In accordance with the Russian-American agreement of July 1998, a joint steering committee was established to coordinate scientific and technical work on the disposal of surplus weapons-grade plutonium, and a joint working group was formed to estimate the cost of disposal.
Theory and practice
From the very beginning, the Russian approach to disposing of surplus weapons-grade plutonium was based on two key points:
plutonium is a valuable energy resource. In the context of the concept of a closed nuclear cycle adopted in Russia, priority in the method of plutonium disposition should be given to its use in nuclear fuel of power reactors;
Since plutonium disposition involves significant financial costs, to speed up the process, the United States and other countries must provide funding for a full recycling program in Russia.
According to the agreement between the governments of the Russian Federation and the United States on plutonium disposition, which was signed by 29 on August 2000, each of the parties committed to recycling 34 tons of its excess weapons-grade plutonium by using it in MOX fuel, followed by irradiation in power reactors. The agreement provided for the synchronization of the recycling programs of the parties (the start of recycling, its pace, etc.). The implementation of the Russian recycling program involved the provision of financial assistance from the United States and a number of other Western countries. The cost of the Russian recycling program at the time of signing the agreement was estimated at 1,8 billion dollars.
It was planned that the practical implementation of the agreement will begin in the second half of 2009, and the recycling programs will be fully completed in 2025. In Russia, it was supposed to use the BN-600 fast neutron reactor and four light water VVER-1000 reactors of the Balakovo NPP to irradiate MOX fuel, in the USA - light water reactors.
Practical implementation of the agreement from the very beginning faced serious difficulties. These include the different approaches of the parties to issues of civil liability for damage and financing of the recycling program. With the signing of the protocol in September 2006, which ensures parity of the parties in all aspects related to the implementation of the agreement, the problem of civil liability was removed, but with the financing of the Russian program, everything turned out to be more complicated. As a result of negotiations on the preparation of an agreement on sources and funding mechanisms, the total donor fund from the United States and other G8 countries by the end of 2005, amounted to about 850 million dollars. At the same time, the estimate of the total cost of the Russian recycling program by that time had grown from 1,8 to four billion dollars. In April 2007, the American side notified Russia that the amount of the donor's contribution to 850 million dollars is final. Under the current conditions, financing the program from the Russian budget was considered inexpedient, since disposing of plutonium through its use in MOX fuel of light-water reactors did not correspond to the country's long-term development strategy for nuclear power. In this regard, the lack of external funding led essentially to denouncing the agreement.
Considering that refusal to fulfill the agreement could negatively affect both Russian-American relations and Russian relations with other countries, Rosatom initiated consideration of such a change in the scenario of the plutonium disposition program in our country, which would be in line with Russia's plans for developing nuclear energy. and would be acceptable to both parties.
As a result of consultations held in 2007, the American side agreed with the proposals for the implementation of the Russian program for disposing of excess plutonium. In November, US Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman and the head of the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency, Sergei Kiriyenko, signed a joint statement regarding the new 2007 disposal plan for tons of excess plutonium. According to this document, Russian-made weapons-grade plutonium will be disposed of by using it as a MOX fuel, followed by irradiation in the BN-34 fast neutron reactor, which is currently operated at the Beloyarsk NPP, and in the BN-600 reactor being built on the same site. In subsequent consultations after signing the statement, the representatives of the United States and Russia agreed on changes in the 800 intergovernmental agreement of the year. The amended agreement, reflecting the new interpretation of the relevant technical issues and other changes necessary for the implementation of cooperation, was signed in 2000 and entered into force in July 2010.
In accordance with the amended agreement, each of the parties pledged to proceed with the disposal of 34 tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium (25 tons in the form of metal and 9 tons in the form of dioxide powder) in 2018 and complete the process in 15 years. Both sides assumed to use the same method of disposal, namely the use of all 34 tons for the production of MOX fuel.
The entry into force of the amended agreement made it possible to hope that the parallel national programs for plutonium utilization, subject to stable long-term funding, would complete the necessary industrial infrastructure in 2016 – 2017 and each side would start transferring excess weapons-grade plutonium to MOX-fuel and its irradiation in reactors. However, the course of further events refuted such predictions. In 2012, discussions on the use of alternative disposal methods were resumed in the United States. To develop an appropriate decision, an expert group was formed by the US Department of Energy. Prior to the presentation of the report by this group, which is expected at the beginning of 2014, the construction of the American plant for the production of MOX fuel is suspended.
Program status in Russia and the USA
The Russian executive agent under the agreement, Rosatom, is successfully implementing the national program, without making any amendments of a fundamental nature to it. Active work continues on the construction of a sodium-cooled BN-800 fast neutron reactor (Zarechny town, Sverdlovsk region), the energy launch of which is scheduled for September 2014. A chemical-technological complex for the manufacture of MOX-fuel was launched in test mode at the Research Institute of Atomic Reactors (Dimitrovgrad, Ulyanovsk Region) to ensure the starting load of the BN-800 reactor. The cost of the object - 1,7 billion rubles. In December, 2013 began loading the hybrid (uranium and MOX) fuel into the reactor core, which certainly indicates a significant advancement of the program. With the commissioning of the plant for the production of MOX-fuel at the mining and chemical plant (MCC) in Zheleznogorsk (Krasnoyarsk Territory) in 2016, the BN-800 reactor will be fully transferred to the use of MOX-fuel. The project cost of the plant is seven billion rubles.
It should be noted that the use of fast reactors for the disposal of weapons-grade plutonium has some peculiarities. First of all, it is the ability to turn out new plutonium, the quality of which, when using the side uranium screens of the core can even exceed the quality of weapons-grade plutonium. It is for this reason that Article VI of the agreement establishes a ban on the reprocessing of irradiated fuel and screens throughout the entire process, up to and including the full disposal of 34 tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium.
According to the latest data from the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the initial estimated cost of a MOX fuel plant being built at the Savannah River Nuclear Center (South Carolina) has increased from 4,8 billion to 7,7 billion, and its planned commissioning period has been rescheduled from 2016 on 2019 year, and 3,7 billion dollars have already been invested in the construction of the facility.
Taking into account this circumstance, and also taking into account the budget sequestration introduced in 2013 year (including the reduction of defense expenditures on 454 billion dollars before 2021), the US administration recorded in the accompanying letter to the April budget request of the Department of Energy to Congress on 2014 fiscal year provision on the intention to slow down the construction of the MOX plant, as well as to consider alternative, less costly methods for plutonium disposition. In pursuance of this directive, the financing of the NNSB in the 2014 fiscal year in terms of the construction of the MOX plant was cut by 115 million dollars compared to 2012, when 435 million was allocated. Moreover, no funds for these purposes are provided for in the 2015 – 2018 years.
In an effort to neutralize rumors in the expert community that the steps taken by the administration actually cancel the Russian-American agreement on plutonium, First Deputy Energy Minister Daniel Poneman said in an interview that the United States does not refuse to dispose of excess weapons-grade plutonium, but would like to solve this problem optimally both financially and technologically, as he has already informed the Russian colleagues.
Last year, at the direction of Energy Minister Ernest Moniz, an expert group was established to analyze alternative methods for plutonium disposition. She had to present her conclusions in January of 2014 in order to use them in the preparation of the NNSA budget request for 2015 year. Deadline for submission to Congress - February.
The experts considered about thirty options and ultimately settled on three options:
immobilization (vitrification) of weapons-grade plutonium together with highly active long-lived radioactive waste and placing the resulting mass in special containers using the so-called can-in-canister technology. At the beginning of the process, plutonium powder is immobilized in small glass or ceramic jars, placed further in special containers with a total capacity of up to 28 kilograms each, into which glass melt mixed with radioactive waste is poured. According to experts, the above-described process of vitrification could be organized on the MOX plant under construction in Savannah River (the availability of the facility today is 60 percent) after making minor changes to its design. It would be possible to use the site of this center for the temporary storage of special containers until the permanent storage is commissioned. According to preliminary estimates, such an approach offers significant cost savings, since in this case such expensive technological steps are excluded, such as purification of plutonium powder from impurities and manufacture of fuel assemblies for reactors, which is typical of the process of plutonium utilization through irradiation in MOX fuel;
immobilization of plutonium without mixing of radioactive waste. In this case, we are talking about the immobilization of plutonium powder in ceramic matrices and their subsequent placement in wells from three to five kilometers deep, which should make unauthorized access to nuclear weapons material difficult;
disposition of excess plutonium in the US Department of Energy’s pilot radioactive waste repository (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant - WIPP) in southeastern New Mexico (a series of cavities dug in salt deposits at a depth of 650 meters). This option does not provide any radiation barrier against potential intruders.
All of these options are contrary to Article III of the intergovernmental agreement, which defines the only method of disposal - irradiation in power reactors. The last two options do not meet the standard spent fuel. In this regard, a departure from one of the principal provisions of the agreement is unlikely to find a positive response from Russian experts, who have always argued that the actual disposal of weapons-grade plutonium is possible only when plutonium is irradiated in MOX fuel from power reactors, ensuring the irreversible removal of this material from the weapons program. Other approaches proposed by the Americans do not exclude the possibility of intentional or unauthorized extraction of weapon-grade plutonium from its storage and reuse for weapons purposes.
Whatever the decisions of the American administration regarding the methodology for implementing the national program for disposing of excess weapons-grade plutonium, they are unlikely to affect the disposition of plutonium by the Russian side. The federal target program of Russia “Nuclear energy technologies of the new generation for the period 2010 – 2015 and up to 2020 of the year” provides for the use of fast neutron reactors with mixed uranium-plutonium fuel, and the disposal of weapons-grade plutonium is built into this program.
The question is how the American decisions will affect the fate of the agreement and whether the parties will be able to find mutually acceptable solutions for its preservation.
It can be assumed that even in the case of the Americans refusing to dispose of plutonium by the previously agreed method of exposure, the parties will try to keep the agreement. This is primarily due to the desire to avoid the negative political consequences for the process of reducing nuclear weapons and the non-proliferation regime that may arise if it is terminated.
Obviously, the development of such an agreement should take into account the current realities that are significantly different from the existing 20 years ago, when the question was raised about the need to dispose of released weapons-grade nuclear materials.
The main motivation for disposing of weapons-grade plutonium surplus was the elimination of the risks of its possible embezzlement and illicit trafficking, due to concerns about the relatively inadequate storage system for weapons-grade nuclear materials (SNF) in Russia. However, the situation with their storage over the past 15 years has changed dramatically. Modern high-capacity storage facilities equipped with modern technical systems of physical protection were built at the Mayak Combine and the Mining-Chemical Combine, a modern state system for accounting and control of nuclear materials was developed and put into operation. Methods of training and certification of staff are aligned with modern requirements. The implementation of all these measures in the Russian Federation has essentially minimized the risks of theft and illicit trafficking of the SNM.
The need to make the process of reducing nuclear weapons irreversible was an additional motivation for disposing of surplus. However, as a result of reductions carried out in the past two decades, the level of nuclear weapons has decreased many times and the declared surplus of weapons-grade plutonium can in no way form the basis for the reversibility of this process. The maximum possible number of warheads on each side is limited by the loading capacity of their means of delivery. Having more warheads than can be placed on delivery vehicles hardly makes sense. As is known, in accordance with the current Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the number of carriers on each side by the end of 2018 should not exceed 700. For the United States, taking into account the maximum possible load of carriers, the required number of warheads is about four thousand, which is slightly less than what they currently have. According to expert estimates, no more than 20 tons of plutonium are needed to maintain such an arsenal. We also take into account that even after deducting tons declared as surplus of 34 in the arsenals of each of the two nuclear powers, more than 50 tons of weapons-grade plutonium remain - this amount is enough to produce 12 500 warheads. In this context, it becomes obvious that the disposal of declared excess plutonium is not a determining factor affecting the irreversibility of the reduction of nuclear weapons, and is more symbolic.
Given this, Russia can agree with any of the disposal methods that the United States considers acceptable for itself. In exchange, the Russian side has the right to demand a waiver of the provisions of the agreement prohibiting the reprocessing of spent fuel and screens until the complete disposal of 34 tons of excess plutonium. Moreover, taking into account the view of many American experts on the equivalence of weapons-grade and reactor-grade plutonium for nuclear weapons, the Russian side could also insist on increasing the proportion of disposable plutonium in the form of dioxide powder. This would enable Russia to include part of 48 tons of civilian plutonium from the spent nuclear fuel reprocessing and stored at the Mayak plant in the recycling process.
The other principle of the agreement - concurrency, or in other words - the implementation of the agreement by both parties in a synchronous manner, can also be audited. However, the rejection of this principle is possible, if it does not arise difficulties in the development and implementation of measures of international control over the process of disposal. It appears that in the event of the United States refusing the previously agreed method of exposure, the preservation and implementation of the provisions of the monitoring and inspection agreement will not be a priority for the Russian side. In the context of the possible involvement of other nuclear countries in the process of reducing nuclear weapons, the preservation of this situation is important because it provides an opportunity to work out methods and practices for implementing international control over the disposal of nuclear materials.