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U.S., Russia Seek Help on Plutonium

Claire Applegarth

The Department of Energy is looking for international donations to help pay the substantial costs of shutting down Russia’s three remaining nuclear reactors that produce weapons-grade plutonium.

This program, originally assigned to the Pentagon in 1997, works cooperatively with Russia to provide replacement fossil-fuel energy plants for the two Siberian cities that house the three reactors. The Energy Department assumed responsibility for these activities in 2002, which then became known as the Elimination of Weapons-Grade Plutonium Production program. The program is currently managed by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

The Energy Department, which in 2002 estimated that the program would cost less than $470 million, sharply revised its estimates in 2003 after accounting for Russian inflation, escalating labor costs, and contractor fees. Though the program’s baseline cost will not be determined until June, officials now estimate that total costs could reach close to $1 billion.

Accordingly, the United States is now seeking support from other countries. As a first step, it recently convinced potential contributors to attend a conference in Spiez, Switzerland, Feb. 8-9. Those states included Canada, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia, Slovakia, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

The conference, primarily sponsored by the Swiss government, discussed how to shift these communities away from the nuclear industry. Russian officials have asked for aid in cleaning up decommissioned sites and creating new employment opportunities for the local workforce in the wake of the reactors’ shutdown.

The conference goals reflected a shift in the program’s emphasis since coming under the aegis of the Energy Department. Originally, the program had been aimed at converting the reactor cores of the three nuclear plants so as not to produce weapons-grade spent nuclear fuel. But U.S. and Russian officials concluded in 2001 that eliminating weapons-grade plutonium production could be better accomplished by building replacement fossil-fuel plants to provide much-needed heat and electricity.

Currently, these nuclear reactors produce a cumulative 1.2 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium annually, or enough by some estimates to produce 300 nuclear weapons a year. The designs of the 1960s-era plutonium reactors also predate the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine, the site of the 1986 nuclear accident. The United States is expecting to shutter two of the three reactors by December 2008 through the refurbishment of a fossil fuel plant located at the Russian city of Seversk, a project that is targeted to be more than 60 percent complete by the end of fiscal year 2006. The Energy Department has requested $132 million for the program in its fiscal year 2006 budget request, a 200 percent increase over the 2005 allocation. NNSA Administrator Linton F. Brooks, in a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee March 2, said that the budget request was “fully adequate” to shut down the two nuclear reactors at Seversk.

But shutting down the third Russian plutonium-producing reactor near Zheleznogorsk entails constructing a new fossil fuel plant, a venture that, according to the Energy Department, requires at least $100 million from international donors to meet its completion target date of 2011. So far, the United Kingdom has pledged $20 million to the effort, to be spread over a three-year period, and Canada has offered $7 million.

According to a June 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office, the United States did not count on Russian funding for the effort. Nevertheless, Russia has aided the projects by offering some suggestions on how to operate the plants more cost effectively and by purchasing land.

The Energy Department’s budget request for fiscal year 2006, should it be approved by Congress, would decrease funding for activities at Zheleznogorsk compared to the fiscal year 2005 allocation because of the current emphasis on closing the reactors at Seversk and in anticipation of heightened international support.