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Russia: safety problems surplus weapons-grade DU disposition program

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

On April 12, the Russian environmental group Ecodefense released a major new report focused on the use of plutonium as fuel in Russian nuclear reactors. This is the first independent research done during the last decade that exposes the civil plutonium program and its risks for public health and the environment, and comes as the U.S. and Russia prepare to sign an agreement for each nation to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium removed from nuclear weapons by using it to generate nuclear power.

The Ecodefense report ('Russian Plutonium Program: Nuclear Waste, Accidents, and Senseless Huge Costs') finds that the cornerstone of Russia’s program -the BN-800 breeder reactor- has been under construction for over 25 years, has cost over US$6 billion, and remains far from completion.

In the framework of the Russian-US disarmament agreement, each country will “dispose” of 34 tons of weapon-grade plutonium from dismantled warheads. Presently, the governments are planning to use the plutonium in the form of mixed oxide fuel (MOX) in nuclear reactors. Russian breeder reactors BN-600 (in operation) and BN-800 (under construction) will be used for this plutonium disposition. But breeder reactors may be used for both burning and breeding plutonium, which offers to the Russian nuclear industry the possibility of actually producing more plutonium rather than net destruction of the element. Later, the MOX fuel may also be used in Russian light-water reactors (VVER-1200 design).

Environmental groups in both Russia and the U.S. are opposed to the use of MOX fuel and instead promote safer, cleaner vitrification technology to permanently dispose of plutonium.

The report describes the nuclear facilities that will be used for the plutonium program in Russia: * the Beloyarsk nuclear plant near Ekaterinburg city, * NIIAR (Scientific and research institute of atomic reactors) in Dimitrovgrad city, * GHK nuclear weapon facility near Krasnoyarsk city, and * SHK nuclear facility near Tomsk city. The report also focuses on issues of safety, accidents, nonproliferation and public opinion. A public policy issue raised in the report is the lack of liability coverage for a nuclear accident in Russia. This is particularly troubling given the more than 1,000,000 people living in very close proximity of the proposed MOX factory near Ekaterinburg.

On January 21, 2010, Russian government approved a program of advanced technologies development worth 128 billion rubles (US$4.3 billion or 3.1 billion euro). Most of the funding will go to breeder reactor development.

Fast breeder reactors operating with MOX fuel are being promoted as "advanced  technology" in Russia. But it is a little known fact that the BN-800 has been under construction for over 25 years and its design, which pre-dates the 1986 Chernobyl accident, does not meet modern safety requirements. According to the Russian nuclear industry, this reactor will cost nearly US$4 billion, but independent estimates suggest that US$6 billion already has been spent and construction will be finished not earlier than 2014 and likely later.

In a detailed financial analysis, the report concludes that the plutonium fuel program is only viable because of US and European subsidy for weapons grade plutonium disposition, but given that it may result in a net increase in plutonium stocks, the Russian program will undermine this goal.

The full report in English is available at

Source: Press release 12 April 2010, Ecodefense! and NIRS
Contact: Ecodefense, Vladimir Sliviak: +7 903 2997584
Email: or: Mary Olson at NIRS, +1-828-252-8409