Plutonium reactor continues operation without conversion

Publish date: June 23, 2000

Written by: Igor Kudrik

Krasnoyarsk Mining and Chemical Combine intends to operate Pu-production reactor for at least ten more years.

PRIME-TASS reported that the operational life time of the third Pu-production reactor at Krasnoyarsk Mining and Chemical Combine (Zheleznogorsk) will be prolonged for a period of not less than 10 years. Such an opportunity was confirmed by the commission of the Russian Ministry for Atomic Energy (Minatom), said Vasily Zhidkov, general director of the combine.

The two other reactors were shut down in 1992. At that time the preparations for taking the third reactor out of service were started. In consent with the intergovernmental agreement, signed by Russia and the USA in 1994, the last reactor was to be taken out of service in 2000. The agreement also stipulated the shut-down of two more plutonium reactors in Seversk (former Tomsk-7). Due to the fact that these reactors provided heat and electricity for the city, the parties agreed on construction of energy sources using organic fuel as alternative to the ‘peaceful’ atom.

In 1996, the agreement was amended. It now stipulates conversion of the reactor cores to be fuelled with highly enriched uranium, preventing the spent fuel from containing weapons grade plutonium after reprocessing.

In February this year, representatives of Minatom claimed that conversion of the reactor cores was inexpedient and suggested construction of alternative energy sources.

In March this year, Minatom’s position shifted again. Minatom officials told Americans about the necessity to prolong the operational time for the reactors by redesigning them to burn RBMK type fuel. Plutonium reactors in Seversk and Zheleznogorsk are graphite-moderated; they can thus theoretically use RBMK fuel.

Position shifted again
Today, Minatom changed back to its original position: to maintain the reactor in Zheleznogorsk without conversion. According to the director of the Mining and Chemical Combine, the price tag for conversion is $100 million. Due to the fact that the reactor is to be closed in 2010, such investments are inexpedient.

It is not clear yet whether the same conclusions are made regarding the two remaining reactors in Seversk. In any case, information about Zheleznogorsk will not be a pleasant surprise for the United States. The U.S. government has already spent $22 million.

The possible compromise may be to maintain the reactor in operation as before but under supervision of U.S. experts, Vasily Zhidkov said.

The director also claims that the operational time of the reactor, which has been working since 1964, designed to operate until 2010. Yury Vishnevsky, head of the Russian Nuclear Regulatory Agency, expressed his disagreement with this point of view. He said that all three reactors exceeded the limits of operation two times and should be taken out of service.