Russia's Nuclear Cities End Plutonium Production

By Land, Thomas | Contemporary Review, May 2004 | Go to article overview
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Russia's Nuclear Cities End Plutonium Production

Land, Thomas, Contemporary Review

RUSSIA is lifting its ban on foreigners at two secret military settlements in Siberia as a first step to retiring the most dangerous surviving, Soviet-designed nuclear power plants on earth.

This is a ground-breaking accord reached by Russian and American negotiators in Moscow. It will complete a long-argued nuclear threat reduction initiative ending plutonium production in both countries. Several other energy-related international disarmament schemes are also advancing like clockwork, says Alexander Rumyantsev, the former atomic energy minister whose department is now being phased out.

However, the demise of the three 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 condemned reactors are some forty years of age. Their design is the one from which the bygone Soviet nuclear engineers learned lessons in order to devise the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine--the one involved in the world's worst nuclear disaster in 1986. Urgent safety upgrades are being prepared by the Russian and American experts involved in the programme 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 day and a half. They also generate heat and electricity for the surrounding communities. They will continue to operate until alternative, environment-friendly replacement plants are put in place.

Seversk, formerly known as Tomsk-7, and Zheleznogorsk, formerly Krasnoyask-26, are among the ten closed cities that once were at the heart of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons production complex. Built in the 1940s and early 1960s, these so-called nuclear cities used to house more than 170,000 people, mostly nuclear workers and their families.

These specialized population centres are about to experience acute social problems caused by unemployment resulting from the closure of the reactors and their associated reprocessing plants. Those still living there were once spoilt with all kinds of privileges including access to the best consumer goods then available in Russia. Their perks have ended with the Cold War.

But a ban on foreigners is still partially in force. In exceptional cases, foreigners holding advance permissions have been granted access to work on joint projects. The cities remain generally off limits to anyone but those engaged in nuclear work programmes, and their dependants.

Agreement has now been reached between the US and Russia on Western access to these Russian nuclear cities, marking another step toward shutting down the plutonium producing reactors. The accord signed in Moscow provides only for access arrangements related to building the two projected coal-burning power plants. Western access to the nuclear reactors themselves remains under negotiation.

The Moscow accord will allow the American enterprises Washington Group International and Raytheon Technical Services broad access for shutting down the critical reactors and replacing them with coal-fired heat and electricity plants. The work will cost $466m, financed by Washington.

'This will bring us to the end of production of weapons-grade plutonium in Russia', said Spencer Abraham, the American energy secretary, on reaching agreement with Rumyantsev, his Russian counterpart. The deal, added Rumyantsev, demonstrated that Russia and America were 'friends and partners'.

Their original breakthrough accord had been clinched in Vienna on the sidelines of a recent United Nations conference about the threat posed by crude radiation dispersal devices, or dirty bombs, in the hands of international terrorists.

Washington Group International is a provider of premier services worldwide in nuclear energy, science, engineering, construction and related areas.

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