US, Russia agree on plutonium disposal — to chagrin of environmentalists and nuclear scientists

Nuclear technicians fabricating MOX in a European facility.

Publish date: November 20, 2007

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK — US and Russian officials announced an agreement of “mutual understanding” yesterday over how to safely dispose of 34 metric tons of Russian weapons-grade plutonium, overcoming a major hurdle in a joint nuclear non-proliferation effort that seemed to have been mothballed.

But the agreement, which many nuclear scientists and environmental groups had hoped would remain down for the count because of the dirty and expensive proposed disposition method, is sure to reinvigorate debate during the considerable time it will take to get the programme up and running by 2012 – already several years behind schedule.

Chief among concerns of Bellona is that the money spent on the programme will eclipse all environmental concerns. The agreement will also help finance with American cash the building of Russia’s BN800 fast neutron, reactor, until now a dream schematic at Rosatom. Fast neutron reactors are dicey technology that very few scientists have managed to master.

America will also invest in the cooperative development with Russia of the General Atomics GT-MHR in Russia. This is an advanced gas-cooled high-temperature reactor "which may create additional possibilities for speeding up plutonium disposition" from about 2015, said Rosatom officials.

“The chase for cash, can, and most probably will, unfortunately overshadow the environmental concerns of the project,” said Bellona nuclear expert Igor Kudrik.

Bellona’s nuclear physicist Nils Boehmer agreed. He said the programme “is not money spent wisely,” and that instead Russia and America’s atomic industries should recommit the billions of dollars involved in the programme to building geologic repositories for nuclear waste – widely viewed as the only safe solution for long-term storage of radioactive trash.

US Russian joint statement
Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman and the director of Russia’s Atomic Energy Agency, Rosatom , Sergei Kiriyenko, outlined in a joint statement a "mutual understanding" as to how Russia’s plutonium would be disposed of and reiterated both countries’ commitment to the programme.

The agreement "reflects measurable progress towards disposing of a significant amount of weapons grade plutonium in Russia," said Bodman in a separate statement released by his office.

MOX fabrication In the United States will take place at the Department of Energy’s (DOE’) Sanannah River site in South Caroliona, where construction of the facility began last summer at a price tag of $4 billion.

Russian and the United States described a plan where Russia agrees to modify its fast-neutron reactors so that they can burn the plutonium, yet ensure that additional plutonium will not be produced in the process.

In turn, the United States, which also will dispose of 34 tons of excess plutonium from its weapons programme, will continue to help Russia pay for construction of a plant in Russia to turn the plutonium into a mixed oxide, or MOX, fuel for the reactors and fund research of a more advanced reactor that could speed up the disposal process.

The two countries tentatively agreed to the plutonium disposal programme seven years ago, in the 2007 Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement between Presidents Vladimir Putin and former US President Bill Clinton – when it was hailed as a major break though in safeguarding some of Russia’s nuclear material.

What restarted the programme?

But progress stalled on the shoals of a variety of disagreements in 2003, from lapses in other American side agreements that would allow the plutonium disposition agreement to go forward, to the inexact science behind converting reactors to burn MOX fuel, to sharp discord over how the plutonium should be disposed of in the first place.

When the plan was initially conceived, the US had envisioned that both countries would take their declared stocks of surplus plutonium and immobile them, but the Russian side would not agree to that method.

The method would have compress excess plutonium into pucks that would then be loaded into barrels to be filled with radioactive glass, making the plutonium self protecting – the method espoused by Bellona and numerous nuclear scientists.

MOX is created by mixing small amounts of plutonium with large amounts of uranium. The technology has been in use In European countries for years – but the plutonium used there is not weapons grade. The use of MOX as proposed under the agreement is therefore of unknown safety.

The programme also implies building a large $2 billion industrial facility for fabrication the fuel, which can cause extreme radiation pollution – and also allow Russia fabicate pure plutonium fuel. It also ignored the far cheaper option of immobilisation.

Russia also insisted it should be able to develop and use it’s plutonium reactors to burn MOX, but the US was opposed to this.

Russia’s ambivalence in turn caused Congress to balk at approving money for the US portion of the plutonium disposal effort because of what lawmakers called the apparent inability to get Russia to agree on a disposal method.

The US changed its stance on the use of plutonium reactors in a 2006 announcement by the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) in 2006, dropping its opposition to the use of the plutonium reactors – all of which puts Russian squarley on the path of realsing it’s long term dream of a plutonium based fuel cycle.

According to Bellona’s Kudrik, the change of heart was brought about when Kiriyenko started to see dollar signs.

“Bellona has always been a supporter of the immobilisation option,” said Kudrik. “But in that option, Rosatom has no chance to earn money on new reactors, technology and so on, therefore this immobilisation option is buried.”

Plutonium reactors to burn plutonium?

The DOE’s Deputy Director William Tobey said the US had received assurance from the Russians that the reactors used to dispose of the plutonium will be modified to burn more than they produce, that the plutonium they produce will not be weapons grade, and that the US contribution will be capped at $400 million.

While viewed as major non-proliferation effort, the plutonium disposition is expected to take several decades and cover only a fraction of the weapons-grade plutonium both countries possess. The United States is believed to have about 100 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium and Russia about 140 metric tons.

A money pit?
“The plutonium burners will never be built, but money will be spent,” said one official on Russia’s side of the negotiations.

Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin was also sceptical that the agreement will draw the needed cash.

“It is clear from the common US-Russian statement that the project still lacks financing,” said Nikitin. “They claim they will continue to seek donor support. There should not be any donor support – this is a commercial project and if there are any suicidal investors – let them invest this economically and environmentally dangerous endeavour.”

Nevertheless, former Senator Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a non-proliferation advocacy group, and co author of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Act, which has made numerous bilateral non-proliferation agreements, called the agreement a "major advance toward achieving the elimination of enough plutonium to make more than 8,000 nuclear bombs."

Russian fast neutron reactors ‘slow track’ programme
The 34 metric tons of Russia’s excess plutonium will be turned into a mixed oxide, or MOX, fuel and then burned in its existing BN600 fast-neutron reactor and in a larger version, the BN800, once it is built.

Disposal would begin in the BN600 reactor in 2012, three years before the United States is scheduled to begin processing plutonium into MOX for use in a commercial reactor.

Ed Lyman, the nuclear weapons expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said use of the relatively small BN600 reactor "will put Russian plutonium disposition on the slow track" because the reactor can burn only about three-tenths of a ton of plutonium a year, and the larger reactor has yet to be built.

Lyman said "this is a total retreat from the original concept" which would have disposed of the plutonium in larger light-water reactors, an option the Russian rejected, he told the Associated Press.

The announcement Monday anticipates 1.5 metric tons of Russian plutonium being burned a year once both of Russia’s reactors are operating, meaning it will take more than 22 years to destroy the 34 metric tons, once both reactors are operating.