2 Plutonium Reactors Will Close Early

WASHINGTON -- Two of Russia's plutonium-producing reactors may be closed six months ahead of schedule, a major milestone in U.S. nuclear nonproliferation efforts, a senior Energy Department official said.

The official said Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko told Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman during a 40-minute meeting Friday that shutting down the two reactors in the west Siberian town of Seversk within months was a realistic plan.

Bodman also was given assurances that a program to upgrade security at many of Russia's nuclear sites would be completed on schedule by the end of the year, and the Russians would act to ensure security improvements will be maintained into the future, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the exchange had not yet been announced.

The United States and Russia have been working for years on arrangements to close Russia's three plutonium-producing reactors, the two at Seversk and a third in the city of Zheleznogorsk that is scheduled to be shuttered at the end of next year.

While Russia has agreed to dispose of 34 tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium, it has continued to produce about 1.2 tons per year of new plutonium in the three reactors, raising additional proliferation risks.

The reactors provide electricity and heat to the nearby towns, and Russia has refused to shut them down until two fossil fuel plants are built.

The United States has committed $926 million to help build the fossil plants, with the one at Seversk almost completed.

Kiriyenko told that Bodman the two Seversk reactors already have been operating at half power, cutting by 50 percent the amount of plutonium that is being produced, the U.S. official said.

Shutting the reactors has been a major U.S. nonproliferation goal. It has been an "up and down" struggle over the years to get the Russians to scrap the reactors, said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear nonproliferation expert at Harvard's Project on Managing the Atom, who has monitored closely Russia's post-Cold War handling of nuclear weapons material.

Aside from the plutonium issue, Bunn said, "The three reactors are among the most unsafe reactors, possibly the most unsafe reactors, in the world."

He said the reactors were used by Russia to develop the design of the Chernobyl reactor, site of the nuclear industry's worst-ever accident.

On a broader issue, Bodman and Kiriyenko discussed progress in completing security upgrades -- improved fencing, alarm systems and guard houses -- for weapons materiel at hundreds of buildings and bunkers at sites across Russia.

Kiriyenko "gave Bodman his promise that he would do what's necessary" to complete the upgrades by the target date of the end of this year, the U.S. official said.

Bodman told Kiriyenko that the United States viewed these safeguards as a key area of U.S.-Russian cooperation and "essential to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists."

So far upgrades are completed at 85 percent of the sites covered by the U.S.-Russia security improvement program with the work at the remaining sites expected to be finished by year's end, according to the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the program.

At the meeting, Kiriyenko agreed with Bodman that action needed to be taken to ensure the security enhancements would be maintained, the U.S. official said.