Russia Moving Ahead With Plant Closings

Saturday, February 2, 2008

WASHINGTON (AP) — Two of Russia's plutonium-producing reactors may be closed six months ahead of schedule this summer, a major milestone in U.S. nuclear nonproliferation efforts, a senior Energy Department official said Friday.

The official said Sergey Kiriyenko, the director of Russia's nuclear agency, Rosatom, told Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman during a 40-minute meeting Friday that shutting down the two reactors in the Siberian town of Seversk so soon was "realistic."

Bodman also was given assurances that a program to upgrade security at many of Russia's nuclear sites would be completed on schedule by the end of the year and that steps would be taken to ensure the security improvements will be maintained into the future, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the exchange had not yet been announced.

The United States and Russia have been working for years on arrangements to close Russia's three plutonium producing reactors — the two at Seversk and a third in the city of Zheleznogorsk that is scheduled to be shuttered at the end of next year.

While Russia has agreed to dispose of 34 metric tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium, it has continued to produce about 1.2 metric tons a year of new plutonium in the three reactors, raising additional proliferation risks.

The reactors provide electricity and heat to the nearby towns and the Russians have refused to shut them down until two fossil fuel plants are built. The United States has committed $926 million to help build the fossil plants, with the one at Seversk almost completed.

Kiriyenko told Bodman that the two Seversk reactors already have been operating at half power, cutting in half the amount of plutonium being produced, said the U.S. official.

Shutting the reactors has been a major U.S. nonproliferation goal. It's been an "up and down" struggle over the years to get the Russians to scrap the reactors, said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear nonproliferation expert at Harvard's Project on Managing the Atom who closely monitors Russia's post-Cold War handling of nuclear weapons material.

Aside from the plutonium issue, said Bunn in an interview, "the three reactors are among the most unsafe reactors, possibly the most unsafe reactors, in the world." He said the reactors were used by Russia to develop the design of the ill-fated Chernobyl reactor.

On a broader issue, Bodman and Kiriyenko discussed progress in completing security upgrades — improved fencing, alarm systems and guard houses — for weapons material at hundreds of buildings and bunkers at sites across Russia.

Kiriyenko "gave Bodman his promise that he would do what's necessary" to complete the upgrades by the target date of the end of this year, said the U.S. official.

Bodman told Kiriyenko that the United States views these safeguards as a key area of U.S.-Russian cooperation and "essential to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists."

So far upgrades are completed at 85 percent of the sites covered by the U.S.-Russia security improvement program with the work at the remaining sites expected to be finished by year's end, according to DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the program.

Bunn, who has been critical of the pace of the Russian security improvements, said it "remains a struggle to get it all done" but that there appears to be "worthwhile progress."

Fifteen years ago, Bunn has noted, some of the nuclear sites had gaping holes in fences, lacked detectors to set off alarms if plutonium or highly enriched uranium was carried out the door, and padlocks that could be easily snapped.

"We now need to be working hard on the next stage," said Bunn, which he said is making sure Russia will spend its own money to keep the improved security in place. "That remains a struggle."

At the meeting, Kiriyenko agreed with Bodman that steps needed to be taken to ensure the security enhancements would be maintained, the U.S. official said.

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