Fri, Oct 31, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Russia, US work to close Siberian reactors

NUCLEAR DILEMMA As aging nuclear reactors are being shut down there are fears of nuclear proliferation as thousands of scientists and technicians seek work abroad

THE OBSERVER , MOSCOW

Russia has lifted its ban on foreigners at two secret military settlements in Siberia as a first step in retiring its most dangerous surviving, Soviet-designed, nuclear power plants.

This groundbreaking deal between Russia and the US will, when fully worked through, complete a nuclear threat reduction program and end plutonium production in both countries. But the situation, ironically, is complicated because the demise of obsolete Siberian reactors could increase the prospect of nuclear proliferation by making thousands of Russian military scientists and technicians redundant and encouraging them to seek work abroad.

The three condemned reactors are 40 years old; their design is the one from which Soviet nuclear engineers learned lessons in order to build the now-infamous Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine -- the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster in 1986. Urgent safety upgrades are being prepared by the Russian and US experts involved in the program even during the phase-out period in order to avert a meltdown.

The ADE-4 and ADE-5 reactors in Seversk near Tomsk, western Siberia, and the ADE-2 reactor in Zheleznogorsk, eastern Siberia, generate enough plutonium to produce approximately one nuclear weapon every 36 hours.

They also generate heat and electricity for the surrounding communities and will continue to operate until low-emission, efficient coal-fired plants are put in place.

`Closed cities'

Seversk, once known as Tomsk-7, and Zheleznogorsk, formerly Krasnoyask-26, were among the 10 "closed cities" that were at the heart of the Soviet Union's huge nuclear weapons production industry.

Built in the 1940s and early 1960s, these so-called nuclear cities housed more than 170,000 people, mostly nuclear power workers and their families.

These communities, used to receiving the best of everything until the end of the Cold War, are now facing the prospect of wide-ranging job losses as their reactors and reprocessing plants close.

A new accord, agreed in Moscow after long and difficult negotiations, will allow the specialist US enterprises Washington Group International and Raytheon Technical Services access to the once top-secret plants to enable technicians to shut down the reactors and replace them them with coal-fired energy operations. The cost of the work -- US$466 million -- will be met by Washington.

The revitalized -- and safe -- Seversk project will have to produce 1,810 megawatts-thermal (MWt) of energy and the Zheleznogorsk project 765 MWt in order to make up for the energy lost through the closure of the old reactors.

The plants at Seversk and Zheleznogorsk are the last of Russia's original 13 plutonium-producing reactors slated to be dismantled. The US has already shut down all of its own 14 plutonium production reactors. According to reliable but unofficial estimates, Russia has 125 tonnes of weapons plutonium stored at various sites around the country. The US has declared that it holds 100 tonnes of plutonium.

These are quantities far in excess of their perceived defense needs.

A report recently drawn up by Russian nuclear regulators and provided to US officials states that the three surviving military reactors are in such poor physical condition that their conversion to civilian use could result in a Chernobyl-type accident. Several prominent US nuclear experts -- among them Princeton University's Frank von Hippel and Harvard University's Matthew Bunn, both former White House non-proliferation advisors -- have also urged against the conversion of the reactors.

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