributions. At present they are ready to transfer $600 million. If the fund does not get $2bn till the end of 2002 according to the agreement, Russia may suspend the work and “we have to start negotiations again” Ivanov said. The agreement stipulates decommissioning of 4 tonnes of plutonium per year (2 tonnes remain in Russia after decommissioning, 2 tonnes go to the West as MOX-fuel).

Reprocessing of plutonium will allow to transfer Russian nuclear energy to fast breeder reactors – the technology Minatom has great hopes for. According to Ivanov, this process can take 30 years.

“Minatom’s behaviour is the best indicator of the Russian irresponsibility regarding plutonium handling. This material is the waste of the cold war and can be used to destroy life. ‘Peaceful’ usage of plutonium is expensive and dangerous for environment, people, and even atomic industry. Therefore, it should be well isolated from terrorists and atomic industry,” Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of Ecodefense group, said.

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