Pu-reactors to remain intact

Publish date: November 20, 2001

Written by: Igor Kudrik

The US wants to scrap project for conversion of three plutonium-producing reactors in Siberia. 1.5 tonne of weapons plutonium will be produced annually on the unsafe reactors.

In June 1994, the United States and Russia signed an agreement under which Moscow would shut down the three plutonium-producing reactors by the year 2000. Two of those reactors are located in Tomsk-7, now Seversk, and one in Krasnoyarsk-26, now Zheleznogorsk. Russia, however, would not allow the accord to enter into force until alternative sources of energy had been found. Moscow argued that the “dual use” reactors provide most of the heat and electricity for the surrounding cities.

After completing an alternative feasibility study in 1995, the United States and Russia determined that conversion of the reactor cores was the best way to meet civilian energy needs while also halting the production of weapons grade plutonium.

In September 1997, a formal agreement was signed by vice president Al Gore and prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin which required Russia to modify the three reactors by December 31st 2000.

The agreement also prohibited the United States and Russia from restarting any plutonium producing reactors that have already been shut down. The USA shut down all 14 of its plutonium producing reactors by 1989, while Russia has ceased operating 10 of its 13 reactors. The agreement also stipulated that any plutonium produced from the day it was signed could not be used in nuclear weapons.

The Russian Ministry for Nuclear Energy (Minatom) and the US Department of Defence (DOD) were the state agencies on both sides to implement the agreement. In fiscal year 1997, Congress appropriated $10 million in Co-operative Threat Reduction (the program under DOD) assistance for the project. The total cost of the project, which was to be divided between the United States and Russia, was expected to be about $150 million.

No shutdown by deadline
But as the shutdown deadline neared it became clear that the project was not to be implemented. In February 2000, Minatom informed its American counterpart that the conversion project was inexpedient. Instead, Americans were proposed to build fossil fuel substitutes for the reactors – a project with a price tag of up to $300m. The most part of the funds, according to the Russian plan, was to be provided by the US. Americans took a timeout.

But in March the same year, Minatom officials came with a proposal to modify the cores of the three reactors in a way they can burn RBMK type fuel. The plutonium reactors have uranium-graphite design and in principle could be redesigned for RBMK fuel.

Later the same year, the director of the Mining and Chemical Combine in Zheleznogorsk, which operates one plutonium reactor, Vasily Zhidkov, said the reactor could continue to produce plutonium but would be set under the control of the US.

Today the lifetime of the reactors in Seversk was extended until December 31st 2005, while the reactor in Zheleznogorsk will operate until December 31st 2006.

Funding scrapped
According to the latest report published in Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pentagon and House Republicans are trying to scrap the whole agreement. The Pentagon and its congressional allies say that while they support a shutdown of the three reactors, US defence dollars are too precious to be used on the project.

Such reaction is understandable since the project has not move any further since it was launched.

The Russian Nuclear Regulatory, GAN, was sceptical to the core conversion from the very start. The Combine in Zheleznogorsk had troubles to renew its operation licence for the reactor, which exceeded its operational limits by two folds. The same is true for the reactors in Seversk.

The result of the almost seven-year process will be, thus, continued production of 1.5 tonne of plutonium annually on unsafe reactors at least five years more into the future.