But Mayak Deputy Director Alexander Demidov — who is the plant’s point man for the warhead plutonium storage facility — warned in an interview that construction between now and the prospective November opening would have to progress flawlessly to meet the deadline. He added that a number of sticky equipment negotiations would also have to be resolved.
Nevertheless, the 10-year-long, $400 million construction of the facility — which will hold 50 tonnes of plutonium from decommissioned warheads was, according to another US Government official, "CTR’s original effort in Russia to secure nuclear materials" under the decade-old programme, also known as the Nunn-Lugar act. 50 tonnes is around 40% of Russia’s weapons grade plutonium stockpiles.
The Mayak project has also been beset during that ten years with political, bureaucratic and financial set-backs, both from the Russian and American sides that at times appeared insurmountable. Its completion, therefore, will represent a milestone in US-Russian cooperation in literally burying the remnants of the Cold War.
The senior US Government official said work on the facility will be complete by Aug. 31. All that will remain then, the official said, was a "punch list" of last minute items that need to be fine tuned, which workers will pursue throughout October prior to the ribbon cutting, before the facility can receive 50,000 containers of weapons-grade plutonium from 12,500 dismantled nuclear warheads for permanent storage.
Late last week US officials, including CTR’s Mayak project manager Thomas Rutherford and high level representatives of the US construction firm Bechtel — CTR’s primary contractor on the Mayak project — visited Moscow for meetings with officials of the Russian Ministry of Nuclear Energy (Minatom), which controls the Mayak facility, US Embassy officials said.
Neither Bechtel’s Mayak project manager, Surendra Sethi, nor Rutherford, would comment on the Mayak project or their Minatom discussions when reached in Moscow by Bellona Web. Rutherford referred questions to his Pentagon press attaché, who had not responded by press time. Minatom officials, likewise, refused to comment on the talks.
But US Embassy officials said that Senator Richard Lugar and former Senator Sam Nunn, co-authors of the Nunn-Lugar act, inspected the Mayak site two weeks ago. According to news reports, construction is 85 percent complete and installation work, such as wiring, is 75 percent done.
Additionally, the Mayak project has been scratched off the Bush administration’s budget request for non-proliferation projects in Russia on the basis that it will be finished this year, said Bill Hoehn of the Russian American Nuclear Security Advisory Council (RANSAC), a private organization that advises both governments.
The Mayak plant
Located in the closed city of Ozersk, near the Urals city of Chelyabinsk, the Mayak Chemical Combine was originally constructed in 1948 with one plutonium reactor as part of early Soviet efforts to acquire an atomic bomb. Over the years, four more weapons-grade plutonium-producing reactors were built. The plutonium production at Mayak was brought to a halt in late 1980s early 1990s. But the facility remains one of Russia’s worst nuclear polluters, all but evaporating nearby Lake Karachay with the liquid radioactive wastes it has dumped there over the decades.
Today Mayak houses the primary reprocessing site for spent nuclear fuel (SNF) from civilian and submarine reactors in Russia. Known as RT-1, this reprocessing facility went into service in 1956 to reprocess weapons-grade plutonium from the waste of Mayak’s five plutonium production reactors. It now reprocesses fuel from nuclear icebreakers, research reactors, fast breeder reactors of the BN-30 and BN-600 type, as well as from first and second generation Soviet VVER-440 pressurised water reactors.
RT-1’s annual reprocessing capacity is about 400 tonnes of fuel, but in recent years that output has fallen off despite last year’s legislation inviting the world to send SNF to Russia for reprocessing or storage in a Minatom plan to reap billions for the state. The world has not answered that call, however, and Russia has yet to sign any reprocessing contracts, mainly because the United States controls 70 to 90 percent of the world’s SNF.
"But everyone is pushing for this date," said Demidov in a telephone interview Monday. "What can I tell you — it is a very complicated question."
According to Demidov, who gave a worrisome interview four months ago to Pro Mayak newspaper, the CTR goal of opening the plutonium repository anytime close to schedule is nearly impossible. Among several impediments he cited was the fact that South Urals Construction, the local subcontractor of Bechtel, was working without contracts of its own.
Demidov also said that Pentagon officials had turned down a request for a $700,000 telephone communications system for the fissile materials storage site — though Demidov would not discuss the capabilities of the requested system. Additionally, Demidov said that the Pentagon had not yet approved a monitoring system for radiation around the fissile materials storage facility — a system that Demidov said the Russians had been negotiating for two years without making headway.
Speaking on Monday, Demidov said of those three problems, only the contract issue for local workers has been resolved.
"I don’t know how we’ll be expected to run a plutonium storage facility without a radiation monitoring system and proper communication equipment, especially if they are planning to open by November," said Demidov.
"If all these complicated questions get solved, and everything comes together as it should everywhere else, then maybe," the November deadline can be met, Demidov said.
–> Pentagon answers scarce
Pentagon officials refuse to comment on the record about the Mayak Fissile Materials storage facility. Repeated emailed requests either went unanswered or came back, days later, as "no comment."
Off the record, though, the senior US Government official was sanguine about the telephone system hold up.
"I’ve got to tell you, I’ve been to a lot Nunn-Lugar dismantlement sites, probably over 25 to 30 of them, and they’ve always had telephones," he said.
But Demidov’s precise concern about the communications system is who would be financing it — the Russians or the Americans.
"If the Russians are left to finance it, then they will by all indications allow themselves to bargain shop," said Demidov in his Pro Mayak interview. "And then the local bosses will get a bargain from the bargain."
But the senior US Government official — who was not familiar with the particulars of the Mayak phone request — nonetheless hinted that the communication system debacle may have stemmed from American security concerns.
"Here’s the concern — it’s a not a specific concern about Mayak and it’s not a specific concern about this request," he said.
"But one of the things one always does is to make sure in our assistance — Nunn-Lugar and otherwise — is that the assistance we’re providing is as focused and directed as possible for a number of reasons — one is so that our assistance cannot be used for purposes other than it was intended."
According to Vladimir Rybachenkov of Russia’s Foreign Ministry, the American investment in the project has far outweighed the contribution of the Russian side. In a recent lecture, Rybachenkov credited the Americans with not only the development of the 50,000 $2,000 containers that will be required to store the fissile waste, but also with the monitoring process that will verify that the stored containers contain fissile plutonium.
"The agreement stipulates that the construction of the storage facility is under American control," Rybachenkov’s lecture read. "The Americans have first to be sure we are loading weapons-grade plutonium into the facility, and second, they need to make sure we aren’t going to take the plutonium anywhere."
To assure that it doesn’t happen, said Rybachenkov, gamma meters, which detect whether containers have weapons grade plutonium — and which were also financed by CTR — will safeguard the facility. The meters, for some time at least, will be monitored by American staff.
"It’s an un-intrusive measure," Rybachenkov added, as if apologizing for the American dominance of the project.
Pulling it all together
Even at this late stage in the game, RANSAC’s Luongo anticipates at least a few more snafus, and says that the Mayak Fissile Materials Storage Facility has provided an object lesson in all the unexpected mini-disasters that crop up in long-term non-proliferation projects.
"The point is that everything related to securing Russia’s nuclear materials through the Department of Energy, the Department of Defence, and the State Department is necessarily a step-by-step process, so Mayak is a perfect example of how petty differences over this issue or that issue stretched things out," he said.
"So Mayak is kind of a lesson in how this process works — it’s imperfect, it’s expensive and its frustrating, when in the end, the result is necessary. And you can’t get away from your focus on the end result because you have all these impediments," he added.