Russia is considering the use of a new technology to convert military grade plutonium into usable nuclear fuel, according to Valentin Ivanov, First Deputy Atomic Energy Minister. Ivanov, attending the annual Uranium Institute meeting in London, told NEI that already 50 kilograms of plutonium metal has been converted into plutonium dioxide granules for use in MOX fuel using this new technology which was developed at the Russia Institute of Atomic Reactors (RIAR) in Dimitrovgrad. The pyrochemical technology, which involves heating the metal to extremely high temperatures, is a dry process which is relatively cheap and safe. The PuO2 produced in this way is mixed with UO2 and can either be packed directly into fuel assemblies using a new vibropacking technology, also developed at RIAR, or made into pellets. The material already processed will be used as fuel in Russia’s BOR-60 reactor, sited at RIAR, and in the BN-600 fast reactor at Beloyarsk. “If this technology proves effective from both the economic and environmental point of view we hope to build an industrial-scale facility to produce PuO2 using this process,” he said. “The technology is absolutely ready now.” Ivanov added that he hoped in future to get the support of Europe and US for the new technology.
In any case, Russia intended to push ahead with the use of MOX fuel, made using the RIAR technology as well as MOX pellets produced at a small facility (PAKET) at Mayak. So far some 500 kg of reactor-grade plutonium had been used in this way. “We hope to increase this in future,” he said, pointing out plans to release 50 tons of weapons grade plutonium in Russia from dismantled weapons. At present RIAR and Mayak between them can process some 300 kg of plutonium a year into MOX. In future Russia would consider construction of a full-scale MOX plant which would be sited at Mayak or at plants in Tomsk or Krasnoyarsk. “New jobs are needed for the workers at these plants,” he commented.
Ivanov points out that at present there is no need for Russia to use plutonium from the economic or technical point of view as none of its light water reactors are designed to use MOX. “However, the US is insisting on eliminating plutonium stocks for political reasons, and I understand this.” In the longer term, Russia still sees plutonium as a valuable resource which would extend energy reserves as part of a closed fuel cycle using fast reactors to produce new plutonium from the fuel that is burned. “However, our US colleagues want to use plutonium only in light water reactors and then to dispose of the spent fuel without reprocessing and reusing it.” He points out that uranium resources and fossil fuels may last for no more than 70 years if plutonium is used in this way. “But with a plutonium cycle they will last for several centuries.” Finance permitting, Russia would like to build several new design BN-800 large fast reactors. Using these it could dispose of all the military grade plutonium which is causing such international concern in less than 20 years.
“Russia has agreed with the US that it will use these reactors in such a way that it will not produce weapons grade plutonium in the next cycle,” he says. Preparations are already under way to build one BN-800, probably to be sited at Mayak. One unit will be able to use 1.3 tonnes of plutonium a year.
The economic issue But none of these plans will be realised unless the financial situation improves. Russia’s new nuclear plan up to 2010 involves completing several partly built units and building new units using the new-design VVER-640. Ivanov says any change of government is unlikely to affect this. “There will be no need to reapprove the programme by the new administration and we do not anticipate any radical economic changes from the new government,” he says. In 1997-1998 the federal budget contributed only 5-7% towards new investment in the nuclear industry.
The partly completed units will be funded by nuclear operator Rosenergoatom and local authority budgets. “However it is an open question where the funds will come from for the new units as Rosenergoatom has no money,” he notes.
Russia intends to close four of its oldest VVER-440 nuclear units – two each at Kola and Novovoronezh. “We would consider replacing these with Western reactors”, says Ivanov, but only on two conditions. They would have to use Russian fuel and payment would be made using the electricity produced. He added that foreign partners would also be welcome for construction of the planned BN-800 unit.