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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Firms Help Close Reactors

The Nuclear Power Ministry said Wednesday it will begin shutting down three plutonium-producing reactors that are considered among the most dangerous in the world as part of a $466 million nuclear nonproliferation deal with the United States.

The U.S. Energy Department announced the agreement under which two U.S. firms will help Russia build two coal-burning power plants in exchange for a pledge to close the reactors.

The U.S. companies -- Washington Group International and Raytheon Technical Services -- will oversee construction of two coal-burning power plants in the Siberian cities of Seversk and Zheleznogorsk, where the reactors are located. Most of the actual work is expected to be done by Russian companies and workers.

The government will foot the bill for the reactor shutdown and Rosatomstroi, a domestic contractor, will manage the construction of the new coal plants.

Washington Group International, based in Boise, Idaho, will oversee work at the Seversk site, where an old coal-fired plant will be refurbished and expanded by 2008.

Raytheon, headquartered outside Washington, will oversee construction of a new plant at the Zheleznogorsk site with a completion date of 2011.

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham called it a major step in the U.S.-Russia nuclear nonproliferation effort, although it will be five to eight years before the reactors will shut down and stop making plutonium.

While Russia has agreed to halt plutonium production and dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium that is already stockpiled, it has refused to shut down the three reactors until a way is found to replace the electricity and industrial heat the reactors produce for nearby towns and cities.

The two reactors in Seversk, in the Tomsk region, and one in Zheleznogorsk, in the Krasnoyarsk region, are among the most dangerous because of their design, which is similar to the Chernobyl reactor involved in the 1986 nuclear disaster in Ukraine. Unlike U.S. reactors, they do not have concrete containment domes to hold in radiation in case of an accident or major leak.

The reactor shutdown is part of a 1997 bilateral agreement to end weapons-grade plutonium production starting from 2000. Under that accord, Russia shut eight of its 11 plutonium-producing reactors. Three reactors have not been closed due to lack of financing, a source from the ministry said.

"They're the most dangerous reactors they've got. ... When you have three reactors producing enough plutonium for three bombs a week, you want to [deal with them] as fast as you can, '' said Kenneth Baker, the top U.S. Energy Department official involved in nuclear nonproliferation issues.'

Abraham and Nuclear Power Minister Alexander Rumyantsev agreed in March to replace the reactors with fossil fuel plants. As part of the agreement, the U.S. government would arrange for the replacement power.

(AP, MT)