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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

IAEA Backs Controversial Neutron Reactor Plan

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said after meeting Friday with President Vladimir Putin that he supports Russia’s controversial plan to develop a new generation of fast neutron reactors that could run on spent nuclear fuel, including plutonium.

The plan is opposed by Russian ecologists, who say they doubt such a reactor is feasible and if developed, could possibly have devastating consequences for the environment. They also question the government’s motives in pushing for the development of such a reactor.

The Nuclear Power Ministry is among those who believe these reactors could simultaneously solve the worldwide problem of disposing of spent nuclear fuel and prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Plutonium is a by-product of all known nuclear reactors and is only used now in building nuclear weapons.

At the UN Millennium Summit in September, Putin spoke in support of programs for developing these fast neutron reactors, calling the reactors "technically quite feasible."

IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei described his talks with Putin as "constructive" and said the international agency is also interested in the development of such reactors. The IAEA plans to invest about $2 million in theoretical research during the next three to five years, El-Baradei said at a news conference, announcing that the first session of the international expert group in charge of this will be held later this month in Vienna, Austria.

Environmentalists criticized the plans to develop the reactors.

"So far nobody has managed to construct even a prototype of a reactor that would use plutonium as fuel," Greenpeace nuclear projects expert Ivan Farafonov said Friday in an interview. "These things exist only on paper."

The only operating BN-600 fast neutron reactor in Russia is in the Beloyarskaya nuclear power plant in the Sverdlovsk region, but it does not use plutonium as fuel, Farafonov said.

Valery Melnikov, a plutonium specialist with Zelyony Mir ecological organization in the Leningrad region, said using plutonium fuel would not be safe.

"If it ever becomes technically possible, we would be able to use only a small part of it, and at the same time we would get enormous quantities of plutonium in the air, water and earth," Melnikov said.

Sergei Kharitonov, also of Zelyony Mir, said the government is using the talk of developing a new fast neutron reactor to lobby for a new law that would allow Russia to make money by importing spent nuclear fuel. Russia now brings in spent fuel for processing, but must send the highly radioactive waste product back to the country of origin for storage.

If State Duma deputies are convinced that the still nonexisting nuclear reactors could work on spent fuel, they might be more likely to change the law, Kharitonov said.

Environmental activists last month submitted 2.5 million signatures to the Central Elections Commission calling for a referendum on allowing imports of nuclear waste. The signatures are still being verified; 2 million are required for a national referendum to be called.