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DISPOSITION OF WEAPONS-GRADE PLUTONIUM IN RUSSIA: EVALUATION OF DIFFERENT OPTIONS

by ANATOLY S. DIAKOV

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The paper is presented at the NATO Advanced Research Workshop on Dismantlement and Destruction of Chemical, Nuclear and Conventional Weapons (Bonn, Germany, 19-21 May, 1996). Published in Dismantlement and Destruction of Chemical, Nuclear and Conventional Weapons (ed. by Nancy Turtle Schulte), North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Brussels, Belgium, 1996, pp. 171-180)

Abstract

The ongoing dismantlement of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons retired under the START I and START II treaties should result in over 60 tons of excess weapons-plutonium in Russia. Also, due to reprocessing of civil spent fuel, about 30 tons of reactor-grade plutonium is accumulated in Russia. This plutonium excess presents an international security problem. In the long term, the basic Russian approach for disposition of plutonium is to bum both weapons plutonium and civil plutonium in fast-neutron reactors. However due to the current political and economic situation in Russia, this plan cannot be realized any time soon. Under such conditions, the first priority should be placed on the establishment of a plutonium storage regime under bilateral or international control.

Introduction

The overriding objective of U.S. and Russian nuclear disarmament initiatives is to dispose of excess nuclear fissile materials released from weapons in such a way that they cannot be re-used in the country of origin for military purposes, or stolen by terrorist groups.

The natural disposal method for weapons-grade uranium is to blend it with natural uranium to produce a nuclear reactor fuel. In accordance with the Russia-US agreement signed in February of 1993, 500 tons of Russian weapons uranium to be recovered from dismantled warheads and mixed with depleted uranium will be sold in the United States as raw material to fabricate reactor fuel. This agreement is now being implemented. In 1995, Russia delivered to the United States low-enriched uranium (LEU) derived from 6.1 tons of high-enriched uranium (HEU); in 1996, Russia will deliver the LEU derived from 12 tons of HEU obtained from nuclear weapons.

In the case of weapons-grade plutonium, the situation is much more complicated. The utilization of already separated plutonium, particularly of excess plutonium from retired nuclear weapons, is raising a complex set of technical, economic, environmental and political problems. All of these problems are closely related and mutually reinforcing. The determination of an optimal option for disposition of excess weapons-grade plutonium, based on such criteria as technical viability, resistance to theft or diversion, economics, timeliness, environmental protection and others, is being studied by Russian and foreign experts.

During the Cold War, the FSU / Russian nuclear military production complex produced about 126 tons of weapons-grade plutonium.

As the result of nuclear arms reduction, most of this plutonium will become "surplus". Currently, Russia is dismantling nuclear weapons and plutonium components at a rate of approximately 7 tons per year. They are being shipped to storage at the disassembly plants near Seversk (Tomsk-7), Ozersk (Chelyabinsk-65) and Arzamas-16. It is expected that some 60 tons of plutonium will be released from weapons in Russia [1].

Further, Russia will continue to produce significant amounts of weapons-grade plutonium. Only 10 of the 13 Russian plutonium-production reactors have been shut down. Although the three remaining reactors are now operating principally to supply heat to the cities of Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk, they continue to produce weapons-grade plutonium at a rate of about 1.5 metric tons each year. The Russian government has mandated that, as of October 1, 1994, all newly produced plutonium cannot be used in weapons and must be stored in oxide form.

Table 1: Estimated Weapons Plutonium Production in FSU / Russia by 1996

Type of Reactor

Power, Megawatts (designed/upgraded)

Period of Operation

Estimated Weapons-Grade Plutonium (W-Pu) Production, metric tonnes (MT)

A

100/900

06.19.48/06.16.87

6.5

IR-AI

50/500

12.22.51/05.25.87

3.4

AV-1

300/1200

04.01.50/12.08.89

8.9

AV-2

300/1200

04.06.51/06.14.90

9.0

AV-3

300/1200

09.15.52/11.01.90

6.3

1-1

600/1200

11.20.55/09.21.90

8.5

1-2

600/1200

09. .58/12.31.90

8.2

ADE-3

1600/1900

07. .61/08.14.90

11.9

ADE-4

1600/1900

02.26.64/inoperative

12.7

ADE-5

1600/1900

06.27.65/inoperative

12.1

AD

1600/1800

08.25.58/06.30.92

13.5

ADE-1

1600/1800

.61/08.29.92

12.3

ADE-2

1600/1800

63/inoperative

13.2

Total

126.2

Russian Stock Of Civil Plutonium

Table 2 presents the amounts of fuels discharged from Russian power reactors [2] and estimates of the amounts of reactor-grade plutonium.

Table 2: Russian civil plutonium production data by 1996

Type of Reactor

Mass of Spent Fuel, MT

Estimated Mass of Plutonium (Pu) MT

RMBK

6100

38

VVER-1000

1000

11

VVER-440

1250

17

BN-600

65

6

Total

72

Russia is reprocessing spent fuel from domestic and Soviet-built reactors, including the VVER-440, BN-600 power reactors, naval reactors, and research reactors. At present, about 30 tons of separated reactor-grade plutonium [3] in the form of plutonium dioxide is being stored at Chelyabinsk-65. Because of the growth of radioactivity in this civilian plutonium it is to be fabricated into reactor fuel before using weapons plutonium. Due to the decay of Pu-241, this separated reactor-grade plutonium is difficult to handle.

Russian Approach To Plutonium Disposition

The Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom) views plutonium as a valuable energy source [7]. Its current concept of how to utilize plutonium is based on the approach which was developed two decades ago when there was great energy demand, and entails the following stages:

Another possibility for the disposition of Russian plutonium is to fabricate mixed U / Pu oxides (MOX) fuel for sale on the world market. The Canadian government, as well as the Canadian nuclear industry, has expressed support for the idea of transforming Russian excess weapons-plutonium into MOX fuel and burning it in CANDU reactors. A feasibility study of the CANDU option is currently in progress.

A research and development programme was adopted by Minatom to coordinate efforts on technology implementation and equipment construction for use of weapons-plutonium in MOX fuel fabrication for fast and thermal reactors. This programme includes:

Close collaboration on these issues is established between Minatom and specialists from Canada, France, Germany, and the United States.

Although Russian experts are studying non-reactor options within the framework of the joint U.S. / Russian Plutonium Disposition Study, there is currently little enthusiasm in Minatom for this approach to plutonium disposition. Minatom officials repeatedly state that priority is given to the use of weapons-grade plutonium in nuclear fuel for the power production industry, and not for its immobilization or geologic disposal. Use of existing vitrification technology has always been perceived as unsafe [4].

Burning Plutonium In Reactors: State and Prospects

In order to explore the extent to which Russia is ready to utilize excess weapons-plutonium and separated civil plutonium, a number of criteria were introduced to examine the status and prospects of its reactor programme. Four criteria were selected for this purpose:

  1. technical viability;
  2. timeliness and stockpile reduction speed;
  3. resistance to theft or diversion;
  4. cost

While clearly, this set of criteria is not complete and sufficient, it allows for evaluation of the merits and disadvantages of different options.

FAST REACTORS

Technical viability

Russia began experiments with plutonium for fuel fabrication in the mid-1950s, however the systematic studies of plutonium fuel started with the BOR-60 reactor in 1970 [1]. Although a number of different kinds of MOX fuel elements were tested in Russia, enriched uranium fuel has most commonly been used in the prototype industrial power production fast reactors, BN-350/600.

The construction of the first two fast reactors, BN-800, was started at the South Urals site but was then suspended in initial stages due to financial problems. The new BN-800 fast reactor has been designed and has passed all required examinations. No problems are expected with plutonium of various isotopic compositions. Also, these fast-neutron reactors are capable of processing larger amounts of plutonium than light water reactors (LWRs) of equal power output, and the radiotoxicity of their spent fuel is significantly less.

There are three pilot installations in Russia to produce MOX fuel for fast reactors: two at the Mayak site in Ozersk and one at the RIAR in Dimitrovgrad. The capacity of the "Packet" installation at Mayak allows for annual production of 10-12 fuel assemblies for BN-600/350 reactors (300 kg of fuel with about 20% of reactor-grade plutonium). The modified installation "Packet" has a MOX production capacity of up to 40 fuel assemblies (1 ton of MOX fuel). The capacity of the "Granat" installation at the RIAR is about 1 ton of MOX fuel. The design and technology of these pilot installations do not correspond to modern requirements [11], and their use for plutonium utilization is doubtful.

At Mayak, the construction of the industrial-scale MOX fuel fabrication plant Complex-300 to fabricate fuel for BN-800 reactors has been suspended recently due to financial difficulties. This plant was 50% complete. Its proposed annual capacity is 900 fuel assemblies (60 tons of MOX fuel).

Timeliness and stockpile reduction speed

To implement this stage of plutonium utilization, Minatom proposes to build four 800-Megawatt fast-neutron reactors: three near Chelyabinsk-65 and one at the Beloyarskaya site. Further, the Ministry plans to complete the construction of the Complex-300 MOX plant at the Ozersk site [1]. The BN-800 reactor design allows for the irradiation of 1.6 tons of plutonium per year. If implemented, four reactors would consume 100 tons of plutonium during 15 years. But taking into account that a substantial period of time would be required to build a reactor (about 10 years), and that each subsequent unit would be installed following a delay of 5 years, the process of plutonium disposition would start by 2010 and finish by 2030/35.

Resistance to theft or diversion

The chemical processing of metal plutonium to plutonium oxide and mixing operations take place in a compact facility within a closed area, with tight security and monitoring. When MOX fuel is clad and assembled into sub-assemblies, it becomes rather difficult to steal because the reactor sub-assembly is very heavy. The irradiation of MOX fuel creates intense radioactivity, thus increasing difficulties for theft. Minatom also argues that implementation of this plan would diminish the risk of diversion and theft because fuel and plutonium transportation, in addition to fuel fabrication, will be under comprehensive control within a closed site.

Cost

Because of lack of information, the costs presented here represent only an estimate of capital investments. The estimated cost for this project is about $3.8 billion; $800 million to complete construction of one BN-800 ($765 million [9]) and one "Shop-300" plant ($35 million [2]), and $3 billion for construction of three additional BN-800s.

LIGHT WATER REACTORS

Technical viability

In the past in Russia, use of plutonium in thermal reactors was considered ineffective. For this reason, none of the existing Russian LWRs (VVER-440, VVER-1000) were designed for the use of MOX fuel. Also, there is neither experience nor facilities for MOX fuel fabrication for water reactors in Russia. Although some Russian experts believe that four modem VVER-1000 units at the Balakovskaya nuclear power plant (NPP) could be modified and loaded with MOX (1/3 core), experts from the GosAtomNadzor (Russian Nuclear Regulation Agency) and from the Institute of Physics and Power Engineering in Obninsk expressed doubts [8] that these modem VVER-1000 reactors could be easily modified at moderate cost and licensed to accept plutonium fuel.

It is well known that Western Europe has the experience of using MOX fuel in thermal reactors, though it does not apply directly to the use of weapons-grade plutonium. Currently, Minatom, in collaboration with France, Germany and the US, is conducting a technical and economic evaluation of plutonium utilization in existing and future Russian commercial LWRs. These studies should be completed this year.

Based on preliminary results, each of four existing VVER-1000 reactors at Balakovo would recycle 250 kg of plutonium per year assuming one-third of the core is loaded with MOX, and 850 kg per year with 100% of the core loaded.

Timeliness and stockpile reduction speed

To estimate the period of disposition using water reactors, the following scenario can be considered. Four VVER-1000 units at Balakovo are reconstructed, and one-third of their cores are loaded with MOX after the year 2000. Two partially completed VVER-1000 units are redesigned to use MOX in 100% of their reactor cores and begin operating after the year 2005. Also, three additional LWRs of advanced design (VVER-640) are constructed as replacement power sources for three operating production reactors, and put into operation after the year 2010. Their annual plutonium consumption would be approximately 370 kg with a 100% MOX core [10]. When this scenario is implemented completely, the annual plutonium consumption would be about 3.8 tons.

Obviously, some time is required for research, experimentation, design and licensing pertaining to the use of MOX fuel in Russian water reactors, and the construction of the MOX-fuel fabrication plant. In accordance with current estimates the pilot installation could be introduced by the year 2000, with a capacity of 1 ton of plutonium per year, or 20 tons of MOX fuel. Assuming the start of operations of a full-scale MOX fuel fabrication plant with a capacity of 120 tons MOX per year by the year 2005, the disposal of excess plutonium would be finished by the years 2032-2035.

Resistance to theft or diversion

If implemented, this option will essentially broaden the geographic boundaries of plutonium and MOX fuel transportation. Presumably, the chemical processing of metal plutonium to plutonium oxide powder, and the fabrication of MOX fuel elements, will take place at the Mayak site, where the storage facility is being constructed. The Chemical and Mining Combine at Zheleznogorsk (formerly Krasnoyarsk-26) will produce fuel assemblies, while the nuclear power plants are dispersed within a large region. Therefore, due to the broadening of the area within which plutonium and MOX fuel will be transported the risk of theft or diversion will grow.

Cost

To realize this option, it is necessary to built three new reactors, each costing up to $0.9 billion, and to complete the construction of two reactors estimated to cost approximately $1.5 billion. The cost of construction of the pilot MOX-fuel fabrication plant is estimated to be about $60 million [12]; the cost of the full-scale plant is about $250 million. In addition, some funds will be required to reconstruct the four old VVER-1000 units. In total the estimated costs are about $4.5 billion.

CANDU

Atomic Energy of Canada and Ontario Hydro propose to dispose of up to 100 tons of weapons-grade plutonium resulting from disarmament programmes in Russia and the U.S. by utilizing it as MOX fuel in the Bruce A Reactors, four 825 MWe CANDU reactors operating in the Canadian Province of Ontario. The outline of the proposal looks as follows:

Canada plans to store the spent fuel resulting from the process on Canadian territory.

Technical viability

Because of the unique flexibility of the CANDU design to adapt itself to many different fuel cycles, preliminary conclusions indicate that MOX fuel can be incorporated in the design with no changes to the reactor hardware, and within the existing licensed performance envelope. The plutonium concentration in the fuel is about 1.2% and the existing pilot scale fuel fabrication facilities, or Complex-300, could be converted for CANDU MOX fuel fabrication purposes.

Timeliness and stockpile reduction speed

In accordance with preliminary estimates the full programme of MOX fuel production would begin by 2002. Each 825 MWe CANDU reactor at Ontario Hydro's Bruce A Station is capable of utilizing about 1 ton of plutonium. Therefore, it is possible to use 50 tons of Russian plutonium and 50 tons of U.S. plutonium at a single station within 25 years.

Resistance to theft and diversion

The conversion of plutonium to plutonium oxide and the mixing operations take place in a compact facility located within a closed area, thus allowing for tight security and close monitoring. After mixing the plutonium with the depleted uranium oxide, the volume is increased substantially, making it difficult to steal.

Certainly, the transportation of plutonium fuel for such long distances creates a significant risk to theft and diversion. However, any diversion should be detected quickly. Also, this risk would be diminished by using a specially designed vessel and supporting transport vehicles, as well as by implementation of special safeguards and a security system.

Cost

In this case, the key elements of economic evaluation are the cost of MOX fuel fabrication, the cost of MOX fuel production facility conversion, and the cost of transportation rather than the cost of capital investment.

The fabrication of unenriched uranium fuel for CANDU reactors costs about $65 per kg U and is considerably cheaper than for LWRs [10]. On the other hand, in current plants, MOX fuel fabrication costs are higher than fabrication of uranium fuel. Because there is no data on MOX fuel fabrication for CANDU, the costs presented here represent only approximations. It is supposed that the cost of CANDU MOX fuel, including fabrication, cost of depleted uranium and conversion of metal plutonium to plutonium oxide, is triple the ordinary cost, or about $400 per kg. The plutonium is assumed to be free. The fuel transportation cost is assumed to be at the same level as spent fuel transportation costs, $50 per kg. The cost of conversion of Complex-300 for CANDU fuel fabrication would be the amount of funds needed to complete its construction. Under these assumptions, the total cost of disposing of 50 tons of Russian weapons-grade plutonium would be about $2.25 billion.

Storage

Evidently, the time required for nuclear weapons dismantlement is much less than even the time to decide on optimal options for the disposition of surplus plutonium. Therefore, it is necessary to store this surplus in a safe and secure manner. In this context, a first priority becomes the construction of a storage facility which would provide storage for fissile material from dismantled nuclear weapons and support the schedule on weapons dismantlement.

Minatom began the construction of a fissile material storage facility, with U.S. assistance, at the Mayak site last Spring; its completion is scheduled for 1997. The storage capacity of this facility is 50 thousand containers, and it will correspond to all modern, international standards for safe, secure and accountable storage. The cost of construction is $ 150 million. The U.S. is providing the essential part of financing for material and labour costs, $75 million was allocated for this project.

Also, on January 13, 1995 the Russian Government adopted a programme of immediate measures for the implementation of a national nuclear material protection, control and accounting system (MPC&A). The strategy for realization of this programme includes the development of:

Several governmental agencies, including Minatom and GosAtomNadzor, are involved in ongoing work. Close collaboration on these issues with Western countries has been established. As the general manager of this programme, GosAtomNadzor requested $8.2 million to support programme activities, the government designated $3.8 million, but only about $0.5 million has been received during the last year [6].

Conclusion

Although Russia has some experience with fast-neutron reactors and the fabrication of plutonium fuel, it is questionable whether this option will be realized any time soon due to lack of funds. The utilization of plutonium in LWRs could be initiated in a shorter period of time and, from this point of view, this option looks more promising. But taking into account that Russia has an over-capacity for production of low-cost LWR uranium fuel, it will be difficult for Minatom to justify and obtain a large-scale subsidy to implement the LWR MOX-fuel disposition concept. A decisive role in the realization of a CANDU variant will have an effect on the cost of producing MOX fuel elements at a Russian facility, but also including the cost of weapon grade plutonium. Obviously, a full-scale implementation of any option and its realization will take a substantial period of time.

These observations indicate that the real question that needs to be answered is what priority needs to be placed in the strategy of dealing with the problem of weapons-grade plutonium. This question is easily answered when one considers the current turbulent political and economic situation in Russia. The priority that makes the most sense is to concentrate efforts on short-term options. The main concern, and highest priority for now, must be to create a regime that will prevent the re-use of retired weapons-grade material in new weapons and prevent its diversion to the black market. This will create a base for the irreversibility of nuclear-weapons reductions and build confidence in the international community that no proliferation of nuclear weapons is taking place.

It seems there is only one way to realize this goal. That is to make a determined effort to set up a reciprocal regime of storage of both Russian and U.S. excess plutonium under bilateral or international control.

References

1. V.N. Mikhailov, V.V. Bogdan (MinAtom), V.M. Murogov, V.B. Lytkin, V.S. Kagramanyan (IPPE), E.N. Avrorin, V.I. Chitaikin (VNIITPh) Plutonium in Russian Nuclear Power Industry, presentation at the Workshop on the Accumulation of Plutonium in Russia: Technical, Socio-Economical, Ecological, and Political Problems, Moscow, 27-28 April 1995.

V.N. Mikhailov, V.M.Murogov, et all, Plutonium utilization in nuclear power of Russia, paper presented at the International Political Forum on Weapons Grade Fissile Material Management, March 1994, Pittsburgh, USA

2. Programme of the Radioactive Waste Management in the Russian Federation

3. Interview with E.G Dzekun (PO "Mayak").

4. G.G. Borisov, Scientific and Technical Aspects of Plutonium Transition into Glass-Matrix, presentation at the Workshop on the Accumulation of Plutonium in Russia, Moscow, 27-28 April 1995.

6. Interview with Alexander M. Dmitriyev (GAN), (13 May, 1996).

7. The Concept of Development of Nuclear Power In Russian Federation. 14 July 1992, the Council of the MinAtom RF

8. V.F.Menchikov, Ecological cost for Different Type of Nuclear Fuel Cycle, talk given at the Workshop on the Accumulation of Plutonium in Russia, Moscow, 27-28 April 1995.

9. Victor M. Murogov, Vladimir S. Kagramanian, Alexander N. Chebeskoov, Scenarios of Separated Plutonium Utilization in Russian Thermal and Fast Reactors, paper presented at the ICEM'95 Conference, Berlin, Germany, September 4-8, 1995

10. N.N.Egorov, E.G. Koudriavtsev, X. Ouin, and B. Sicard, Civil Use of Weapons-Grade Plutonium from Russian Nuclear Weapons: The AIDA/MOX Program, paper presented at the GLOBAL'95 Conference, Versailles, France, September 11-14, 1995.

11. The Economics of the Nuclear Fuel Sycle, OECD report, Paris, 1994.

12. The technical study of MOX fuel production with weapons plutonium, Joint Report of MinAton and Siemens, 1995

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