Canada and US join forces to shut down Russia Pu production reactors

Publish date: March 31, 2005

Written by: Charles Digges

Canada and the United States announced that they have signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at closing one of the last reactors producing military grade plutonium in Russia, Ottawa and Washington said in a joint statement released Thursday.

The memorandum is meant "to assist with the permanent closure of one of the final operating weapons-grade plutonium production reactors in Russia," the countries said in the statement. Ottawa will contribute nine million Canadian dollars $7m US) to the US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Elimination of Weapons-Grade Plutonium Production (EWGPP) program. The entire programme is currently estimated to cost at least $466m US.

Russia still operates three of its formerly 14 weapons-grade plutonium reactors. Two of the production reactors are located in Tomsk, and the third in Zheleznogorsk, near the Central Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. The statement issued by the Canadian and US government did not specify which reactor the new co-operation will affect.

The co-operation falls under the G8-led Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction.

The failed CTR approach
The plutonium reactor programme, originally aimed at converting the cores of the last three of Russia’s weapons-grade plutonium reactors by 2000, has been stymied by bureaucracy and poorly developed science by both the US and Russian sides since the Co-operative Threat Reduction (CTR) programme began handling the procedure in 1994.

At that time, a process of core conversion, which would prevent the reactors from producing weapons-grade plutonium, yet still keep power and heat available to the communities that depend on them for that purpose. But former CTR officials close to the process, as well as other US and Russian observers, have told Bellona Web that the science of the core conversion process was ill considered and ultimately unsafe.


The DOE steps in, but has yet to save the day
The project was handed over to the DOE in 2003, which has opted to simply shut the Tomsk reactors down by 2008 and the Zheleznogorsk reactor by 2011, replacing them with fossil fuel plants to make up for the power and heat deficiency.

The plutonium reactors, which pump out some 1,300 kilograms of new weapons-grade plutonium with each year they remain open, pose a proliferation risk and the plutonium could be used to make nuclear arms. This plutonium is stored on site at the reactors in oxide form.

But even the fossil fuel approach has fallen badly behind schedule and become burdened by more bureaucracy and the work of 17 US hired contractors—and their own subcontractors, former and current US and Russian officials have told Bellona Web.

As of today, neither side has yet produced even the most rudimentary working plan for powering the reactors down, securing the plutonium, building the fossil fuel plants, or dismantling the reactor—the latter of which will take 50 years before it is safe for workers to knock them down.

It is not clear how precisely the new Canadian money will be used, and officials handling the agreement in the US and Canada handling the project could not be reached for immediate comment.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew nonetheless hailed the new agreement with Washington at a news conference, AFP reported.

"This agreement is key to halting the production of nuclear weapons materials," he said.

Samuel Bodman, the newly-initiated US secretary of energy, was equally satisfied, saying: "Ending the production of weapons-grade plutonium is a non-proliferation priority for the United States and the international community. The signing of this MOU with our Canadian partners is another key step toward meeting this priority."