Photo Gallery: The Risky Destruction of Nuclear Weapons


From Plutonium to Power Russia To Produce Electricity with Former Nukes

Russia is planning to destroy plutonium used in thousands of soon to be decommissioned nuclear warheads by using it as fuel in a special new atomic power plant. The reactor is set to begin operating in one year, but time pressures and a vulnerable cooling system make the project a risky one.
Von Kerstin Brandt

A billboard with a picture of smiling children heralds the arrival of a new nuclear age. "Zarechny -- Our Nuclear City" is the sign that greets drivers entering this town 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of the Russian city of Yekaterinburg along a country road through a wooded landscape.

Flowerbeds line the streets of Zarechny. There is a fresh wreath laid at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the town square draws children with its moon bounces and carousels. The only major street in this city of 30,000 forms a straight line leading to the premises of Beloyarsk, the nuclear power plant that has been providing crisis-proof jobs for local residents for over half a century.

Russia is proud of Beloyarsk. The plant's third unit is a "fast reactor," a reactor type that's similar to the infamous "fast breeder reactor." Following various spectacular breakdowns, nearly every country on Earth considers this technology barely controllable. Yet this small 600-megawatt reactor in the woods of the Urals has been generating power for 32 years, and has done so largely without event. It's currently the only commercial fast reactor online at full capacity anywhere in the world.

Now a fourth unit is being built in Beloyarsk, also a fast reactor. It's a facility with global political significance: Beloyarsk 4 is being built in the service of global peace. On July 13, 2011, a treaty between Russia and the United States came into effect, one that US President Barack Obama praised as a step toward making the world "safer and more secure." Under the Plutonium Management and Disposition Treaty, the two nuclear superpowers resolved to destroy 68 metric tons of plutonium, enough to fill 17,000 nuclear warheads. Obama declared that the plutonium could be used to generate power for people in both countires.

Russia's plan for disposing of its share of the plutonium involves a fast reactor, a variation on the fast breeder reactor design but without a breeding blanket. That alteration gives the power station the capability to destroy plutonium.

Operating this sort of fast reactor with weapons-grade plutonium, though, is a risk no one have has ever taken yet, but this is the plan stipulated in the Russian-American treaty, also known as the 123 Agreement.

'This Is Going to Lead to Problems'

The Obama administration, on the other hand, prefers to fulfill its side of the disarmament treaty with a more time-tested method: The US share of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium will be used in traditional nuclear power plants. At the same time, though, the US will contribute at least $300 million (€240 million) to the construction of the new disarmament reactor at Beloyarsk.

"This is going to lead to problems!" says Yevgeny (name changed), who is involved in the construction of the new Beloyarsk reactor. "You shouldn't build a nuclear reactor under time pressure, and certainly not such a complicated one!"

"A fast reactor is not your standard power plant," he continues indignantly. "All it takes is one sloppily welded seam, and that's that!" The reactor will be cooled not with water, but with liquid sodium, a liquid metal that ignites the moment it comes into contact with the air.

What makes the new reactor a particularly delicate case, though, is its fuel.

Of all the bequests of the atomic age, the heavy metal that takes its name from Pluto, god of the underworld, is considered the most dangerous. A nuclear chain reaction initiated with six kilograms (13 pounds) of the material over Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945, immediately killed 80,000 people. Breathing in just a few milligrams of plutonium dust is fatal to humans.

Vast amounts of this element, which almost never occurs naturally, now exist on Earth. Well more than 1,000 tons of the plutonium, which is one component of spent fuel from nuclear reactors, now sits in spent fuel pools and interim storage facilities, awaiting an indeterminate fate.

Then there are a further estimated 250 tons of weapons-grade plutonium, which consists of the fissile isotope Pu-239 at its highest possible concentration. This is a material produced for a single, military purpose: to trigger the most devastating detonations possible, as reliably as possible.

But what meant power during the arms race has since become a curse. Plutonium is enormously expensive to secure -- and completely useless for civilian purposes.

For many years, permanent storage facilities for nuclear waste were the solution of choice among experts in the field. Melted down in a glass matrix and mixed with other highly radioactive nuclear waste, plutonium could be made to disappear deep into the Earth, protected from the elements and from the reach of untrustworthy militaries.

These days, though, that method is essentially off the table, because tough disarmament negotiations reach their goals more quickly when the end result is profit rather than unpredictable storage facility costs. The world's military superpowers have done this once before: In 1993, as part of the "Megatons to Megawatts" nonproliferation program, the US pledged to buy 500 tons of weapons-grade uranium from Russia. Diluted down to a level suitable for use in a nuclear plant, fuel obtained from Soviet nuclear bombs currently generates one tenth of the United States' electricity.

Persistent Doubts

The idea now is to repeat that recipe for success. But plutonium is not uranium. It's more toxic and more radioactive, and it's not easy to dilute.

Yevgeny doesn't speak English, so he doesn't understand the disarmament slogan "Global Zero." Until recently, he was convinced that Russia, alone among world's countries, had mastered fast reactor technology. He himself worked at Beloyarsk's fast reactor for many years, after all. But since the plant's managers assigned him to the construction of the successor model BN-800, Yevgeny has grown doubtful.

The reactor's scheduled operational launch, originally planned for 2014, has now been pushed forward, putting massive pressure on the construction project. "What a farce!" Yevgeny exclaims. "And I don't even understand why. There's no reason for such a hurry!"

These days, Yevgeny finds himself plagued by thoughts he never had before. He worries about the welding seams, the pipes, the valves on the cooling systems, all of which need to be strong enough to withstand the fission energy of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium. Yevgeny finds himself wondering why fast reactors are celebrated in Russia as the technology of the future, when they're considered a failure in the West. And he feels as if he's being sent out to face an opponent with the destructive force of 8,500 nuclear bombs, armed with nothing more than hydraulic pumps, pressure gauges and Geiger counters.

"Construction and assembly of the BN-800 are proceeding at great speed, and thus we expect to be able to launch operations as soon as October or November 2013," Sergei Kiriyenko, general director of the state-run nuclear holding corporation Rosatom, announced late last year. A speedy start to operations at BN-800 would ensure Russia a technological head start, which would in turn translate to considerable advantages on the global market. China has expressed interested in a fast reactor made in Russia, and is in negotiations with Rosatom to outfit two of its nuclear power plant units with reactors of the BN-800 type.

And Russia, where protesting locals and temperamental private investors rarely get in the way of the state implementing its will, is an easier place than most to try out risky technology.

'We're Not Afraid Here'

"Of course we think about Chernobyl and Fukushima," says one mother, as she helps her son climb the jungle gym at a local playground. "But we're not afraid here. Our nuclear plant brings our city a great deal of money." Asked if she's heard that weapons-grade plutonium will soon be used as nuclear fuel here, she says, "Well, yes, but I don't understand technology at all."

A retired man enjoying the evening sunlight on a nearby park bench, on the other hand, was active in the field himself. "I love our nuclear plant," he says. "I always enjoyed working there." During his career, he explains, he was responsible for repairs to the liquid sodium cooling system.

Sodium, a highly reactive liquid metal that corrodes pipes and ignites if it leaks and comes into contact with the air, has proved problematic in many fast breeder reactor projects around the world. The retiree, however, just shrugs his shoulders and says he doesn't understand why reactors elsewhere are immediately shut down just because of a sodium fire in one part of the facility. "People there seem to be a bit overanxious," he says. "We Russians take such things more lightly." He doesn't deny that Beloyarsk has had its own sodium fires -- he was even present for one of them. "It turns out the fire goes out on its own," he explains. "There's nothing terrible about it."

State-run Rosatom doesn't give foreign journalists the permit necessary for an official visit to the plant, but Yevgeny knows another route, through a neighborhood of dachas, or Russian summer homes. Signs along the side of the road declare, "Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Station -- the Pursuit of Perfection."

An industrial building, angular and unadorned, comes into view through the windshield. The dome that would normally hold the containment facility at many other nuclear plants is lacking here.

'Many Things Are Being Assembled in a Makeshift Way'

This unit is where he spent many good years of his career, Yevgeny says, but he explains that there's a key difference between this unit and its successor, the BN-800 currently being built: This fast reactor, where the plant's workforce gained all its operational experience, uses standard uranium, not plutonium.

Up to 20 percent of the hazardous bomb material is added to mixed oxide, or MOX, fuel. The Beloyarsk workforce has no regular routine for dealing with such concentrations of plutonium, many times higher than in the usual type of MOX fuel -- which is what is used, for example, in Germany.

"All of a sudden they're saying the MOX fuel is going to start arriving in November! And delivery of the sodium coolant will start this year as well!" Yevgeny bursts out. "How are we supposed to manage that? Neither the storage facility nor the three cooling system circuits will be done by then."

Without being asked, he begins to tell stories of defective components, cheap equipment and a schedule that is far too tight. "Purely because of the time shortage, many things are being assembled in a makeshift way," he says. "Launching operations at a nuclear reactor that's been built that way is enough to teach you the true meaning of fear."

The road leads directly past the construction site. The work day is over, and the site looks abandoned beneath its dense network of power lines. A concrete block the size of a military barracks juts up against the evening sky, and there are building cranes everywhere. The reactor itself can't be seen from the road -- its central component, the pressure vessel, is located somewhere deep underground, beneath the reactor building.

Inexperienced Workers

If Rosatom director Kiriyenko has his way, the BN-800 will be fired up in just a few months, and American and Russian politicians will announce once again that the world has been made safer from terrorists and nuclear bombs. Meanwhile, the temperature in the underground reactor pressure vessel in Zarechny will rise to around 550 degrees Celsius (1020 degrees Fahrenheit).

From that point on, the reactor will begin splitting the fast neutrons of plutonium nuclei. And from then on, every welded seam must be secure, and complex safety systems must keep the nuclear reactor's spent fuel under control. It will be the responsibility of Yevgeny and his colleagues to make sure that an unfortunate accident doesn't lead to precisely the situation the new treaty is meant to prevent: weapons-grade plutonium slipping out of control near a residential area.

Yevgeny's mobile phone rings -- dinner is ready and they're waiting for him at home. He turns his Toyota around and steps the gas. He then explains that colleagues and superiors of many years have been leaving the BN-800 project in recent weeks. Their vacated positions, he says, are being given to new employees just starting their careers.

"People who have no experience with the difficulties sodium coolant can cause now head our departments," Yevgeny complains. His gaze comes to rest in the rearview mirror, where he watches the concrete hull of the new BN-800 disarmament reactor recede into the distance. "And you know what? I'm going to leave, too. Or, no, I'm going to run."

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