The Western Option: What is it and Who Will it Benefit?

Publish date: January 14, 2003

Written by: Zackary Moss

The report Russian Weapons Plutonium and the Western Option — published in March 2002 by the Nuclear Disarmament Forum AG, or NDF, based in Zug, Switzerland — proposes using Russian weapons-grade plutonium to produce mixed oxide, or MOX, fuel which would be leased to Western reactor operators and irradiated in modified pressure water reactors.


Bellona Position Paper


The Western Option’s front cover depicts the Swords to Ploughshares statue outside the UN building in New York. The Western Option report — which includes contributions from nuclear industry representatives and disarmament experts — aims to find a solution to the to 34 metric tonnes (MT) of Russian weapons-grade plutonium which must be disposed of as part of the US-Russian Plutonium Disposition Agreement, signed September 1st 2000 by US Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov.

What is the Western Option?
The Western Option report — produced by the NDF in collaboration with nuclear industry advisors from Germany, Russia, the US, Sweden and Switzerland — is a highly detailed analysis of plutonium disposition.1 According to Greenpeace, the advisors to the report and those making sizable contributions to it include some of Western Europe’s largest nuclear companies.2 These include Germany’s reactor operator RWE and nuclear transport cask manufacturer GNS. Sweden’s reactor operator and fuel manufacturer Vattenfall is included, as well as senior Russian industry representatives and fuel manufacturer TVEL. Others listed as having provided assistance to the project include a German company specialising in nuclear waste disposal, DBE, and a nuclear transport division of Russia’s Ministry of Atomic Energy, or Minatom, Atomspetstrans. The financial consultants Catey of Switzerland are also included in the report.

The Western Option proposes building a dedicated MOX facility at the Mining and Chemical Combine (MCC) at Krasnoyarsk to process the 34MT of weapons-grade plutonium with 4MT of reactor-grade plutonium. Assuming a composition of 93%-95%uranium and 5%-7% plutonium, this would produce 800MT of MOX. The NDF suggests loading “leased” Russian MOX fuel into nuclear reactors in Western Europe. After the MOX fuel is irradiated, Western reactor operators would return spent nuclear fuel, or SNF, to Russia after it has been stored onsite.

According to the report, fresh MOX would be transported by rail from MCC to Murmansk. It would then be transported by ship to a West European port and then delivered by armoured truck to nuclear power plants (customers). After the SNF has been discharged from the reactors, usually after 18 months, it would be returned on the same route to the RT-2 interim storage pool at Zheleznogorsk Chemical Combine near Krasnoyarsk. The Western Option assumes that the first fuel transports could begin around 2009. The shipping route would commence from the port of Murmansk to the Barents Sea and continue to the Norwegian Sea tracking the Norwegian coastline.

According to Ueli Glausen, NDF’s Manager of Corporate Communications, the Western Option is based on two propositions: 1) the US and Russia have agreed on the MOX approach for weapons-grade plutonium disposition; and 2) both the US-Russian and Russian-French-German expert groups’ reports foresee the production of MOX fuel assemblies for Russian VVER-1000 pressure water reactors (PWRs). It is assumed that MOX fuel can be used in Western PWRs.

Indeed, the Western Option proposes to manufacture MOX fuel assemblies for Western reactors under the assumption that the plan relies on readily available technical solutions and experience; and the cost burdens for nations contributing to the financing of the Russian weapons-grade plutonium disposition programme would be reduced through revenues from Western operators using this MOX.

Who will buy Russian MOX?
According to the Western Option, Russian MOX fuel would cost $1,000 per kilo which is significantly lower than MOX fuel produced by European manufactures. The plutonium fuel market is dominated by Cogema and Belgonucleaire — who operate under COMMOX — and British Nuclear Fuels Limited. Greenpeace have estimated the cost of European-produced MOX fuel to be $1,500-$3,000 per kilo. Assuming highly-enriched uranium fuel costs $1,000 per kilo, Russian produced MOX fuel is equal in price to uranium fuel and cheaper than European MOX fuel.

The countries listed by the NDF as the most likely customers include Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, as well as France, Spain and Sweden.3 The NDF has calculated that the Western Option would generate $800m in revenue, which would be used to offset the operating costs in Russia. The Western Option is dependent on funding from the US and G8, initially to pay for the construction of a MOX fabrication plant in Russia. Leasing MOX would therefore offset the cost and supporters of the Western Option have considered offering Russia’s Ministry of Atomic Energy, or Minatom, long-term fuel leasing contracts.

The Hanau plant
The NDF recognises that the Russian government would intend to reprocess the SNF to separate out the plutonium. The storage of foreign SNF is allowed under a package of laws approved by Russian President Putin in July 2001. The NDF estimate the Western Option will cost $1bn, but this is based on the transfer of key components from the abandoned Hanau MOX plant in Germany. Since April 2002, when Siemens began dismantling the facility, all of the equipment was supposed to be destroyed. While some of the components were to be shipped to Japan by September 2002, it seems clear that Hanau’s components cannot be used, which must therefore increase the cost of the Western Option.

However, according to the NDF’s Ueli Glausen, since the reports of the US-Russian and Russian-French-German expert groups assumed the utilisation of the Hanau facility’s components to the same extent as conclusions of the Western Option remain the same irrespective of whether the Hanau plant is available for the "disarmament" process or not.

Who will benefit from the Western Option?
–> The attraction for the Western Option can be broken down into the MOX producers and the reactor customers. The MOX fabricators will benefit from establishing a MOX programme in Russia, especially the French company Cogema and the Belgian company Belgonucleaire. Both are seeking to have their technology incorporated into the MOX fuel facility in Russia. Allegedly, the MOX plant at Krasnoyarsk would incorporate MIMAS technology from Cogema, which would be harmonised with Siemens design and equipment. Still, the loss of the Hanau plant will make the MOX facility more expensive to construct.

As their traditional commercial operations have started to decline and come under greater pressure, securing long-term financing under the guise of disarmament is a sound move for the Western Option’s partners. The plutonium fuel market is dominated by a few players so there is little competition. And the utility policies of giants like EoN and RWE in Germany, NOK in Switzerland and Electrabel in Belgium have no fundamental aversion to using MOX fuel. One of the main drivers for the commercial reprocessing industry is the SNF management option. While Sellafield and la Hague have to deal with high-level waste from Western Europe, the Western Option will permit Russia to import SNF, allowing Western clients to export their SNF for reprocessing and disposal.

Why not immobilise plutonium?
Immobilisation — a process where plutonium is contaminated with high-level radioactive liquid waste, which is mixed with glass and then sealed in stainless steel cylinders and geologically disposed of, also known as vitrification — has been vehemently opposed by MOX promoters and government and industry, both in the West and in Russia, despite meeting the National Academy of Sciences’ “spent fuel standard”.4 The argument for opposing immobilisation often cited is a disdain for throwing away plutonium without utilising its energy content.

And while there is much debate on whether or not the MOX route to plutonium disposition is economically viable, it is apparent that Minatom considers it to be an important tool for expanding the nuclear industry in Russia. In fact, Minatom hopes that Russia’s nuclear complex will be augmented by the import of foreign SNF for reprocessing and storage. But it is the US-Russian Plutonium Disposition Agreement of 2000 that is the foundation of MOX irradiation.

The Plutonium Disposition Agreement
–> The 2000 Plutonium Disposition Agreement commits the US and Russia to dispose of 34MT of weapons-grade plutonium, due to take place at an initial rate of 2 MT per year, commencing by December 2007. The aim of plutonium disposition is to transform excess weapons-grade plutonium into a form unusable for weapons making purposes. The agreement stipulated that Russia would burn all 34MT of surplus weapons-grade plutonium in MOX fuel. Russia has no commitment to dispose of plutonium through immobilisation, with the decision agreed by US negotiators.

Under the agreement, Russia’s disposition programme includes one industrial-scale site for MOX fabrication, a test-fuel line for fabrication of initial VVER-1000 lead-test MOX assemblies, the modification of a facility for the fabrication of BN-600 pellet fuel and the completion of the Demonstration Conversion Facility.

The cost of the Russian plutonium disposition was estimated by the US Department of Energy to be $2bn, which was to be covered by contributions from G8 Group of Nations. And although plutonium disposition has been a constant theme at G8 summits, funding has failed to materialise. At the G8 Summit in Canada in June 2002, the G8 nations pledged their support of plutonium disposition in Russia.5 In the past, though, the US has been unsuccessful in raising any of the $2bn Russian programme costs from other G8 nations.6

A helping hand from the US
In January 2002 the Bush administration decided to indefinitely suspend the development of immobilisation. It has ordered the dismantling of the Plutonium Ceramification Test Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which was due to test the process for incorporating weapons-grade plutonium into ceramic pucks. The US will now proceed with the MOX irradiation of weapons-grade plutonium in parallel with Russia. The US MOX facility will be built at the Savannah River Site and will be based on the Cogema’s Melox MOX plant.

Besides, in mid-September 2002 the US government proposed to Russia that they consider building a facility identical to the new US MOX plant. This rationale for this is that two plants built with the same capacity and technology should be cheaper than two separate designs, although the cost of the Russian plant could approach the $2bn price tag of the US MOX plant at the Savannah River Site.

Future worries
Costs aside, Minatom would of course be interested in the MOX facility, especially if it where able to benefit from US nuclear co-operation and if G8 nations were willing to pay. The NDF’s Western Option would also benefit from the utilisation of such a MOX plant, as the Hanau facility cannot be utilised. But Russia is already struggling to cope with its nuclear legacy it inherited as a result of the Cold War. Moreover, Minatom is aggressively pursuing a closed fuel-cycle that will help to secure Russia’s place in the global plutonium economy, should it materialise. The Western Option — or for that matter any commercial MOX production facility — has the potential to turn an already polluted Russia into a nuclear waste site.

Bellona’s position
Bellona believes the Western Option to be a fundamentally flawed and uneconomic method of weapons-grade plutonium disposition in Russia. Not only that, the Option represents a proliferation threat that would be environmentally degrading.

Any MOX programme in Russia would increase plutonium proliferation risks. Security at Russian facilities is already inadequate and using MOX fuel on a commercial scale will result in the increased transport of plutonium and fresh MOX fuel. If plutonium or fresh MOX fuel were to fall into terrorists hands, it could be used to manufacture a radiological dispersal device such as a dirty bomb. It could also be used for weapons purposes. The 1987 Edition of the “IAEA Safeguards Glossary” classifies MOX fuel as a "direct-use material". According to the IAEA, plutonium could be extracted from MOX in 1 to 3 weeks.7

The Western Option would give Minatom the opportunity to expand Russia’s nuclear complex. It would also entrench its power in the Russian bureaucracy. The Option complements Minatom’s plans to import and reprocess foreign SNF, which would further degrade the Russian environment. If mining the uranium ore is excluded, then more than 90% of the radioactivity released to the environment during the whole of the nuclear fuel-cycle occurs during reprocessing.8 This is why Bellona is opposed to reprocessing. The area surrounding the Mayak reprocessing plant, RT-1, Chelyabinsk county, has the title of being the most radioactively-polluted place on earth. And given Minatom’s less than perfect record on handling radioactive waste, this is sufficient cause for concern when considering the operation of the RT-2 facility near Krasnoyarsk.

In Bellona’s opinion, weapons-grade plutonium should be converted into the "spent fuel standard" by means of immobilisation and disposed of in a geological repository. Immobilisation requires far less resources than MOX irradiation (industrial infrastructure, fuel fabrication, handling, shipment) and has the advantage of keeping the plutonium under state control at designated sites. Immobilisation would also remove weapons-usable plutonium from circulation, which, in the post-11 September 2001 security environment, would reduce proliferation threats posed by materials of mass destruction. It would also help to limit future reprocessing opportunities and therefore prevent Russian becoming a nuclear waste site, something Minatom seems committed to.

1. The Nuclear Disarmament Forum AG, NDF
2. Greenpeace International Briefing Paper, Expanding the Treat of Russian Weapons-grade Plutonium-“The Western Option’, October 2002, Greenpeace
3. Greenpeace, Ibid
4. Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC), National Academy of Sciences, ‘Managing and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium: Reactor-Related Options’, National Academy Press, 1995.
5. The G8 Summit
6. The Nuclear Control Institute, ‘G8 Nations to Waste Billions on Dangerous Russian Plutonium Fuel’, 27 June 2002, NCI
7. The International Atomic Energy Agency, "IAEA Safeguards Glossary", 1987. See points 46, 49 and 105.
8. Jack Harris, ‘Lifting the lid on the MOX box’, Science and Public Affairs, February 2000.