Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Toys With a New Reactor Fuel

For MTScientists in the Kurchatov Institute peering into a reactor where a small sample of thorium-plutonium fuel is being tested.
After nine years of secret research, the Nuclear Power Ministry has admitted for the first time that it is working with the United States on an experimental program to turn bomb-grade plutonium into fuel for existing nuclear power plants.

The idea is to help eradicate the vast stockpiles of plutonium from thousands of decommissioned nuclear warheads by mixing the extremely toxic material with thorium, a less-dangerous and naturally occurring metal commonly found near uranium deposits.

The Nazis experimented with thorium as a potential weapon of mass destruction before the war, and invading Soviets confiscated tons of the stuff as war booty and brought it back home.

Although the Nazis never achieved a chain reaction with thorium, Russian and American scientists eventually did. And now Russian specialists, with American money, are working on peaceful applications of the radioactive element -- one of which is using plutonium to trigger an energy-producing chain reaction out of it.

The result, they say, will not only be a cheap source of electricity for millions of homes and enterprises, but also the degradation of weapons-grade plutonium to the point that it will be unsuitable for making nuclear weapons.

Unlike uranium, the supplies of which are dwindling, thorium is abundant and can be easily mined in numerous areas, including the Tomsk region, the United States, India and China.

"The possibility of using thorium fuel in existing reactors is very significant because it means we will not have to change the reactors," said Valery Rachkov, who runs the Russian side of the project as deputy head of the Nuclear Power Ministry's scientific research department. "It is also very important that it serve nonproliferation purposes," Rachkov said in a recent interview.

So far, funding for the project has come solely from the American side and has been relatively paltry -- $2 million from the U.S. government and $3 million from Thorium Power, a private Washington-based company founded in 1992 to capitalize on the scientific work of Alvin Radkowsky, a former student of hydrogen bomb "father" Edward Teller and the chief scientist of the U.S. Naval Reactors program from 1950 to 1972.

Despite the relatively small budget, Thorium Power president Seth Grae and influential members of the U.S. Congress are optimistic that the project will eventually lead to the neutralization of tons of the deadly substance -- just 8 kilograms of which could be used to flatten Moscow or New York.

"Our fuel is really designed to be a way of disposing of the plutonium, to eliminate it while also making energy," Grae said in an interview during a trip to Moscow earlier this month. While in town, Grae met with some of the more than 300 researchers from seven institutions -- including Moscow's famous Kurchatov Institute -- now working on the project, which is being coordinated by the Nuclear Power Ministry and monitored by the State Nuclear Inspection Agency.

There is already an international mechanism for plutonium disposal similar to the 20-year program for uranium signed in 1994 called "Megatons to Megawatts," through which Russia has already diluted and sold -- for some $3.5 billion -- uranium from 7,000 of a planned 20,000 nuclear weapons to the main supplier to U.S. nuclear power stations.

In 2000, Russia and the United States each agreed to eliminate 34 tons of plutonium by burning it as so-called MOX fuel, a mix of oxidized uranium and oxidized plutonium. To do that, however, Russia would have to build a special facility at a cost of some $2 billion, or roughly half the amount required for the entire project. The money was supposed to come from the international community, but to date few countries have appropriated any cash.

Grae says his version will be faster, cheaper and safer than the MOX alternative, as does a formidable backer of the project in Congress -- Representative Curt Weldon, a Russian specialist on the House Armed Services Committee who has traveled widely here.

"I have strongly supported additional funding to test the thorium process at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow," Weldon said by e-mail from Washington. "The thorium process provides the double benefit of reducing weapons-usable fissile material and producing advanced, proliferation-resistant nuclear reactor and fuel cycle technologies. As such, it is in the best interests of the United States to provide funding to advance this technology."

While nuclear experts involved in the MOX program refuse to speculate when or even if the project will get off the ground, Grae says that with just $200 million in funding the thorium-plutonium fuel could be ready for commercial use within three years.

Of Russia's 30 nuclear reactors, eight -- four in the Saratov region, two in the Tver region and one each in Volgodonsk and Novovoronezh -- are of the type (VVER-1000) that can be easily adapted to run on thorium-plutonium fuel. Two more plants with the modern VVER-1000 reactors are currently being built, and another is planned.

The Russian scientists working on the project say that each of these reactors will be able to burn about 700 kilograms of plutonium a year -- just a fraction of the plutonium Russia has stockpiled in underground facilities belonging to nuclear power plants, which are already filled to the brim. In fact, even if funding is found eventually for both the MOX facility and the thorium project, it would take decades to dispose of it all.

In his recently published book "Nuclear Danger," independent nuclear expert Vladimir Kuznetsov estimates that Russia is already sitting on 150 tons of weapons-grade plutonium, and with up to 18,000 warheads set to be dismantled over the next few years, dozens of tons more will have to be dealt with.

This year the team of scientists working on the project expect to produce a working model of the process and test fuel samples. "It is a huge volume of work, but we believe that if the funding opens, we will be able to prepare it," one researcher said.

Weldon, the congressman, has been lobbying hard for the U.S. government to allocate $3.5 million this year to expedite the project.

However, the U.S. Department of Energy said earlier this month that no budget funding had been allocated specifically for the project this year. Nonetheless, Weldon said he was confident the cash would be found despite the budget squeeze after the war in Iraq.

"Expenses incurred by the U.S. during the war in Iraq should not hinder the allocation of the funds," Weldon said. In fact, he said, while the war in Iraq will require significant resources, "it has taught the world a valuable lesson about the dangers that proliferation of weapons technology presents. My intention is to convince my colleagues in Congress that the thorium process can play a vital role in preventing nuclear weapons materials from falling into the wrong hands and its development should receive the funds necessary to continue its progress."

The project is facing opposition on two fronts. One is the increasingly powerful global environmental groups that are against nuclear energy of any kind, and the second has to do with Iran.

Tom Cochran, director of the nuclear arm of the nonprofit environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, said the whole issue of funding for the project is tied to building nuclear reactors in Iran.

"The U.S. spends close to $1 billion per year on cooperative threat reduction efforts," he said. "Spread over several years, the [thorium] program is fundable. But the greater threat to U.S. funding of programs like this is not the war in Iraq, but Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran."

Proponents of the program like Weldon, however, say the opportunity for the United States is too good to pass up -- if the project works in Russia, it could work in the United States, too.

"If such systems were attainable, American nuclear facilities would be remiss if they did not consider such a system," Weldon said.

Indeed, the fuel could eventually be used all over the world.

Of the 441 nuclear reactors that existed in the world at the beginning of this year, 260 can burn thorium-plutonium fuel, according to the London-based World Nuclear Association.

Environmental organizations and nuclear safety experts say the whole idea is wrong and dangerous and that burning thorium is no better than burning uranium, since both produce substances that could be used by terrorists to make small nuclear devices.

Specifically, irradiating thorium in a reactor produces uranium-233, a fissile material that can be weaponized.

"Look, uranium-233 is a wish for any terrorist," said Kuznetsov, who formerly worked for the State Nuclear Inspection Agency. "Only four kilograms of it could make an operational nuclear device that could be easily hidden in a backpack or suitcase. This is the biggest reason to refuse to deal with thorium fuel altogether."

Grae dismissed these concerns, saying the process developed by Radkowsky, Thorium Power's former chief designer, essentially eliminates uranium-233 as a byproduct.

"In our design, almost all of the uranium-233 that is produced is burned instantaneously in the core as it is produced, generating some of the reactor's power," he said.

Experts familiar with Radkowsky's work backed Grae's claim. Richard Garwin, a physicist who helped build the U.S. hydrogen bomb and the author of several books on nuclear proliferation and security issues, said in an e-mail interview from New York that under certain circumstances it is indeed possible to completely eliminate uranium-233 when burning thorium fuel.

"If the thorium fuel is mixed with some natural or depleted uranium, then the U-233 cannot be separated chemically from U-238. It is true that most of the U-233 is burned up during the long residence time -- which is typically nine years, as I understand it," Garwin said.

A Russian nuclear physicist working on the thorium project said the new fuel assemblies that will go into existing reactors to handle the thorium are designed to work for exactly nine years.

Rachkov, the Nuclear Power Ministry's pointman for the thorium venture, said that although Russia is in no rush to introduce the new fuel, the project will continue with or without U.S. funding.

"When the first assemblies prove good, we will start calculations, and we will be able to say clearly what thorium's prospects are as a fuel," he said.

"But nothing will be completely clear until real fuel is used in real reactors, which will take two to three years."

And if U.S. funding dries up, "we will finish what we have started, but we will not start anything new," Rachkov said.