Thorium-Based Fuel May Play Role in Plutonium Disposition

Publish date: May 8, 2003

Written by: Charles Digges

Following what Russian insiders call increasingly futile negotiations with the US over renewing agreements to destroy weapons-grade plutonium in mixed oxide, or MOX, fuel, Russia's Atomic Energy Ministry announced — after nearly a decade of silence — that it is developing, on US money, another plutonium demolishing fuel that would cut the embattled MOX program's costs in half.

The newly revealed fuel project by Russian Atomic Energy Ministry, or Minatom, and Moscow’s Kurchatov institute, has been under quiet development over the past nine years with $15m of combined private US and government funding. The research has been overseen by GAN, Russia’s state nuclear regulatory agency. The fuel combines thorium and weapons grade plutonium to produce assemblies for burning in conventional, power producing nuclear reactors.

Unlike the MOX design, the new thorium fuel’s engineers say it would require no expensive overhauls in the reactors it would power — which has been one of the major impediments to the MOX-based programme. They also say that the spent fuel produced by the thorium-plutonium mixture eradicates any possible weapons use the plutonium could have. By contrast, MOX spent fuel can still be separated for bomb-grade plutonium.

The new fuel would also be fabricated in existing Russian plants — possibly Elektrostal near Moscow, or the Novosibirsk Plant for Chemical Concentrates — provided appropriate licensing agreements are in place.

MOX deadlock
Thorium supporters say the plutonium burning fuel would advance the foundering bilateral agreement between Russian and the United States to destroy 34 tonnes a piece of surplus weapons-grade plutonium, and reduce the time it would take to do so by at least 50 percent. Proponents say they could start burning the fuel in contemporary Russian VVER-1000 reactors by 2006.

In early January, Atomic Energy Minister Aleksander Rumyantsev, in a speech at the Kurchatov institute, endorsed the thorium programme, saying, "It is again acceptable, that the Kurchatov institute … is conducting its own research in the IR-8 to study the thorium-uranium nuclear cycle in atomic energy."

The current plutonium disposition agreement — which was signed by Presidents Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin in 2000 — has banked on MOX, which combines uranium oxide with small amounts of highly toxic plutonium oxide — or powder — that would, like the thorium based fuel, be burned in civilian, energy producing Russian VVER-1000 reactors.

But the MOX programme, which is the cooperative responsibility of the US Department of Energy, or DOE and Minatom, has been plagued by bitter technical and political disputes since its inception in 1995.

This continuing stalemate, say insiders, is preventing cooler heads from prevailing to seek an extension of the Russian American agreement that allows technical cooperation on the project to continue past deadline. If this extension is not reached, the MOX programme could be dumped for good by late July.

One well informed Russian source called the last month’s round of US-Russian MOX discussions — which included arguments about extending the agreement and discussion the design of Russia’s $1bn MOX fabrication facility — "a complete failure."

"There is no interface between the two sides," said the informed Russian source. "The MOX option is in big trouble." Another industry expert, who has observed the years of bickering from both sides said, "It’s even worse than that."

Adding insult to these injuries, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, this week refused for safety reasons to approve designs for the American MOX fabrication plant — slated to be built at the DOE’s Savannah River Site, or SRS in South Carolina. DCS Spokesman Todd Kaish said the safety shortcomings will be corrected by November, and construction will begin in 2004, according to Nuclear.Ru.

Public optimism and private doubts about MOX
Regarding Russia, the US is hoping to share the cost of building the Russian MOX fabrication facility with nations of the Group of Eight industrialized nations, or G-8, but public and private projections on how that funding drive is progressing differ greatly in their forecasts.

Washington’s MOX elite has put a bold and optimistic face on the programme’s backsliding progress. The US MOX program in the United States is expected to cost $4bn, much of which has been allocated in the US federal budget for 2004. Russia’s MOX project is expected to cost half of that, with an initial $1bn outlay for construction of the MOX facility at Siberian Chemical Combine, located near the western Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk.

To shoulder some of the cost burden for Russia, the United States has agreed to provide $400m in its 2004 non-proliferation budget, with another $400m collectively pledged by other G-8 nations. According to senior US officials, Washington is negotiating a multinational agreement to cover management and additional financing for the Russian plant, which they expect to complete by year’s end.

Ambassador Michael Guhin, the US State Department’s fissile materials negotiator and US President George Bush’s point man MOX negotiations, confirmed that projection while speaking at a Washington non-proliferation conference last month.

"I believe we could, by the end of 2003, achieve donations of over one billion dollars or more," he said, according to a transcript of the conference, which was hosted by the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Another highly placed US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, predicted construction of the Russia MOX plant will begin by 2004 — which is already 3 years behind the original groundbreaking schedule. The official said the G-8 summit scheduled for June in Evian, France, will issue a new statement endorsing the MOX project.

Russian reaction
The latest talks over extending the MOX programme deadline and the DCS MOX facility design, however, have left a sour taste among many of the participants of the most recent meeting, according to confidential interviews with Russian officials. Because of the failure to reach an agreement on an extension, both governments are now under more pressure to reach a consensus before the end of July.

According to US-based nuclear industry source familiar with the negotiations, Moscow feels betrayed by Guhin’s funding plan — which expects cash contributions from Moscow, and keeps American donations at less than half the total $2bn cost. This $2bn was negotiated in 2000, so inflation will actually make the total cost more than $2bn.

"Guhin’s plan envisions Russia as a contributor, not just in kind but in cash, so the Russian attitude is that they never wanted this program in the first place," said the US industry source. "Now the US is paying less than half, Russia has to contribute cash, the other members might not come forward with their contributions, so it’s a little harder for the Russians to swallow."

Other stumbling blocks between Minatom and DCS, according to other sources, are age-old arguments over the financial viability of Russia adoption the American design for the fabrication facility.

According to Vladimir Kuznetsov, a former inspector with Russia’s nuclear regulatory body, GAN — who is familiar with, and opposed to, MOX plans — it would have been cheaper to skirt the political conditions laid out by the DOE and adopt a French model for MOX facilities, which would have been more adaptable to Russia’s particular conditions.

This was not possible, however, because, under the 2000 agreement, the American and Russian plants are to be as nearly identical as possible. According to the well informed Russian industry source, this stipulation has led to embarrassing snafus during negotiations when it was revealed that the American-developed DCS design had failed to take into account that Russia’s standard of measurement, which, unlike the US, is metric. The problem has since been resolved, but it is an indicator of how chaotic the negotiation process has been.

"DCS were conceited fools and pompous asses that think they can snap their fingers and make things happen, in Russia of all places," the Russian source said of the recent meetings. "Really, it was the innocent Yankees being led to the slaughter."

DCS declined to comment on the meetings.

MOX versus thorium
According to several highly place US and Russia officials, Minatom’s announcement of its long silent thorium research was likely timed to offset the prevalent stagnation of the MOX programme.

"The MOX project has cost Congress political embarrassment. And there are some people coming out with criticism. And when they see some people involved with MOX in France through DCS’s associations with Cogema it causes more embarrassment," one US nuclear official said.

"Secondly," the official added," there are concerns about getting the MOX funding. They’re looking to make sure there’s something there in return for US government support."

But Seth Grae — president of the private, Washington based company Thorium Power that has funded much of the research — was quick to point out to Bellona Web that the fuel is not meant to compete with or replace MOX — despite the touted safety and speed advantages of the fuel.

During his most recent trip to Moscow last month, Grae met with some of the more than 300 researchers from seven institutions — including the Kurchatov Institute — who are now working on the project, which is being coordinated by the Nuclear Power Ministry and monitored by the State Nuclear Inspection Agency

"What we have is a technology. The technology is not designed to compete with MOX. It is what it is — whether the government decides to use it instead of MOX, in combination with MOX only, that’s up to them," Grae said in a telephone interview from Washington

"We do not take a position on whether to fight MOX. Even with both programmes, there will still be a lot of plutonium left," he said.

Just how much plutonium that may be is a government protected secret and a source of wildly conflicting estimates. Official tallies for Russia’s plutonium are still being added up at the Obninsk nuclear research facility near Moscow.

Kuznetsov, in his most recent book ‘Nuclear Danger,’ estimated that Russia is sitting on several hundred tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium. According to an article published by the scandal -tarred former Nuclear Energy Minister, Yevgeny Adamov, and cited by Kuznetsov, Russia could have as much as 780 tonnes of the nuclear material.

Kuznetsov went on to note that Adamov’s estimate conflicts outrageously with the commonly accepted figure of about 150 tonnes of weapons grade plutonium in Russian storehouses. The figure also seemed outrageous to Harvard University nuclear researcher Matthew Bunn, who in a telephone interview put the figure closer to 140 tonnes.

In addition to however many tonnes of the stuff Russia currently has, 18,000 Russian warheads, which have been dismantled since mid 1990s, will produce another 162 tonnes of plutonium — which by itself is 62 percent more than the 100 tonnes of weapons grade plutonium officially declared by the United States.

Thorium and US involvement
The growing Congressional discomfort over the political and technical issues surrounding MOX has mobilized a Congressional fan club for thorium-based fuel led by Curt Weldon, chairman of the powerful House Armed Service Committee. Weldon plans to lobby congress to allocate an appropriation of $3.5m for the 304 budget to being the programme in earnest.

Before that, though Grae said $3.5m will be required in 2003, $25m will be required in 2004 out of a total budget of $200m, to run so-called lead test assemblies in a VVER-1000 in 2006.

Eight of Russia’s 30 nuclear reactors are VVER-1000’s. Four are located in the Saratov region, two near Tver, and one a piece in Volgodonsk and Novovorornezh. Two more plants with VVER-1000 reactors are being built and another is planned, Minatom officials said.

Preceding this lead test slated for 2006, before which Grae said the fuel will continue to undergo ampoule irradiation tests at the Kurchatov Institute’s IR-8 experimental reactor. It also, said Grae, is undergoing thermal-hydraulic, temperature and pressure tests at the institute.

Although the DOE budget request for the 2004 fiscal year included no funding for the thorium project, Weldon told The Moscow Times he was confident he could squeeze out the money during September’s congressional allocation process — even after the mammoth US expenditures on the Iraqi war.

"I have strongly supported additional funding to test the thorium process at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow," Weldon told the Moscow Times. "The thorium process provides the double benefit of reducing weapons-usable fissile material and producing advanced, proliferation-resistant nuclear reactor and fuel cycle technologies. As such, it is in the best interests of the United States to provide funding to advance this technology."

A brief history of thorium
Like uranium — and unlike plutonium — thorium is a naturally occurring element. In Russia, it is found near uranium deposits in Siberia, near Tomsk. It can also be mined in Kazakhstan, the United States and China. More thorium in Russia’s possession was confiscated during the Soviet invasion of Germany, where the Nazis were experimenting with thorium as a potential nuclear weapon.

Although the Nazis never achieved a chain reaction with it, Russian and American scientists eventually did. The victorious Red Army took this nuclear booty home, where it is now kept in dilapidated storehouses in Yekaterinburg and Obninsk.

Part of thorium’s appeal in plutonium disposition programmes is that, unlike uranium, its supplies are expected to last for the next 500 to 600 years, as opposed to the century supply of natural uranium, Kuznetsov said.

Using it in the plutonium disposition process could also, according to one industry official, give Russia a bigger role in the plutonium disposition agenda — an agenda that one official said has been dictated by the Americans. MOX, said the official, "has been forced down the Russia’s throat."

"The development of this fuel, which has taken place at the Kurchatov Institute, and has been developed by Russian labs — with US funding — could give Moscow a better more, active position in plutonium disposition," the official said, enunciating a position that has been championed by several high profile, recently published reports on the flagging of US-Russian non-proliferation efforts.

Thorium’s advantages
One of the advantages of the thorium-based fuel has on MOX, say US and Russian nuclear authorities, is that spent thorium fuel contains no weapons — or even energy — usable plutonium components that can be separated out in reprocessing.

"The plutonium in our fuel cannot be reprocessed for any energy or weapons purpose," said Grae. The fuel could then be stored and buried as standard spent nuclear fuel, Grae said. The thorium fuel produces over 80 percent less plutonium than MOX, and the small amount of plutonium that is produced is denatured and diluted with other isotopes making it unsuitable for use in weapons or for energy use.

The fact that MOX — on which the American public and Congress have spent million, and plan to spend billions of dollars — can, with sophisticated technology, be once again broken down into bomb-grade plutonium, has come as a shock to many in Washington, a government source said.

One of the most surprised officials was the US governments main champion of the MOX programme, US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who while testifying before the House Armed Services Committee in March, 2002, was forced to admit during questioning that he did not know that plutonium was a by-product of spent MOX fuel.

"We talk to people in congress and they are shocked, they actually don’t know that," the government source said. "The American people and the Congress are spending billions of dollars to produce something that can still be turned into a weapon — and the technology is out there to do it."

No expensive reactor retrofitting
Another advantage, say Grae and Valery Rachkov — who heads up the Russian side of the thorium project as deputy head of Minatom’s scientific research department — is that unlike plans under consideration in the MOX programme, the reactors slated to burn the thorium-based fuel will require absolutely no upgrades.

Rachkov, added in his Moscow Times interview, that "the possibility of using thorium fuel in existing reactors is very significant because it means we will not have to change the reactors."

MOX related retrofitting projects for VVER-1000s, by comparison, will cost, by most reliable estimates, $200m per reactor. One Russian nuclear regulatory official added that these costs are likely to grow by several million more dollars, because the reactors will have to be restored to their original state after the internationally agreed amount of plutonium is disposed of in MOX.

Grae said that the thorium-based fuel — unlike MOX assemblies — is designed specifically for VVER-1000 reactors, taking into account designs of the standard uranium fuel assemblies these reactors employ. In a standard uranium fuel assembly, said Kuznetsov, there are 163 power producing uranium seed rods, and 61 carbide control rods — a so-called blanket — which control the level of the nuclear reaction. This assembly produced 1000 megawatts of power.

For the thorium-based assembly, Grae said, there are some slight modifications to the reactor, to use fuel assemblies with approximately the same number of plutonium and zirconium metal rods, and thorium blanket rods. The reactor would still produce the same 1000 megawatts of electric power.

Scepticism… and support
But Kuznetsov was sceptical of the thorium design, saying that emissions of neutrons from thorium in VVER-1000’s increase by ten percent, which jeopardizes the technicians’ control over the reaction.

"You would have to reconstitute the entire system of regulation in the reactor, which could cost even more than the retrofitting costs on VVERs for MOX," he said. He also said that the thorium-based fuel has to undergo several years of trials at the Kurchatov IR-8 reactor before it is used in a VVER-1000.

Grae and a Kurchatov researcher, who preferred not to be named in this article, said the fuel has undergone these required tests. Nonetheless, Kuznetsov said that running the thorium-based fuel through a VVER-1000 was tantamount to "terrorism."

But because the thorium-based fuel is designed specifically to produce 1000 megawatts of power, Grae said, Kuznetsov’s concerns are unfounded. Harvard’s Matthew Bunn agreed.

"In the post-Chernobyl world, research and development with thorium has been viewed with scepticism. But if anyone could make it work, it would be the Kurhatov institute," Bunn said in a telephone interview. He also concurred that the thorium-based fuel assembly could be used without any special upgrades to the VVER-1000. "I’d be pleased if they made it work," by the 2006 deadline, he added.

Tom Cochran, director of the nuclear arm of the non-profit environmental group, the Natural Resources Defence Council, said from Washington that the thorium project has good prospects.

"I think it’s a viable project. It has some technical advantages on MOX for burning up the plutonium. The question really is in the cost," which at the moment is still a matter of speculation. But he said that the thorium approach leaves less plutonium.

"With MOX in a reactor, in the usual case, you are breeding the plutonium, whereas in the thorium based case you are fissioning the plutonium and producing uranium 233," Cochran continued. "So that way you never end up with highly enriched uranium, but you still burn that plutonium. Technically, it’s more attractive. But you still have to sort out the safety and the
regulatory issues.

Grae said that the last nine years of research on the fuel have been conducted under the scrutiny of GAN. But one possible roadblock to manufacturing the thorium-plutonium fuel, Bunn noted, is that the Elektrostal fuel plant near Moscow — which is viewed by Grae as one of the most likely fabrication sites — does not have a license to produce plutonium fuels. This could not be independently confirmed with Russian nuclear authorities because of state secrecy laws limiting information about what Minatom structures are allowed to deal with plutonium.

But Kuznetsov remained sceptical, and called attention to the fact that the United States and Germany had abandoned thorium based fuels as long as 25 years ago.

"If thorium activists are so excited about it now, why have they been so silent about it for such a long time," he said. "The US and Germany conducted high temperature experiments in 300 megawatt reactors and abandoned it. If thorium is so wonderful, why did two countries shut down their programmes?"