Russian Pu reactors now slated for shut-down by 2010, DOE says

Publish date: January 15, 2008

Written by: Charles Digges

After numerous stumbling blocks, engineering snafus and budget over-runs, the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has finally announced some progress in shutting down Russia’s three remaining weapons-grade plutonium production reactors – a hallmark of American non-proliferation efforts following the Soviet Union’s collapse.

At issue is supplying power and heat to the Siberian town of Seversk – formerly known as the secret military city of Tomsk-7 – where residents rely on the plutonium production reactors as their chief source of heat and power.

The NNSA, which is the nuclear division of the Department of Energy (DOE), yesterday announced it would substitute the power shortfall expected when the reactors are taken offline by December 2008 with a refurbished nearby fossil fuel plant.

The two reactors at Seversk are expected to be shut down by year’s end, the NNSA said, when the refurbished power plant will take over the power load. Russia’s third remaining plutonium producer is located in Zheleznogorsk – formerly known as Krasnoyarsk- 26, also in Siberia – and NNSA officials said Tuesday that reactor will shut down by 2010, when a new US-built fossil fuel plant takes over the power burden.

All three reactors churn out an additional 1,500 kilograms of weapons plutonium a year – or enough for one new nuclear weapon daily – which continues to be shipped to local radio-chemical plants for processing. The plutonium is then stored on site at the reactors in oxide form, ready to be used in weapons, and adding to Russia’s estimated 125-150 metric tons of surplus plutonium.

These three represent the last of Russia’s 13 plutonium reactors to be taken out of service. The United States has already shut down all 14 of its plutonium producing reactors.

Behind schedule
Both US Department of Energy (DOE) shut down projects are running behind schedule. The last projected shut down date for the Seversk reactors was 2005, to be followed by the reactor at Zheleznogorsk by 2006, according to a US agreement signed in 2003 with then-Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov.

William Tobey, the NNSA’s deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, called Tuesday’s announcement “an important milestone in a key international nonproliferation project.”

The original accord would have retrofitted the reactors in such way that they would no longer produce plutonium — a process called core conversion. The Pentagon was to implement that programme by December 31st 2000.

During CTR’s bumpy core conversion efforts, Russia’s former nuclear regulatory agency bellowed protests about the dangers and cost overruns the programme was posing and threatened to withdraw the Seversk and Zheleznogorsk reactors’ operation licenses.

The Pentagon abandoned the core conversion idea and gave the DOE the responsibility of shutting down the reactors altogether and devising alternative fossil fuel energy schemes for Seversk and Zheleznogorsk by revamping aged fossil fuel plants near both of the cities.

At present, the DOE has been dealing with such scientists through its Initiative for Proliferation Prevention programme, which doles out some $28 million to put weapons scientists on a private sector track with the hope that they will not sell their knowledge to possible enemy’s of the United States.

The NNSA insists it will continue with the IPP programme – and with the closure of the Seversk and Zheleznogorsk reactors imminent – it will be necessary to divert the scientific knowledge somehow. But the programme is already under fire from various members of US Congress and could be facing large cuts in its budget.

Presumably this final disposition of some of the plutonium could come in the form of the recently reinvigorated Plutonium Disposition Agreement of 2000. But this agreement only accounts for immobilising 34 metric tons of Russian plutonium and the same amount of US surplus plutonium.

As current plans stand, the plutonium will therefore remain stored on site at the Seversk and Zheleznogorsk reactors.