Russian Plutonium-Producing Reactors Closed

Stephen Bunnell

On June 5, Rosatom closed the sole remaining reactor at the Siberian Chemical Combine, located in Seversk, ending the city’s 43 years of weapons-grade plutonium production and bringing Russia one step closer to ending production of weapons-grade plutonium.

Production at the reactor, known as ADE-5, was terminated under a joint program between the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and Rosatom, the Russian state-owned nuclear agency. The program was initiated to shutter the three remaining Russian plutonium-producing reactors and replace them with non-nuclear fuel sources. The first of these reactors, ADE-4, also located in Seversk, was closed under the same program in April. (See ACT, May 2008.)

The joint program that facilitated these closures, known as Elimination of Weapons Grade Plutonium Production (EWGPP), aims to halt Russian production of plutonium, which can be used to construct a nuclear weapon, in order to prevent it from being stolen and sold on the black market. In a press release, William Tobey, NNSA deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, hailed the closure of ADE-5 as “another step closer to eliminating the production of nuclear weapons-grade plutonium in Russia.” Together, the three reactors were able to produce more than one metric ton of plutonium annually, enough to make 250 nuclear weapons, according to Department of Energy estimates.

Besides proliferation concerns, the reactors also caused worries about safety. All three of them are of the RBMK type, a light-water-cooled, graphite-moderated model that gained infamy through the Chernobyl accident in 1986. These concerns were briefly realized in Seversk in 1993, when a tank containing an industrial solution used to decontaminate decommissioned nuclear reactors exploded, contaminating the surrounding countryside.

The only plutonium-producing reactor that now remains, located near the Siberian city of Zheleznogorsk, is slated to be shut down by 2010. Both Seversk and Zheleznogorsk are former “closed cities,” once-secret settlements that produced plutonium for the Soviet nuclear weapons program during the Cold War.

The United States has been calling for the closure of these plants since the early 1990s. The 1994 “Agreement Concerning the Shutdown of Plutonium Production Reactors and the Cessation of Use of Newly Produced Plutonium for Nuclear Weapons” originally called for ADE-4 and ADE-5 to be shut down in 2000. However, because they provided electricity and heat to Seversk and the nearby city of Tomsk, the deadline was moved back to the end of 2008. ADE-4 and ADE-5 closed eight and seven months ahead of schedule, respectively.

In the meantime, the United States has donated $926 million in order to help refurbish nearby fossil fuel and wind plants to compensate for the loss of energy. According to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which oversees threat reduction projects in the former Soviet Union, these repairs are nearing completion.