Russia To End Weapons-Grade Plutonium Production

By R. Raghavendra | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Vienna, Austria ( - In a landmark achievement, the United States and Russia on Wednesday inked an agreement to close down the last three Russian nuclear reactors that are capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.

The reactors will be decommissioned in the next eight years, effectively ending Russia's known capability to produce weapons-grade plutonium. Currently used for producing electricity, the reactors will be replaced with two new fossil-fuel power plants for which the United States will spend some $500 million.

The three Siberia-based reactors provide electricity and heating to Seversk and Zheleznogorsk, once secret and closed locations of the Soviet military set-up. Under the new agreement, the Seversk shutdown is to take place by 2008, and the shutdown at Zheleznogorsk by 2011.

The United States has described the agreement as another important step in US-Russian cooperation. It was signed in Vienna on the sidelines of a conference on radioactive material and dirty bombs.

"This will bring us to the end of production of weapons grade plutonium in Russia," said U.S. Energy Minister Spencer Abraham after signing the agreement with Russian Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev.

Rumyantsev said that the deal demonstrated to the world that Russia and America were friends and partners.

A deal was signed between the United States and the Russian government in 1997 for the decommissioning of such reactors in Russia. Under the deal, Russia closed down 10 plutonium processing facilities, but continued to operate three, as it would have been prohibitively expensive for the Russians to store spent fuel.

The delay was also caused by objections about the U.S. funding of programs to help Russia shut down nuclear reactors and by concerns about the future of thousands of people employed at nuclear sites.

The plants continue to process some 3,300 pounds of plutonium every year, making Russia capable of producing a nuclear weapon a day.

People employed at the plants will be provided jobs under the U.S.-financed Nuclear Cities program, which aims boost employment for Russians in the Soviet Union's formerly closed cities.

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