No faith in MOX at Novovoronezh NPP

An antinuclear camp settled two kilometres from Novovoronezh nuclear power plant, in southern Russia, on 17 August. The camp protests against the Russian Nuclear Ministry’s – Minatom’s – MOX fuel program, of which Novovoronezh NPP is part. But as it turns out, the management at Novovoronezh NPP does not consider the plant’s reactors technically able to burn MOX fuel.

MOX program
MOX fuel, a mixed oxide of plutonium and uranium, made it onto the Russian agenda when the United States and Russia faced the problem of safe disposal of their vast stockpiles of plutonium. The solution should prevent access of terrorists and reuse by either of the countries.

Russian stockpiles of plutonium are estimated at 75 metric tonnes, while the U.S. is said to possess around 50 metric tonnes. The disposition of plutonium can be done in two ways: it may be immobilised in ceramic or glass along with highly radioactive waste, or turned into MOX fuel for use in civilian reactors.

The U.S. seems to rate the two options as equally interesting, while Russia has ambitious plans to pursue the MOX option.

Russia, unable to cope with the financial expenses for the program on its own, pursues other countries’ funding in exchange for being a test field for MOX technology. Currently, co-operation is underway with U.S.A., Germany, France and Japan.

Meanwhile, experts believe the safest way to deal with plutonium would be to dispose of it. Moreover, Russia is believed to be better positioned to immobilise its existing stocks of plutonium rather than to burn it. This assumption is based on the fact that Russia has already a significant infrastructure to immobilise plutonium, while the plans drawn for MOX fuel production and utilisation are in most cases far beyond reality.

Novovoronezh NPP in MOX program
The Russian MOX program assumes utilisation of MOX fuel in 10 VVER-1000 reactors, three of which are not yet completed. At Novovoronezh NPP, 2.8 metric tonnes of plutonium are to be burnt at reactor unit no. 5.

Novovoronezh NPP operates on two VVER-440 reactors, commissioned in 1971 and 1972, and on one VVER-1000 reactor commissioned in 1980 (unit no. 5).

Reactor unit no. 5 must be upgraded to utilise MOX fuel. Earlier plans suggested that the upgrade would be completed by 2001.

Vladimir Slivyak, an antinuclear campaigner at Russian largest environmental NGO, Socio-Ecological Union, says the Minatom plans are far removed from reality.

"One can load reactor unit no. 5 with MOX fuel. The only problem is that the reactor would not work," Anatoly Krutskikh, representative from the local Nuclear Regulatory (GAN), told the protesters. The manager of the plant told the local daily last week that the reactors at Novovoronezh NPP "were not designed to accept MOX fuel."

Antinuclear camp heavily guarded
The camp was launched on 17 August, and was put under surveillance by local police and the security service (FSB) on the very same day. Policemen are patrolling the area and even put up a roadblock on the road leading to the camp. Both the FSB and the police are trying to negotiate with protesters to move beyond the so-called five-kilometre security zone. There has been no attempt to use force yet, although the protesters have received threats from the police.

Igor Kudrik

igor@bellona.no