New reactor to turn plutonium swords into plowshares Americans, Russians to team up on making electricity from bomb fuel

April 06, 1993|By New York Times News Service

Seeking a new path to East-West disarmament, Russian and American experts have agreed to team up to develop and build a new type of reactor that can burn plutonium from nuclear warheads and turn the deadly bomb fuel into electricity. The $1.5 billion nuclear reactor would be built in Russia and fueled at least partly by plutonium from Moscow's huge stockpile of scrapped nuclear arms.

The initiative, led by General Atomics of San Diego, requires up to $100 million over five years from the American government, which is studying the general idea of burning plutonium and, separately, whether to support the East-West reactor plan. The small reactor would be cooled by helium and is advertised as immune to meltdown.

Until the plan was unveiled yesterday, excess plutonium from Russian nuclear disarmament was largely slated to be stored, leading some specialists to fear it could fall into unfriendly hands. The reactor plan is seen as offering an alternative path of disposal.

An agreement between General Atomics and the Russian Ministry for Atomic Energy to form a reactor-building venture was signed in Moscow last Thursday and made public by General Atomics yesterday. Top Russian officials are said to have pushed hard to have the issue discussed this past weekend at the Vancouver summit.

It is not known whether the topic was aired, although President Clinton made clear he favors expanded technical cooperation.

"This reactor offers a very attractive opportunity to destroy weapon-grade plutonium and simultaneously to produce electricity," said Neil Blue, chairman of General Atomics.

"The joint venture will provide stabilizing employment of Russian scientists and engineers previously engaged in making nuclear weapons and will contribute to the conversion of Russia's nuclear-weapons industry into a force for peaceful economic reconstruction," Mr. Blue said.

In contrast, Paul Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute,

a private group in Washington, said he was strongly opposed to any form of plutonium burning.

"We see this as a major diversion in trying to get plutonium out of commerce," he said. "It's better to turn it into glass and bury it," a reference to the process used for disposal.

The initiative parallels joint plans already under way to burn Russia's vast surplus of uranium, another fuel of nuclear warheads.

Last year, the Bush administration announced a deal with Russia to buy much of its highly enriched uranium from nuclear arms so it could be diluted into fuel for civilian power plants. That agreement is snarled in red tape.

General Atomics is a pioneer in the nuclear industry with a strong track record of working successfully with the Russians. Last year, it became the conduit by which the federal government began to tap Russia's scientific talent, hiring more than a hundred Russian scientists to help America harness the vast energy of nuclear fusion.

Now General Atomics says it has a design for a modular, high-temperature, gas-cooled, fission reactor that could burn weapons-grade plutonium, destroying up to 95 percent of the fuel and leaving the residue mired in a radioactive brew highly unattractive for turning back into bomb fuel. Unlike uranium, weapons-grade plutonium cannot be easily diluted into reactor fuel. But it can be burned directly in its concentrated form.

The new reactor is seen as highly efficient, turning about 50 percent of its generated heat into electricity. Most commercial nuclear power plants have an efficiency of about 33 percent. The reactor's super-heated helium would directly turn a turbine to produce electricity, rather than heating an intermediary such as water to do that work.

The reactor should take 10 years to design and build. Its designers say the machine is intrinsically safe because its physical characteristics make it immune to meltdown, the most feared reactor accident.

The key safety feature is that plutonium fuel, while not chemically dilutable, is broken into billions of tiny bits, each of which is the size of a grain of salt and is covered with a tough ceramic shell that can withstand unusually high temperatures. The grains are repackaged in a way that allows them to serve as a fuel element.

The new reactor is seen as the first of a new generation of small reactors that could be built not only in Russia but around the world.

Reactors that can burn weapons-grade plutonium are under study by the Federal Department of Energy, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the National Academy of Sciences, a private group that advises the government.

Dr. Thomas B. Cochrane, a nuclear specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private group in Washington, said it was unlikely the Clinton administration would move rapidly to back the reactor plan since the general idea of burning weapons-grade plutonium is under study.

He added that the idea had merit, but only if burning plutonium from nuclear weapons could be done without spurring the growth of a commercial market in the deadly material.

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