Pu-production reactors to be shut down

Publish date: February 15, 2000

Written by: Igor Kudrik

Russia has finally admitted that the joint project with the U.S. to convert plutonium-producing reactors was a failure.

The project to convert three Russian plutonium-producing reactors referred to by Washington as a historic achievement in the arms control efforts was put in limbo early February, The Washington Post reported. The Russian informed the Americans that the project was not viable and had to be abandoned. Instead the Russian officials said the reactors must be closed down entirely.

So far, the U.S. Congress has authorised $ 115 million for the project, of which $22 million has been spent. The reactor-converting project signed in 1996, committed Russia to halting the production of weapon-grade plutonium by the end of the year 2000. By converting the cores of the reactors they would no longer produce plutonium useful for nuclear weapons.

The conversion plan was originally proposed by Russians, or, to be more precise, by the Ministry of Nuclear Energy (Minatom). The latter argued that the reactors had to be kept running because they also provided heat and electricity to the nearby cities. Two of the reactors are located in Seversk (former Tomsk-7) and one is located in Zheleznogorsk (former Krasnoyarsk-26).

Washington agreed to the project and has been sticking to it until now despite warnings from the Russian Nuclear Regulatory (GAN) that the three reactors posed a Chernobyl-type danger. These reactors were the prototypes to the RBMK-type units – the same design that exploded at Chernobyl in 1986. The two reactors in Seversk (AD-4 and AD-5) started in 1965 and 1967 respectively, while the reactor in Zheleznogorsk was launched back in 1964.

The reactors failed to obtain licence from GAN last year being unable to live up to the safety requirements. The conversion project run by Minatom and the U.S. could not obtain the licence from GAN due to the safety flaws either.

But in early February this year, even Minatom negotiators had to admit to the American delegation that had come to Moscow to proceed with talks that the project could not be implemented. The Russian side reportedly even suggested building conventional sources of energy instead to substitute reactors at a total cost of $230 million, the bulk of which, under the Russian plan, would be paid by the United States.

Clinton administration officials said to The Washington Post that they were studying the new proposal, but expressed scepticism towards the project cost.

In the mean time, the Siberian Chemical Combine that operates two of the three reactors seems to have its own viewpoint on the project. The local green group in Tomsk, Students’ EnviroInspection, reached by Bellona Web was confident that the new energy source would be nuclear. Their argumentation rests on the fact that Minatom would be quite reluctant to abandon what they call ‘nuclear scientific potential’ now engaged at the two reactors kept in operation.

Whether nuclear or conventional substitutes are to be built, the timetable for Russia joining a moratorium on the production of weapons-grade plutonium has automatically slipped back to at least 2004. Their operation would continue to add around 1,5 tons of plutonium to the Russian stockpiles annually.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government has formally suspended implementation of the core conversion plan until a decision is reached on how to proceed, The Washington Post wrote.

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