Russia’s three plutonium reactors in Siberia will continue production beyond 2000, despite an agreement on their closure signed in June 1994 by Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and US Vice President Al Gore. Closure has been delayed because the reactors are the major source of heat and electricity for the neighbouring cities of Seversk and Zheleznogorsk.
Originally, the US agreed to help Russia replace the reactors with fossil fuel plants by 2000, but in 1996 a new agreement was reached on their conversion to civilian use, rather than their replacement. The reactors use special fuel with non-standard cladding; once it is irradiated it has very limited storage time and requires rapid reprocessing. The reactors produce 1.5 tons of weapons grade plutonium a year.
Conversion of the reactor cores would permit the use of fuel with standard cladding and lower enrichment resulting in less plutonium which would not be weapon-grade.
Russia’s inspectorate, Gosatomnadzor (GAN), has not yet completed the licensing of the reactors. GAN has been opposed to the conversion programme since it was proposed in 1996 on the grounds that continued operation of the two reactors at Seversk could lead to a Chernobyl type accident to the Tomsk region. The reactors have already twice exceeded their service lifetime.
The two reactors in Seversk started operation in 1965 and 1967, and the reactor in Zheleznogorsk started in 1964. They are graphite moderated, water-cooled reactors, the same basic design as the Chernobyl-type RBMKs. The Seversk reactors are considered the most dangerous in Russia.
According to the Norwegian environmental group, Bellona, GAN’s main objection to conversion focuses on the proposed cooling systems. However, GAN is also sceptical about the sustainable operation of the reactors at the proposed power output levels. Initial conversion plans suggested that the reactor cores should be fuelled with low enriched uranium, but the engineering analyses for this have yet to be approved. Conversion will take time and plutonium production is now expected to continue at least until 2002 or 2003, adding another 3 to 4.5 tons of weapon-grade plutonium to the Russian stocks.