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Russian PM Kasyanov OKs Plutonium Reactors Shut Down By 2006

Publish date: February 12, 2003

Written by: Charles Digges

The cabinet of Russian President Vladimir Putin has approved plans to halt weapons grade plutonium production at its three remaining weapons-grade plutonium producing reactors within the next three years as part of a threat reduction effort with the United States Department of Energy, or DOE, said a Kremlin statement earlier this week.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov signed an order on Monday providing for the closure by 2005 of two plutonium-producing reactors in the closed nuclear city of Seversk, west Siberia, known during the Soviet period as Tomsk-7. The order also stipulates the closure by 2006 of the plutonium reactor in Zheleznogorsk — or Krasnoyarsk-26 — another major nuclear weapons centre in Central Siberia.

But according to senior officials from the DOE — which is responsible for providing alternative sources of electricity in the closed nuclear cities in Siberia where the reactors are located — the ageing plutonium producers are expected to remain online for as many as eight more years while fossil fuel plants are constructed or refurbished.

The cabinet level order represents the first major headway toward closing the reactors made since 2000, when Cooperative Threat Reduction, or CTR, officials handed the project over to the DOE after Pentagon-funded plans to effect a so-called core conversion of the reactors fell through.

According to the Cabinet statement, Kasyanov’s order paves the way for agreements between the Russian Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Atomic Energy and Washington on financial assistance from the DOE toward the refurbishment of fossil fuel plants near Seversk and Zheleznogorsk that will shoulder the burden of energy production for the closed cities once the reactors go off line.

But one DOE official said that current levels of funding requested by the Bush administration from US Congress for DOE non-proliferation projects in Russia would not lead to the reactors’ closure so quickly.

The budget request, which is currently being debated in Congress, represents a $300m increase in funding for DOE-sponsored plutonium disposition projects. But most of that increase, if granted, will be spent in the United States on a controversial plan to fabricate US weapons-grade plutonium into MOX fuel as part of a bilateral agreement under which Moscow and Washington will destroy 34 tonnes of surplus weapons plutonium a piece.

As a result of this, many of the DOE’s Russia projects will be capped at current spending levels, or reduced. According to the budget now under consideration in Congress, the DOE will spend $50m next year on the reactor shut-down project — the same level as this year.

Fatally flawed reactors were to be shut down in 2000
The two reactors in Seversk and the one at Zheleznogorsk represent the last three of Russia’s 13 plutonium producing reactors that remain to be shut down. The United States, by comparison, has shut down all 14 of its plutonium production reactors.

According to environmentalists, the three reactors — which are based on the fatally flawed, Chernobyl-style RBMK design — are well past their prime. Zheleznogorsk’s reactor went into service in 1964 and Seversk’s followed in 1965 and 1967.Between them, they annually add 1,500 kilograms to Russia’s estimated 125-tonne stock of weapons-grade plutonium. The United States has declared that it has 100 tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium.

The original CTR sponsored plans for the reactors, drawn up in 1997, envisioned a so-called core conversion of the reactors — a conversion that would have prevented them from producing spent nuclear fuel, or SNF, that can be easily reprocessed for weapons-grade plutonium.

But poor budgeting on the US side and slip-shod feasibility studies on the Russian side saw costs for the core conversion spinning out of control by 2000. US officials then proposed shutting the reactors down altogether and assigned the DOE the responsibility of refurbishing fossil fuel plants nearby the cities of Seversk and Zheleznogorsk to make up for the energy currently supplied by the plutonium reactors.

Until these plants are completed, however, the radiochemical plants at Seversk and Zheleznogorsk will continue to reprocess the reactors’ SNF for weapons-grade plutonium oxide. This powder-form plutonium oxide, which is redundant for Russia’s weapons needs, is stored on site in the cities.

After the reactors are shut down, they will sit dormant, loaded with spent fuel, for another 50 years until radiation levels have cooled to a point acceptable for their safe dismantlement.

Russia’s atomic energy ministry, or Minatom, has historically dragged its feet on the reactor shut down project, and officials had no comment this week on Kasyanov’s order. Minatom’s concerns have centred on the large number of radiochemical workers who will be out of a job when the reactors are finally stopped.

But DOE officials hope that US-funded retraining efforts for nuclear weapons scientists and workers will provide other employment opportunities for Seversk and Zheleznogorsk’s future unemployed.

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