Plutonium and Nuclear Warhead production
While our map on pages 9-10 and the legend of Who's Who on page 13
give the bare details of the most important (known) nuclear installations
plus institutions, some historical and infrastructural context is required
to grasp the extensive and complex network that makes up the Russian
plutonium programme, which is perhaps even more complicated than that
in the US. The authors of the most accessible and detailed public study
of the plutonium situation in Russia (hereafter JPRS, see ref. 1) stress
that the problems of plutonium for Russia have a nation-wide scale.
This is the direct result of the policy of the leadership of the former
Soviet Union to build its atomic research and development infrastructure
across the vast expanse of the country, which made many production plants
essentially invisible both to Soviet citizens and the nation's ideological
enemies in the West. Plutonium was created in the former Soviet Union
in the late 1940s, only a few years after Glenn Seaborg first isolated
it in the US. The first Soviet nuclear device, using plutonium, was
exploded at a test site in Semipalatinsk, in what is now Kazakstan in
1949. The feed material for the weapon was created at a nuclear complex
in Chelyabinsk Oblast in the Urals.
The Soviet atomic authorities - called the Ministry of Medium-Sized
Machines (MMMB) to protect its true identity - went on to build thirteen
industrial scale plutonium-production reactors, utilising a design encompassing
graphite-cooled, water moderated 'channel' type reactors - five at Chelyabinsk,
five more at Tomsk in Siberia, and a further three at Krasnoyarsk, even
further East. JPRS records that various estimates put the plutonium
production output of these reactors collectively at 140-180 metric tonnes
ie enought to make between 34,000-45,000 warheads. Presently three of
these reactors are still in operation, one at Tomsk, two at Krasnoyarsk,
primarily to provide district and industrial heat to their neighboring
cities, which suffer particularly severe winters. But they also continue
to create collectively about two tonnes of 'excellent' weapons-grade
plutonium a year as an unavoidable by-product of normal operation.
In the former Soviet Union the nuclear weapons production process involved
dozens of different organizations in their development, design, and
manufacture. The central body was the State Committee for Atomic Energy,
supported by two ministries, one to build, the other to operate nuclear
plants - and this remains under the Russian Federation - except that
the central body has been renamed the Ministry of Atomic Energy, commonly
The two key operational institutes are: the all-Russian Scientific Institute
of Experimental Physics, at Arzamas-16, located in Nizhegorodskaya oblast
between Moscow and Chelyabinsk; and the All-Russian Scientific Research
Institute of Technical Physics, at Chelyabinsk. They supported the production
of nuclear warheads at least four sites located at Arzamas, Zlatoust-36,
Penza-19, and Sverdlovsk-45, each of which were 'closed cities', secret
sites whose existence was not widely known, and access to which was
strictly controlled. The independent Washington DC-based Natural Resources
Defense Council (NRDC) has estimated that the total warhead production
capacity of these plants was around 7,000 a year.
In total there were ten closed cities involved in the nuclear research
and production programme. Aside from the four listed above, Chelyabinsk-65
and -70, Krasnoyarsk-26 and-45, plus Tomsk-7 and Sverdlovsk-44 were
central to the nuclear programmes, military and civil, since their construction
between 44 and 54 years ago. Regarding plutonium specifically, the key
plants are Chelyabinsk-65, Krasnoyarsk-26 and Tomsk-7 all of which have
roles in plutonium production and reprocessing.
According to Alexander Bolsunovsky2, based on different estimates: "Russia
possesses now no less than 30,000 nuclear warheads. Russian-American
agreements stipulate that each signatory should have not more than 5,000
nuclear warheads by the year 2000. Therefore the major part of the warheads
is to be dismantled. This is already being done at the same plants,
which once produced these warheads. For a long time location of these
plants was kept secret in Russia but recently it became known that nuclear
warheads are produced in cities Ekaterinburg-45, Penza-19 and Zlatoust-36.
After dismantling of warheads, fuel pellets 'yields' are extracted (highly
enriched uranium-235, which may be produced in Ekaterinburg-44, Krasnoyarsk-45,
Angarsk and Tomsk-7".
According to Mr. Mikhailov, former head of Minatom, the total stock
of highly enriched uranium was of about 1,200 tonnes of which 500 tonnes
are in the process of being sold to the U.S.
Weapon grade plutonium was earlier produced in Chelyabinsk-40 and is
still generated in Krasnoyarsk-26 and Tomsk-7 reactors. The spent fuel
continues to be reprocessed because the aluminum cladding poses significant
long term storage problems. Weapon plutonium shall be stored at Krasnoyarsk
as dioxide. "Inadequate investments" states Bolsunovsky, "and absence
of the project of a storage facility detain the construction. Today's
conditions of weapon plutonium storage pose a serious risk."
Unlike the United States, initially Minatom was not interested in construction
of a long term plutonium store, and dismantled weapon plutonium will
be kept in temporary storage in the form that allows its fast use as
fuel. Temporary stores of weapon plutonium are situated at the sites
where in future there are planned to be - or are already being constructed
- plants for MOX production. An analogous plant called "Complex-300"
or "Shop-300", with an annual capacity of roughly 100 tonnes of MOX
or 5 to 6 tonnes of plutonium throughput, is under construction at the
industrial association 'Mayak' in Chelyabinsk-40. Building started in
1984 but was interrupted several times for lack of resources. Another
plant for MOX fuel production with an annual through put of 100 to 300
tonnes of MOX had been planned at the Mining Chemical Combine in Krasnoyarsk-26.
Stores of fissionable materials, plants for production of MOX fuel and
plants for fast reactor fuel reprocessing pre-suppose nuclear plants
which will use MOX fuel.
They could include the South Urals' fast breeder reactor BN-600 or the
BN-800 which is under construction in Chelyabinsk-40 since 1985 (with
uncertain chances of being completed). More recently, in particular
VVER-1000 have been mentioned for MOX use: Kalinin-1 and -2, Balakov-1
to -4 currently in operation and Rostov-1 and -2 currently under construction.
However, none of the VVER-1000 reactors have ever operated with MOX
fuel and they do not have an appropriate license for such use. Weapon-derived
plutonium is not going to be used as MOX fuel for some considerable
time. Storage of dozens tonnes of weapons plutonium, of 30 tonnes or
more of reactor plutonium for at least 15-20 years under conditions
which allow their re-use, poses a real challenge to the international
non-proliferation regime. The use of MOX fuel, as shown by various studies
- and in particular by the International MOX Assessment (IMA)3 - reduces
the safety margin in a nuclear plant. A development which should be
very carefully analysed before making any firm decisions on MOX fuel
use in reactors already having caused significant concern over their
safety in the past.
1/ V.G. Vorobyiv, A.M. Dmitriyev, A.S. Dyakov, L. Popova, Yu. I. Yershov,
D.P. Osanov "Plutonium In Russia: Ecology, Economics, Policy", published
as a special edition of Arms Control & Proliferation Issues (JPRS report-TAC-95-005-L,
February 1995) In this report Plutonium Investigation has used the original
reference names of the nuclear plants and sites. Many have been renamed
since the Russian Federation was re-established as an independent state
following the break-up of the former Soviet Union. The new names are
listed alongside the former names in the box on installations on page
2/ Institute of Biophysics, Krasnoyarsk Yadernyi Kontrol
in "Nuclear Control" of 24 December 1996 in a study on 'Ways to Use
Nuclear Materials after Warheads are Dismantled'.
3/ J. Takagi et al., "Comprehensive Social Impact Assessment
of MOX Use in Light Water Reactors" (IMA), CNIC, Tokyo, November 1997