Minatom Jumps the Gun on Reactor Cooperation Program With US DOE

Publish date: May 30, 2002

Written by: Charles Digges

With an agreement between The Russian Nuclear Power Ministry and US Department of Energy to form two joint expert research teams to tackle the destruction of weapons-usable fissile material and examine the creation of a proliferation-proof nuclear power bloc, Russia Tuesday tabled its own suggestion for the reactor — the controversial BREST plutonium-burning fast neutron reactor.

The BREST "breeder" reactor — which both consumes reactor grade plutonium as fuel and produces it as raw material — is a long standing theoretical dream of Russia’s Nuclear Power Ministry (Minatom), which has long billed the BREST’s ability to consume its own waste for fuel as a kind of perpetual motion machine that could solve spent nuclear fuel (SNF) storage problems forever.

"The most natural reactor for this project is the BREST reactor," Nikolai Shingaryov, an assistant to Minatom’s deputy ministers told Bellona Web in a telephone interview Tuesday.

"It is a project Minatom has long wanted to advance and this is what the US Department of Energy (DOE)-Russian joint working groups will be working to realize."

But DOE and US Embassy officials where surprised to hear they had been signed on to the BEST project when the ink from the cooperation agreements signed at last week’s summit between President’s George Bush and Vladimir Putin had even dried.

Minatom’s self-assured announcement was even more jarring in the context of US concerns over Russia’s nuclear cooperation with Iran, which are still smouldering post-summit, and analysts said it was unlikely the DOE would support a reactor program that — while operating on a closed fuel cycle — has the potential to increase the amount of plutonium in Russia.

As for the reactor cooperation arrived at during the summit, US Embassy officials in interviews with Bellona Web Tuesday quickly pointed out that the selection of experts for the joint committees will not begin until next week, at the earliest, and that no particular reactor design has been discussed with Minatom.

The summit-generated agreement for joint cooperation between the DOE and Minatom to study the further disposition of Russian fissile materials, improve security at Russian nuclear sites, and begin consideration of alternative reactor possibilities, was cemented in a telephone conversation last Friday between Russian Nuclear Minister Aleksander Rumyantsev and DOE chief Spencer Abraham, according to US Embassy officials in Moscow.

But nothing in the declarations of cooperation signed at last week’s summit between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, specified that the expert groups would examine the possibility of building a BREST type reactor. In fact, the language in the agreement was limited to "cooperating in elaboration and development of new ecologically safer nuclear power technologies," and, somewhat later in the agreement, a proposal "to recommend collaborative research and development efforts on advanced, proliferation-resistant nuclear reactor and fuel cycle technologies."

To Minatom, this obviously signalled that it was time to dust off the designs for the BREST.

But when the head of the DOE’s Defence Non-proliferation Office, Linton Brooks, was asked by Bellona Web on Tuesday if that language referred to the plutonium producing BREST reactor, he said: "This is a misunderstanding. No specific reactor has yet been discussed, be it a fast neutron reactor, or otherwise."

"It will give me some idea of the kind of reactor they are going to be looking at when we sit down to discuss it," added Brooks, who was in Moscow this week for a non-proliferation conference hosted by the Ted Turner founded NGO, the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI).

"I hadn’t heard about the BREST — it was not something they even mentioned [during the conference]," Brooks said.

But Minatom has an established history of reading agreements with foreign governments as absolute commitments to its own point of view, an assertion supported by US Embassy officials.

Officials also suggested that such cooperation agreements often include provisions that are there strictly to mollify signatories who are insistent about mentioning programs that cannot possible be realized for years, and that may be the case with the proposed reactor studies, which, in all likelihood, will try to steer clear of plutonium based units.

But the BREST reactor has existed in blueprint form for decades, and it is nearly certain that Minatom scientists will push the DOE for its funding in the context of the summit agreement.

Perfecting the breeder program in the form of the BREST reactor "has been the philosophy [of Minatom] going back to the Soviet Union," said Adrian Collings, a nuclear industry expert with the London-based Uranium Institute, a non-profit, non-governmental nuclear forum. Defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer told Bellona Web that the BREST project has been "Minatom’s baby since the 60’s," because of its theoretical capabilities to produce power and weapons grade plutonium at the same time.

Breeder reactors of earlier vintage — of which Russia currently has one, a BN-600 at the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant — were built in the 60’s and 70’s in a variety of countries to answer the problem of what to do when supplies of uranium ran out. In short, they are designed to create more fuel than they consume by converting a non-fissile isotope of uranium into fissile plutonium, which can then be used as fuel.

However, the idea never really worked because breeder reactors proved tricky and expensive to run, while the price of uranium steadily declined, making the reprocessing of spent fuel to extract plutonium uneconomical by comparison.

In order to make the BREST program fly — and the closed plutonium fuel cycle it implies — Minatom needs money from the DOE to get the reactor off the drawing board.

But if there is one thing that will keep the BREST reactor firmly in blueprint form, it is the as-yet unresolved dispute over the Russian-built Bushehr reactor in Iran, which the United States maintains is a cover for a nuclear weapons assistance program. Indeed, even as the summit was wrapping up, Iran had carried out a successful test of the Shahab-3 missile, which has a range adequate to reach Israel and US troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and eastern Turkey, the Associate Press reported.

The missile also has the capability of carrying a nuclear warhead, especially the lighter and higher yield warheads designed by Russia, Felgenhauer said.

"Against this background, it would be highly unlikely that the United States would help Minatom realize a plutonium producing reactor," Andrei Pinotkovsky of the Moscow office of the Centre for Strategic Studies told Bellona Web.

"The discussion of such a reactor would be a certain contradiction for the United States’ foreign policy."