U.S. AND RUSSIAN officials are reassessing a joint project to convert Russia's three military plutonium-production reactors to civilian use. During a meeting in Moscow with a high-level U.S. delegation in late January, Russian officials expressed interest in halting the conversion and instead replacing the reactors with conventional power plants. They asked that the United States stop spending on the conversion effort until the alternative could be adequately studied, according to a senior administration official. In response to the request, conversion has been suspended and an independent assessment of the cost of constructing conventional power plants is being commissioned by U.S. officials.
After a February 13 Washington Post article reported that Russian officials wanted to abandon the core conversion effort, the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry press service quickly clarified the Russian position in a February 15 release: "Russia is not pulling out of the Russian-U.S. project for converting nuclear reactors producing weapons-grade plutonium to civilian needs, but will choose the option that suits Russia best."
Russian officials indicated to the U.S. delegation that replacing the reactors with conventional power plants would cost an estimated $230 million, most of which would be provided by the United States. The cost of converting the reactors, originally slated at $80 million, has expanded to approximately $300 million, making the construction of conventional plants preferable from a fiscal perspective. Although some senior U.S. officials have expressed doubt about Russia's cost estimate, one senior administration official closely involved with the negotiations says that the $230 million figure "tracks closely with current U.S. estimates."
The original agreement to halt Russian military plutonium production, a major Clinton administration non-proliferation goal, was formalized in 1994 and was originally supposed to replace Russia's three military plutonium-production reactors with conventional power plants. Although it has no use for the plutonium they produce, Russia continues to run the reactors because they generate heat and electricity for the closed "nuclear cities" in which they are located, Seversk (formerly Tomsk-7) and Zheleznogorsk (formerly Krasnoyarsk-26). But the agreement was changed to its present form in 1997, after the United States concluded that constructing conventional power plants could cost as much as $1 billion—a sum Congress was unlikely to approve. Instead, the United States and Russia agreed to keep the reactors online, but to convert their cores from natural uranium to highly enriched uranium (HEU) in order to minimize plutonium production.
The reactor conversion effort, while initially finding broad support, became increasingly controversial, and last December, Russian officials formally advised a visiting U.S. delegation led by Michael Stafford, a State Department negotiator with the Bureau of Arms Control, that Russia was considering abandoning the 1997 agreement.
Russian and American nuclear experts had raised doubts about the feasibility and safety of the core conversion project in the months prior to December's announcement. According to a report by Russian nuclear regulators provided to U.S. officials in September, the three military reactors are in such poor physical condition that conversion could result in a Chernobyl-like accident. Several prominent American nuclear experts, among them Princeton University's Frank von Hippel and Harvard University's Matthew Bunn, both former White House non-proliferation advisors, have also argued that because it is easier to construct a rudimentary nuclear weapon with HEU than with plutonium, conversion to an HEU core could actually increase proliferation risks.
The next high-level meeting to discuss the issue is currently scheduled for mid-March.