Russia and America OK Deal to Shut Down Plutonium Reactors

Publish date: March 17, 2003

Written by: Charles Digges

In an apparent landmark achievement in cooperative threat reduction efforts between Russia and the United States, Moscow and Washington penned an agreement last week to shut down Russia's three remaining weapons grade plutonium producing nuclear reactors, sources in both governments say.

The three reactors in question — two in the closed Siberian city of Seversk and the other in the closed city of Zheleznogorsk, also in Siberia — will, according to the agreement, be decommissioned within the next eight years, effectively ending Russia’s capability to produce weapons grade plutonium. These reactors represent the last of Russia’s 13 plutonium-producing reactors that were slated for dismantlement under the DOE and US Department of Defence’s Cooperative Threat Reduction, or CTR programmes. The United States has already shut down all of its 14 plutonium production reactors.

All three Russian reactors are currently used to provide electricity and heat in Seversk and Zheleznogorsk — known in Soviet times as Tomsk-7 and Krasnoyarsk- 26 respectively. The deficit in power and heat that will result from the reactors’ closures will be compensated by two aged fossil fuel plants near both cities that the DOE will refurbish. Officials with the US Department of Energy, or DOE, estimate the cost of restoring the fossil fuel plants to be $500m.

The United States has described the agreement as another important step in US-Russian cooperation. It was signed in Vienna on Wednesday on the sidelines of a conference about radioactive material and radioactive dispersion devices — so-called dirty bombs — the prevention of which has been the centre of America’s nuclear non-proliferation rhetoric since the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington.

"This will bring us to the end of production of weapons grade plutonium in Russia," said US Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham after signing the agreement with Russian Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev.

Rumyantsev said that the deal demonstrated to the world that Russia and America were friends and partners in ridding the world of nuclear dangers.

Original core conversion failed
The current deal has its roots in a 1997 agreement between Russia and the United States signed under the aegis of the Pentagon-run CTR Programme. The original accord would have retrofitted the reactors in such way that they would no longer produce plutonium — a process called core conversion. The Pentagon was to implement that programme by December 31st 2000.

But that date came and went with no evident progress — a failure that many former DOE and CTR officials familiar with the deal have attributed to poor management on the US side and foot dragging on the Russian side.

Among the apprehensions that slowed Russia’s cooperation with the core conversion project were the hundreds of jobs that will be lost at the radiochemical plants in Seversk and Zheleznogorsk, where the spent fuel from these reactors is reprocessed for weapons grade plutonium oxide.

Another Russian concern, according to Robert Alvarez, a former DOE senior policy advisor during the Clinton Administration, was the loss for Russia’s Atomic Energy Ministry, or Minatom, of the 1500 kilograms of weapons grade plutonium oxide these three reactors annually produce.

Minatom’s cult of plutonium
According to Alvarez, and many other former and present officials familiar with Russian-American efforts to destroy surplus weapons plutonium, Russia is reluctant to dispose of what Minatom views as a viable future source of nuclear fuel for a series of plutonium reactors it now has on the drawing board. These reactors — the BREST and BN-800 —produce plutonium as waste that then can be fed back into the reactors as fuel.

"The Russian’s treat plutonium like gold," said Alvarez in an interview with Bellona Web.

Russia’s former atomic energy minister Yevgeny Adamov — who left his post two years ago under a cloud of scandal, but who maintains shadowy ties with current atomic energy brass — has underscored Alvarez’s assertion in recent interviews where the former Minatom chief advocated Russia’s new line of plutonium fuelled reactors. Ultimately, Adamov said, Russia should aim for a closed plutonium fuel cycle that relies on the BREST and BN-800 series.

According to various unofficial estimates, Russia has 125 tonnes of weapons plutonium stored at various sites —under varying degrees of security — around Russia. The US has declared it has 100 tonnes of plutonium.

CTR hands project to DOE
During CTR’s bumpy core conversion efforts, Gosatomnadzor, or GAN — Russia’s increasingly marginalized nuclear regulatory agency — was bellowing protests about the dangers and cost overruns the programme was posing and threatened to withdraw the Seversk and Zheleznogorsk reactors’ operation licenses.

In a rare accord, Minatom agreed with GAN, and the agencies reported to the Pentagon in 2000 that the conversion project was foundering. The Pentagon abandoned the core conversion idea and gave the DOE the responsibility of shutting down the reactors altogether and devising alternative fossil fuel energy schemes for Seversk and Zheleznogorsk by revamping two decades-old fossil fuel plants near both of the cities.

Under the accord signed on Wednesday, the two Seversk reactors will be shut down in 2008 and the one in Zheleznogorsk by 2011. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov had last month issued a decree stating that the Seversk reactors would close by 2005 and Zheleznogorsk’s by 2006. But DOE budgeting restrictions cannot maintain that schedule.

The reactors will meanwhile continue to produce enough plutonium to make one new nuclear weapon per day. According to Moscow and current DOE officials, continuing to produce the plutonium oxide is cheaper than storing the un-reprocessed spent nuclear fuel, or SNF. Rumyantsev estimated that the reactors will generate an additional 10 tonnes of weapons grade plutonium before they are retired.

Former and present officials sceptical of financing
Though last week’s agreement was hailed by both governments, many observers remained sceptical of the new deadline and of the project as a whole. Indeed, sources at the DOE who are familiar with the project say that if the DOE’s funding levels for the project do not rise significantly in the years to come, already postponed completion deadlines are impossible to meet.

But an increase in funding seems unlikely. According to budget documents for the DOE studied by Bellona Web, the Bush Administration has not asked for any increase in funding for halting plutonium production in 2004, requesting the same $50m the DOE received last year.

Alvarez, who was with the DOE from 1993 to 1997, derided the new arrangement, saying "They’re doing this again? During the Clinton Administration we approved five such deals and nothing happened."

"If the US Government is serious about this project, the DOE shouldn’t be involved at all — it should be treated as foreign aid," he said, adding, "The DOE is to conversion projects as the military is to music."

One factor in the reactors shut-down process that militates in favour of a foreign aid type approach is that the 1,500 kilograms of plutonium oxide is redundant for military use.

"The big question is ‘what is the status of the materials,’" Alvarez said. "What is happening with the plutonium? This stuff needs to be consolidated in on central area that can be controlled."

The answer to that question, under the Russian-American agreement, is that it will continue to be stockpiled at the sites in Seversk and Zheleznogorsk, the later of which has been shown over the past year to have less than adequate security. Still more security concerns arise from those Russian weapons technicians who will be left jobless once the reactors and the reprocessing facilities shut down.

Weapons scientists’ future uncertain
It is hoped by US officials that these specialists will be absorbed into the DOE’s Nuclear Cities Initiative, or NCI, which supplies US cash to retrain scientists who worked for Russia’s military industrial complex.

But in recent years, NCI has come under fire both for its management of funding and for the irrelevance of many of the employment opportunities it affords to some of Russia’s most experienced and talented scientists.

Last year the Washington-based Eisenhower Institute, which is devoted to non-proliferation studies, produced a study showing that more than half of the DOE’s funding for NCI was being spent in laboratories in the United States.

Money spent in Russia is most often channelled into small business education, computer training, medical assistance education and other fields that have little to do with scientists’ training as nuclear specialists. This tendency has been criticized by the Clinton Administration’s former top non-proliferation official at the DOE, Kenneth Luongo, who now heads the Russian American Nuclear Advisory Council, or RANSAC, which advises both governments.

In a recent interview, Luongo said that these scientists, with their knowledge both of nuclear weapons and the environmentally disastrous legacy of the Cold War, should be put to work in fields devoted to arresting the ecological meltdown caused by Russia’s nuclear complex.

But the congressional strings that are tied to US sponsored non-proliferation activities in Russia have traditionally guided US funding away from the less easily quantifiable results of environmental renewal, and focus exclusively on the destruction of strategic nuclear weapons — which carries an ecological price tag of its own. The Bush Administration’s vaguely disguised hostility to ecological issues will likely carry on that tradition.

Alvarez saw a dim future for any NCI investments that would go towards the creation of small businesses and market oriented retraining of weapons workers in Seversk and Zheleznogorsk.

"These sites are in the middle of nowhere, out in the middle of Siberia so they are not attractive for investment," he said. "Economically, Russia is still a work in progress. Aside from that, there is Soviet-style hegemonic rule in the provinces. Economic development hasn’t advanced in the provinces, and is weighed down by corruption."

He added: "Can the market fix these problems? The answer is no."

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