Russia and the United States signed an agreement on decommissioning of 68 tonnes of weapon-grade plutonium, split evenly between the two countries, on September 1st 2000. To implement the program, Russia needs around $2.1bn, but neither Russia, nor the West have provided the funds so far. Despite this fact, the Russian government has introduced in the State Duma a bill, regulating plutonium elimination by converting it into MOX-fuel.
The bill repeats the main errors of the Russia-US agreement. It calls for burning of plutonium converted into uranium-plutonium mixed oxide fuel (MOX-fuel) in Russian reactors, mostly in VVER-1000 type reactors, designed originally for other types of fuel. In June, 2000 the first independent research was published, saying in case of an accident, reactors using plutonium would cause radioactive contamination three times worse, compared with ordinary reactors operating on regular uranium fuel.
Immobilisation and burning
According to Russia-US agreement, 68 tonnes of weapon-grade plutonium – 34 tonnes from each country – are to be eliminated mainly by burning of uranium-plutonium mixed oxide fuel (MOX-fuel) in nuclear power plants reactors. Only a small portion of US plutonium will be immobilised. Immobilisation is a process, when plutonium is mixed with liquid glass, ceramics and radioactive waste. Immobilisation’s objective is to hamper re-extraction of plutonium to use it for military purposes.
The term ‘burning of plutonium in reactors’ is incorrect, Mikhail Piskunov said. In fast neutron reactors, operating today on MOX, plutonium is being bred, not burned. It changes its quality from weapon- to reactor-grade (although in principle, reactor-grade plutonium can be converted back into the weapon-grade), but its quantity increases. Why? Because fast-neutron reactors, or breeders, were created for this purpose.
In early 1970s, the USSR paid much attention to the use of breeder reactors. Fast neutron reactors BN-350 in Aktau (former Shevchenko) in Kazakhstan and BN-600 at Beloyarsk NPP were built.
Breeder reactor is a nuclear reactor, creating surplus fissile material. The neutrons of the nuclear fuel (e.g. Pu-239) interact with the nuclei of raw material (e.g. U-238), producing surplus nuclear fuel (Pu-239). In some types of reactors burned and created fuels can contain isotopes of the same element.
The only natural nuclear fuel is U-235, which abundance in the natural isotope mix amounts not more than 0.71%. Other elements, such as plutonium, cannot sustain fissile reaction of its own. Consequently, the breeders were designed to increase fuel amounts for nuclear industry.
In March 2001, G7 working group in Berlin for the first time opened its doors for several environmental activists, who had an opportunity to communicate with the group’s leaders.
“All I have seen is an insane notion of the Russian representatives to burn plutonium in the breeders, and to build such reactors. It is interesting that the process does not eliminate plutonium but may create surplus amounts of it,” said Vladimir Slivyak, who participated in the meeting between the green activists and the working group members. “Americans seemed to be very naive, because they give full credibility to the Russian Ministry for Nuclear Energy,” Slivyak said.
History of the agreement
Russia-US agreement had been negotiated for the past seven or eight years. According to Vladimir Slivyak, the US insisted earlier on the full immobilisation of all weapon-grade plutonium, declared excessive to defence needs, both in Russia and in the US. Minatom preferred conversion to MOX fuel. Finally, 68 tonnes of weapon-grade plutonium from each country were destined to be burned, with only a small portion of the US plutonium to be immobilised. Vladimir Slivyak regretted that Minatom convinced the US to burn the plutonium while the US had not persuaded Russia to immobilise it.
The US representatives wanted plutonium elimination to be conducted in the same way in the both countries. But right before the signing of the agreement, they denounced this idea. Minatom convinced the US that plutonium is different in composition in the two countries, thus it should be eliminated in two different ways.
At present, the plutonium program is rather likely to be suspended, due to the new policy towards Russia declared by Bush administration and funds shortage for the program implementation. American part of the program costs $4.2bn. Russian part costs $2.1bn, but Russia has collected only $600m for it.
If the program were frozen, it would not be bad, Slivyak says. Plutonium should not be handed over from the military to Minatom, as Minatom has its own interests and does not want to secure the plutonium by immobilisation.
Minatom’s plans and secrecy
Today several reactors work on MOX in France and Germany. Until the last year, BN-350 had been operating on it, since its launch in Kazakhstan in 1973. Only two reactors work on MOX assemblies in Russia. They are BN-600 of the 3rd unit at Beloyarsk NPP and VVER-1000 of the 2nd unit of Balakovo NPP; the latter is currently using three or four MOX assemblies.
Nuclear industry development program made by the former nuclear minister, Yevgeny Adamov, called for 30 units of NPPs, most of them are BREST-300 new generation reactors, to be put in operation. The thesis of the BREST high safety was put in doubt by Academician Nikolay Ponomarev-Stepnoy in one of his articles.
MOX is dangerous just because there are no federal regulations on how to manage it safely. Minatom’s departmental regulations are secret. Quite often, Minatom is controlled by no one but itself. The local branches of the State Nuclear Regulatory, GAN, have simply no required monitoring equipment. All this causes a number of radioactivity discharges, like at the VK-50 facility in Dmitrovgrad, in Ulyanovsk region, in 1996. Four tons of steam and gas mix were released into the environment as a result of the incident.
Storage of plutonium may also become a complicated matter. Storage of one gram of plutonium costs from five to six dollars per year. Russia is storing about 180 tonnes of plutonium.
VVER-1000 type reactors and kilowatt-hour cost
Vladimir Kuznetsov mentioned plutonium burning in VVER-1000 reactors, designed for other types of fuel than MOX. “Fission reaction in the MOX has harder spectrum,” he said.
Fast neutrons cause corrosive and erosive affect on the reactor body and then corrosive products get into the first coolant circuit. That worsens the water-chemical conditions, which increases coolant activity. The latter takes radioactive materials into the second, not radioactive, circuit, if there is any loose sealing in the steam generator. Safety conditions of the second circuit and the whole reactor facility worsen then significantly.
MOX-fuel stimulates increased fission yield and increased generation of iodine, tritium and actinides. Radioactivity of MOX-fuel is higher, than of usual uranium fuel: its transportation requires special casks with more effective protection.
All these issues increase the cost of the whole fuel cycle. According to the official data, cost of a kilowatt-hour produced by BN-600 of Beloyarsk NPP is 40% higher than for one kilowatt-hour produced at VVER reactors.
Minatom’s data, published in February 2001 in Atomnaya Energiya magazine, show that usual uranium oxide fuel cost amounts to $1,300 per kilo. MOX-fuel costs 4.5 times higher, up to $6,480 per kilo. Moreover, VVER-1000 reactors will be operating only at 30% of their capacity when loaded with alien fuel. It is very likely that Minatom will raise electricity prices throughout the country for 80%, in order to manage the increased costs. In Kuznetsov’s opinion, any plans to use plutonium in reactors, including reactors not originally designed for that fuel, are not worth funds invested.
Reactor unit no. 5 at Novovoronezh NPP
MOX fuel will be burned in the fifth VVER-1000 unit at Novovoronezh NPP. The plant management has been denying this information, and until 1999 they even denied the very existence of the program for plutonium decommissioning.
Using of MOX-fuel in this reactor seems to be a dubious business. Firstly, it is not designed for MOX. Secondly, its lifetime will expire soon. The fifth unit’s lifetime is over in three years, Kuznetsov said. During all the operation period, the fifth unit has been the ‘dirtiest’ reactor of this type in Russia. Out of 68 malfunctions occurred at Russia’s NPPs last year, 14 took place at Novovoronezh NPP.
According to participants in the press conference, a total of 250 accidents have occurred at the Russian nuclear enterprises, including 39 accidents in the past eight years, since 1949. Why is Minatom standing up for the more expensive and more dangerous project, then?
In Vladimir Kuznetsov’s opinion, Minatom is interested in dangerous decommissioning: “It is very easy to show this bludgeon, saying, we are unsafe and we need money. But the more money, the more troubled are the waters and it is very easy to get fish in troubled waters. One should remember, only six out of 450 MPs of the State Duma have access to control Minatom’s accounts.”
P.S. International context
The press conference of Russian experts has a background of two disputes on the MOX-fuel.
Last week Oxford Research Group comprised of independent nuclear scientists, issued a report for UK government on putting into operation of Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP), owned by BNFL. In scientists’ opinion, launch of SMP, planned to produce MOX, would give terrorists a chance to create an A-bomb: to produce weapons of mass destruction, out of stolen MOX pellets, one needs less skills, than had terrorists, who made an explosive, which destroyed PanAm aircraft in 1998.
The concern was voiced, while UK government is deciding on whether SMP should be granted a licence. The MOX plant was built in 1996 but has not been put into operation, for lack of the license.
Other event of the week is revealing of the referendum results in Kariwa in Niigata Prefecture, Japan. Despite the harsh official propaganda, 56% of local inhabitants voted against TEPCO’s plans to start using MOX in the no. 3 reactor of Kashiwazaki-Kariwa NPP. On June 1st, TEPCO President Nobuya Minami said the company had decided to drop the plan to begin in June using nuclear fuel containing plutonium at the nuclear power plant. BNFL had plans to import MOX for TEPCO, providing itself with a wider market.