Russia set to shut down plutonium production reactor Sunday, US officials say

Bellona Archive

Publish date: April 19, 2008

Written by: Charles Digges

In a surprise announcement by US nonproliferation officials, Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation Rosatom is expected to switch off one of Russia’s last three remaining plutonium producing reactors on Sunday in the closed Siberian nuclear city in of Seversk, which has been producing weapons-grade plutonium for four decades.

In the heyday of the Cold War, Russia operated 13 plutonium production reactors, all but three of which have been shut down. These three – two in Seversk and one in Zheleznogorsk, near Krasnoyarsk – remained in operation, but recent movements within the Russian government have fast tracked the long stalled shut down projects – at least for Seversk.

Bellona, which has followed the piecemeal progress of the plutonium reactor shutdown programme, is pleased that Russian and US efforts are finally bearing fruit, and notes that the closure of the Seversk reactors will significantly reduce the amount of weapons-grade plutonium being stockpiled in Russia – for which there is still no safe storage facility.

The Zhelznogorsk reactor – the ADE-2 – is still scheduled to be pulled from the grid in 2010, when refurbishment of a coal fired plant there is expected to be completed.

The United States has already shut down all 14 of the plutonium production reactors it used to escalate the arms race.

The Seversk-based reactor slated for shut down on Sunday, the ADE-4, is one of two in the closed city that have been largely ancillary dinosaurs of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons programme since the end of the Cold War.

An official with the plant, Alexei Suglobov, confirmed in a telephone interview what US officials had said earlier on Saturday, and said the ADE-4 unit would be shutting down on Sunday.

Calls to Rosatom on Saturday and early Sunday for an explanation of the fast tracking of the ADE-4, as well as for confirmation of plans for building Siberia’s first power producing nuclear plant, went unanswered.

Tonnes of plutonium for power
For the 17 years following the collapse for the Soviet Union and the fragmentation of its mammoth nuclear weapons machine, the reactors produced plutonium that the Kremlin neither needed nor wanted.

The reactors were opened in secret in the 1960’s to feed the arms race with the United States, but Russia’s Ministry of Defence stopped purchasing the plutonium they produced in 1993, rendering their primary purpose obsolete.

But the reactors could not be closed, and plutonium was still produced, because the reactors have been the primary source of heat and power to the bitterly cold regions along the Tomsk River in Central Siberia, where no equivalent utility sources had been built.

Russian energy officials said switching off the bomb making reactors – which are powered by uranium and produce weapons-grade plutonium oxide as a byproduct – would have meant cutting off a large fraction of the utilities for the cities of Seversk and Tomsk, which have a combined population of about 600,000.

“That is obviously critical when you are facing temperatures of 40 below,” William Tobey, deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous agency in the Department of Energy that coordinates nonproliferation programmes, told the New York Times.

Under a cooperative programme between the Russians and the US Department of Energy, the United States has provided $285 million to underwrite the refurbishment of a coal plant to provide an alternate utility service to the region, Tobey said.

Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand have also donated money, about $30 million, to replace Russia’s remaining plutonium-producing reactors with fossil-fuel plants, Tobey said.

Shut down progresses in fits and starts
The programme itself, which has been on the US-Russian nonproliferation table since 1997, has been through a rocky peregrination since its inception.

Originally conceived as a project for the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programme, administered by the US Department of Defence, the reactors were originally the subject of an enormous engineering undertaking called core conversion.

Under this process the cores of the reactors would have been reengineered to operate as standard power production reactors and the waste they produced ineffective for weapons purposes.

But Richard Alvarez, a former senior official with the Department of Energy under the administration of Bill Clinton, said the cost overruns, dubious engineering and sloppy subcontracting management of the project made core conversion impossible.

The project was later tossed hot potato style in 2000 to the DOE 2000, which embarked on a programme to first refurbish nearby fossil fuel plants, and then shut down, decommission and dismantle the reactors themselves. The dismantling process, because the reactors first have to be cooled, will not take place for several decades.

The coal-fired plant near Seversk has been sufficiently refurbished to switch off the first reactor this week, Russian officials told their American counterparts on Friday. The coal plant is expected to be completed and in full service by June, allowing the second reactor, ADE-5, to be turned off as well. Both reactors had been expected to shut down much later this year.

Calls to Rosatom on Saturday and early Sunday for an explanation of the fast tracking of the ADE-4 went unanswered.

Coy US refuses to reveal what Russia has made public
The NNSA’s Tobey declined to tell the New York Times how much plutonium the reactors had produced, saying that Russia had opposed the public release of data related to its nuclear programmes.

Russian officials, however, have told Bellona Web that all three reactors combined produce 1,500 kilograms of plutonium oxide per year, meaning that they have put out roughly 25.5 tonnes of plutonium oxide since the fall of the Soviet Union and at least 72 tonnes over their lifetimes.

As all three remaining plutonium reactors produce roughly the same amount a year, the closure of the ADE-4 and the forecasted June closure of the ADE-5 will mean a tonne’s reduction in Russia’s plutonium oxide output per year until 2010.

Security issues remain a worry

One of the main worries about shutting down the reactors is what to do with the plutonium they have produced since 1991, which has been stored onsite at each of the reactors.

Despite loudly advertised US funded security upgrades at each of the sites, independent and unrelated investigations by Bellona, Greenpeace and former Duma Deputy Sergei Mitrokhin revealed in 2001 and 2002 – the years the upgrades were to have taken place – revealed gapping holes in the walls surrounding Zheleznogorsk.

In each investigation, the groups revealed that they were able to infiltrate the sites following well-worn foot paths through a gaping hole in the perimeter walls surrounding the closed city. Mitrokhin even brought a television camera crew with him, finding sleeping guards and abandoned security posts as he made his way to Zheleznogorsk’s RT-2 spent nuclear fuel storage facility.

A Bellona Web reporter was able to make the same journey, asking directions from townspeople traveling the footpath, and later, from helpful security personnel within the closed city itself.

The revelations frustrated the Federal Security Service (FSB) – the successor secret police organisation to the KGB – which staged a raid on the facility armed with a fake bomb. The phony guerillas were neither stopped by security personnel, nor was their toy bomb noticed. After a week of waiting for someone to discover its handiwork, the FSB removed the fake bomb in frustration.

More worrisome still is that places to put the plutonium are scarce. In 2005, then Minister of Atomic Energy Alexander Rumyantsev announced that the Mayak Fissile Materials Storage Facility – CTR’s longest running project, which was developed to store 50 tonnes 0f weapons-grade plutonium and 200 tonnes of weapons grade uranium – would be scaling back on its intended capacity.

Rumyantsev announced that the facility, that had been under construction with US funds since 1993, would be housing no uranium and only 25 tons of plutonium that were to come from disassembled warheads.

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