Russia - Plutonium Investigation n°12/13

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 called Minatom.

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 8

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

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