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U.S., Russia Agree to Plutonium Reactor Shutdown
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Christine Kucia

After years of delays and stalled plans, Russia and the United States signed an agreement March 12 to shut down the last three Russian reactors dedicated to the production of weapons-grade plutonium.

The reactors, which each day can generate enough plutonium for the equivalent of approximately one nuclear weapon, also provide heat and electricity for the Siberian “nuclear cities” of Seversk and Zheleznogorsk. Under the agreement, the United States will pay to refurbish one fossil-fuel facility and construct one new fossil-fuel plant for the Siberian cities served by the reactors.

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham called the accord, which was signed in Vienna on the sidelines of a radiological material security conference, “an important step in advancing our nonproliferation programs.” Russian Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev agreed that stopping the plutonium production shows that “Russia and the U.S. are close partners in the strengthening of peace and in the war on terrorism.”

The refurbishment of an existing fossil-fuel plant at Seversk will allow the shutdown of two of the reactors by 2008, while construction of a new fossil-fuel facility in Zheleznogorsk will require that reactor to operate until 2011, when the new facility will come online. U.S. Department of Energy fiscal year 2004 draft budget documents state that, although the United States will finance the construction of the replacement power facilities, Russia will shut down the reactors.

The two countries first agreed in 1994 to cease permanently all plutonium production for nuclear weapons in both countries. The United States has not produced weapons-grade plutonium for its arsenal since 1988. The two countries have attempted to find alternative energy sources to replace Russia’s last three plutonium production reactors since signing the 1994 accord. Russia and the United States agreed in 1997 to a “core conversion” of the reactors, which was the less costly option, to be completed no later than 2000. (See ACT, September 1997.) Under that plan, the designs of the cores in the reactors would have been converted to minimize weapons-grade plutonium production and instead use uranium to fuel the reactors, providing electricity and heat for the cities.

However, cost overruns, financial troubles in Russia, and bureaucratic delays on both sides impeded the project. (See ACT, March 2000.) The countries reassessed the project and determined that core conversion would likely make the reactors less safe and potentially a greater proliferation threat, because they would use highly enriched uranium. Instead, the countries agreed in 2001 to shut down the reactors after replacing them with alternative power sources.

The reactors’ shutdown could displace up to 9,500 workers, according to a March 12 ITAR-Tass report. Many of the employees at the plutonium plants will be employed at the new fossil-fuel facilities, while some might be absorbed into the U.S.-sponsored Russian Transitions Initiative program, which helps former Russian nuclear weapons complex scientists and technicians use their expertise in civilian work sectors.

Posted: April 1, 2003