Consolidation of Fissile Materials in the Russian Nuclear Complex

Podvig, Pavel
Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA

Proceedings of the 49th Annual Meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, Nashville, TN, July 13-17, 2008


Russia is the country that has the largest amount of weapon-usable fissile materials in its disposal, most of which has been produced during the cold war. In the years following the end of the cold war Russia has undertaken significant effort to downsize its nuclear complex, leading to its serious transformation. This transformation, however, left the basic structure of the nuclear industry, most of the production facilities and most of the fissile material intact. Substantial amounts of weapon-usable fissile materials are still in storage, moved from one facility to another, or used for research and other purposes, creating security risks. Although the dangers associated with continuing presence of weapon material are generally acknowledged, the task of reducing this danger, by either eliminating the material or removing it from circulation and consolidating in a small number of safe and secure storage sites, has proven difficult. This paper analyses the progress that Russia has made so far in consolidating its weapon-usable materials and describes the challenges that it is facing in further advancing this goal.

Weapon-usable materials in Russia’s nuclear complex

Providing security of weapon-usable fissile materials emerged as one of the key security challenges of the post-Cold War era. The large nuclear weapon production complex that Russia inherited from the Soviet Union produced and routinely handled tens of tonnes of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and weapon-grade plutonium. This material has been scattered across a large number of sites, complicating the task of providing adequate security. As Russia is reducing its nuclear arsenal, it has to scale back its nuclear weapon production complex. This process presents important opportunities for consolidating weapon-usable materials and reducing the risks associated with them.

Today, Russia is not producing new fissile materials for weapons. The Soviet Union stopped producing highly-enriched uranium (HEU) in 1988.[1] Some weapon-grade plutonium is still produced, but since 1994 that plutonium has been sent to storage, so it could not be used for weapon purposes.[2] Two of the last three plutonium production reactors were shut down in April and June 2008 and one is scheduled for shutdown in 2010. Given the large amounts of fissile materials that have been produced already and the dramatically reduced size of its nuclear weapons arsenal, it is extremely unlikely that Russia will ever need to resume production of fissile materials for weapons. Russia and the United States have declared some of their fissile material excess – as part of this process Russia declared that it considers “up to” 50 tonnes of weapon-grade plutonium and 500 tonnes of highly-enriched uranium as excess.[3]

The total amount of weapon-usable fissile material in the Russian inventory is known with a very large uncertainty. It is estimated that the Soviet Union produced up to 1400 tonnes of highly-enriched uranium.[4] Taking into account that almost 300 tonnes of HEU has been down-blended already as part of the U.S.-Russian HEU-LEU deal, the amount of HEU that Russia has can be estimated to be about 1100 tonnes.[5] Only part of this material is in custody of the Rosatom, which manages the Russian nuclear complex. Some of it is in weapons, and some is in naval reactor fuel.

In addition to HEU, Russia has a sizable stock of reactor-grade as well as weapon-grade plutonium. It is estimated that the total amount of weapon-grade plutonium that has been produced so far is about 145 tonnes.[6] Russia also has more than 41 tonnes of separated civilian plutonium.[7]

At the peak of the Cold War, in the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union had more than 40,000 nuclear warheads of all types.[8] By 2007 that number has been drastically reduced – Russia is estimated to have about 3300 deployed strategic warheads and about 2300 non-strategic warheads. Taking into account the warheads that are in storage or awaiting dismantlement, Russia probably has about 15,000 nuclear warheads.[9]

The amount of fissile materials currently in warheads is not known, but a simple estimate shows that a significant fraction of the weapon-usable fissile material – probably as much as 500 tonnes of HEU and 50 tonnes of weapon-grade plutonium – may still be in warheads.

The amount of material that is allocated to military naval reactors is estimated to be about 100 tonnes. However, only part of that material, the one that has been converted to reactor fuel, is transferred to the custody of the Russian Navy. The rest remains in custody of Rosatom.

Taking all these data in into account, we can estimate that the Russian nuclear industry currently has up to 600 tonnes of HEU and about 100 tonnes of weapon-grade plutonium outside of warheads. These estimates are in general agreement with the number of 600 tonnes of weapon-usable material in Russia, which is usually used in the context of a material protection, control, and accounting (MPC&A) activity.[10] The discrepancy, of course, is very large, underscoring the fact that no accurate and reliable information about Russian fissile material stock is available.

Whatever the uncertainty, the amount of material in the Russian nuclear complex is unlikely to change significantly in the next decade or even in the longer run. The additional 200 tonnes of highly-enriched uranium for down-blending will most likely come from disassembled weapons. Russia has stated that it intends to stop down-blending after the HEU-LEU contract ends in 2013.[11] As for plutonium, Russia has made a commitment to eliminate about 34 tonnes of plutonium, but that process is unlikely to begin for a number of years.[12]

Nuclear weapon production complex

The industrial complex created by the Soviet Union to support development, production, and maintenance of nuclear warheads is a large conglomerate of enterprises that were traditionally managed by a single ministry in the government. For most of its history it was known as the Ministry of Medium Machine Building (or Minsredmash). As of 2008, the complex is managed by the state corporation Rosatom. Rosatom is responsible for most aspects of nuclear-related activity, whether military or civilian. Its enterprises and subdivisions manage all aspects of nuclear cycle – from uranium mining to fuel fabrication and spent fuel reprocessing and waste disposal. Rosatom and its daughter companies and research institutes are operating all civilian power production nuclear reactors, as well as most research nuclear facilities. On the military side, Rosatom is directly responsible for production of weapon-usable fissile materials and development and production of nuclear weapons.

The core of the Rosatom nuclear complex consists of ten closed cities, all of which were involved in weapon-related activities in the past. Chelyabinsk-65 (currently known as Ozersk), Tomsk-7 (Seversk), and Krasnoyarsk-26 (Zheleznogorsk) were the main plutonium production centers. Enrichment facilities in Sverdlovsk-44 (Novouralsk), Krasnoyarsk-45 (Zelenogorsk), and Tomsk-7 were producing highly-enriched uranium. (The production complex also includes an enrichment plant in Angarsk, which has never been used to produce highly-enriched uranium.) The main chemical and metallurgical facilities for processing of the material and pit fabrication were located in Chelyabinsk-65 and Tomsk-7. These two cities most likely served as major storage sites for weapon-grade material. Substantial amounts of weapon materials were also stored and handled by the two nuclear weapon laboratories - VNIIEF in Arzamas-16 (Sarov) and VNIITF in Chelyabink-70 (Snezhinsk).

Production of nuclear weapons and their components was concentrated at the Avangard plant in Arzamas-16 and at the Electrochemical Instrument Combine in Sverdlovsk-45 (Lesnoy). These two plants appeared to have the capability to manufacture fissile material components, as well as perform weapon assembly and disassembly work. The other two assembly plants, in Penza-19 (Zarechny) and Zlatoust-36 (Trekhgorny), were assembling weapons and warheads from physics packages supplied by other production facilities. They were also involved in weapon disassembly work.

The restructuring of the Russian nuclear complex that took place after the end of the cold war and was largely completed by 2003 resulted in a number of notable changes in the flow of weapon-usable fissile materials. Production of new weapon-grade material for weapons purposes has stopped. Nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly activity has been concentrated at two sites – in Trekhgorny and Lesnoy. Uranium enrichment facilities no longer produce weapon-grade HEU. However, all of them (but Angarsk) are now involved in the HEU-LEU deal-related activities that include handling of HEU during down-blending process.

In 2007, Russian government initiated restructuring of the nuclear industry that included further consolidation of some nuclear power related activities. As part of that initiative, most of weapon-related activities have been discontinued in Seversk, Zheleznogorsk, and at the Avangard plant in Sarov/Arzamas-16.[13] At the same time, this change does not necessarily mean that all weapon-grade material has been removed from these sites.

Non-weapon facilities

In addition to the materials in the nuclear weapon development and production complex, substantial amounts of weapon-usable materials are used in applications that are not directly related to weapon production. Highly-enriched uranium is widely used in research reactors, critical and subcritical assemblies that were built in Russia as well as abroad. Some research facilities also use plutonium. HEU fuel is used in submarine and other naval reactors, as well as in the fast breeder reactors that were built in the Soviet Union. Fuel fabrication plants that produce HEU fuel routinely handle and ship out significant amounts of weapon-grade materials. Some highly-enriched uranium and plutonium is also present in research institutes that conduct research related to reactor fuel.

Although the quantity of material involved in non-weapon activities is relatively small compared to what is used in the weapon production complex, it amounts to several tonnes of weapon-usable material, primarily HEU. About 2.2. tonnes of Russian-origin HEU is estimated to be outside of Russia.[14]

This material is distributed among large number of facilities, which may not have the degree of centralized control over the material that is normally associated with weapon-related work. Consolidation of this material should therefore be a very important part of any program that aims at reducing the dangers associated with weapon-grade fissile materials.

About 20 organizations in Russia have research reactors and critical or subcritical assemblies that use HEU fuel (some of them have more than one installation of this type). In addition, more than 20 nuclear reactors and critical and subcritical assemblies built by the Soviet Union are currently located outside of Russia. By June 2008, all HEU fresh and spent fuel have been removed from five of these sites. Most other sites either have been shut down or had fresh HEU fuel removed from them. However, at least five reactors and five or six critical assemblies still have HEU on site.

In addition to research reactors and critical assemblies, Russia has an extensive fleet of military and civilian naval reactors. Most naval reactors, military or civilian, use highly-enriched uranium with enrichment levels of up to 90%, although average enrichment levels appear to be lower.[15]

Most of the fuel for nuclear reactors in Russia and abroad is manufactured by two major production facilities – the Machine-Building Plant (MSZ) in Electrostal and the Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrates Plant (NZKhK). The plant in Electrostal specializes in producing uranium oxide fuels. It manufactures fuel elements and assemblies for four types of power reactors of Soviet design – VVER-440, RBMK, EGP-6, and BN-600. It also supplies fuel to all military naval reactors and civilian transport reactors and to research reactors that use uranium oxide-based fuels. The Novosibirsk plant, is producing fuel for VVER-440 and VVER-1000 power reactors. It also produces a range of cermet (ceramic-metal) fuels that are used in research reactors. Most of these fuels contain highly-enriched uranium with enrichment of 36% and higher. The Novosibirsk plant also produces HEU fuel that is used in plutonium production reactors.

Possibilities for consolidation

Although some work has been done to downsize the complex and consolidate the materials, highly-enriched uranium and plutonium are still present at a large number of cities. In addition, substantial amounts of weapon-usable materials remain in circulation, mostly related to the HEU-LEU project and the continuing operations of nuclear-powered fleet and a number of research reactors.

Consolidation of weapon-usable materials at a smaller number of facilities would be a difficult task. The consolidation work that Rosatom has done so far was mostly done in response to the economic pressures in the 1990s and the incentives provided by the United States. Now that these factors play a far smaller role, Rosatom’s incentive to continue consolidation have changed. There is no reason to doubt that the Russian government and Rosatom are committed to the goal of reducing the risk that is associated with circulation of weapon-usable materials. This political commitment, however, should be translated into workable incentives and a set of specific actions that will help reduce the risk.

As for practical steps, Rosatom could concentrate its efforts in several areas – securing materials that are part of the weapon development and production cycle, further consolidation of the weapon production complex, cleaning out civilian research facilities, conversion of research and transport reactors to LEU fuel.

The nuclear weapon production complex continues to contain the largest amounts of weapon-grade materials, concentrated at several storage sites – at Ozersk, Seversk, Sarov, Snezhinsk, and probably Zheleznogorsk. Securing these sites should be one of the highest priority tasks. Attempts to consolidate this material at a smaller number of storage facilities should be avoided, for such consolidation would require transporting hundreds of tonnes of weapon-grade material, creating serious additional security risk. At the same time, an effort could be made to improve the storage facilities and separate them physically and organizationally from the rest of the closed cities they are located in. This would create conditions for better protection and accounting of the material.

Russia could make one more step toward consolidation of its weapon assembly facilities by moving all assembly and disassembly activities that include HEU and plutonium components to Lesnoy, leaving Trekhgorny to continue it work on non-nuclear components and instrumentation.

As long as Russia continues its weapon assembly and disassembly, some weapon materials will remain in circulation, transported from one site to another. However, Rosatom could take steps that would minimize transfers of weapon material.

A large number of shipments are associated with the activities of the HEU-LEU program. Currently, the uranium that is removed from weapons at the plant in Lesnoy is shipped in metal form to two facilities – in Ozersk and Seversk, where it is converted to uranium dioxide, which is then converted to UF6 in Seversk or Zelenogorsk. Some of the HEU hexafluoride is then sent to Novouralsk for downblending. The program could be consolidated to eliminate unnecessary transfers of weapon-grade material. One way of doing so would be to move all metal to dioxide conversion to Ozersk and fluorination and downblending to Zelenogorsk. Another possibility is to concentrate all the activity in Seversk, which has all necessary facilities.

The shutdown of plutonium production reactors in Seversk and Zheleznogorsk also will offers important opportunities for consolidation. Reprocessing facilities at both sites could be then closed down as well and weapon-grade plutonium moved into storage. After that neither site will be involved in work with weapon-usable material, which would open a way for a complete cleanout. One possible exception is storage, but as discussed above, it should be separated from all other activities. It is also assumed that Seversk ends its participation in the HEU-LEU program. Another benefit of the consolidation of the HEU-LEU program activities would be a cleanout of the Novouralsk enrichment plant. The plant is licensed to produce HEU, but it appears that Russia has no demand for HEU at this point.

Further consolidation of activities in the nuclear weapon complex may include concentrating all pilot small-scale production of weapon components in Snezhinsk. In this case, production facilities in Sarov would be closed down, although it would probably continue research and development work with weapon materials.

On the civilian side, Russia should continue the effort to clean out various small sites as well as facilities within larger sites. A substantial part of this effort should be directed at converting research and civilian transport reactors to LEU fuel.

To demonstrate its strong commitment to the conversion program, Russia could set a goal of eliminating HEU from the Novosibirsk fuel fabrication plant. Most of the demand for HEU fuel from the weapon complex will stop in 2010, after a shutdown of the last plutonium production reactor. The tritium production reactors, which use HEU fuel produced in Novosibirsk, could probably use LEU fuel. As for research reactors, the Novosibirsk plant is already producing LEU fuel for the most popular types of reactors and could most likely develop LEU fuel for other reactors as well.

The MSZ fuel fabrication plant in Electrostal would most likely continue its work with HEU fuel, for it supplies fuel for military naval reactors. It also supplies HEU fuel for fast reactors and for some research reactors. The conversion efforts of MSZ could be concentrated on development of LEU fuels for civilian transport reactors.

The consolidation steps outlined here would create a nuclear complex in which weapon-grade materials would be concentrated at four or five major storage facilities – Ozersk, Seversk, Sarov, Snezhinsk, and maybe Zheleznogorsk. Ozersk will remain the key site for all chemical and metallurgical activity involving uranium and plutonium. It will retain its pit production facilities and tritium production reactors (converted to LEU). Weapon research and development activity would continue at two weapon labs – in Sarov and Snezhinsk, although only Snezhinsk would have pilot-scale manufacturing capability. All HEU fuel production would eventually be concentrated at MSZ in Electrostal.

Zelenogorsk would continue to handle HEU conversion and downblending as part of the HEU-LEU program, but when this program ends in 2013, all enrichment facilities would be cleaned of HEU. Similarly, Seversk and Zheleznogorsk would be ready for a cleanout after shutdown of their production reactors in 2008 and 2010.

On the civilian side, Russia would still have a fairly large number of research facilities that have HEU or plutonium on their territory. At the same time, if the reactor conversion program is successful, it would eliminate HEU from all Russian-design research reactors abroad and from a number of sites in Russia. It could also remove HEU from Russian civilian transport reactors.

[1] Oleg Bukharin, Thomas B. Cochran, Robert S. Norris, “New Perspectives on Russia’s Ten Secret Cities,” (Washington, DC: Natural Resources Defense Council, October 1999), p. 6

[2] Pavel Podvig, ed., Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001), p. 97. International Panel on Fissile Materials, The Global Fissile Material Report 2006 (Princeton, NJ: Program on Science and Global Security, September 2006), p. 20.

[3] Matthew Bunn, Anthony Wier, John P. Holdren, “Controlling Nuclear Warheads and Materials: A Report Card and Action Plan” (Cambridge, MA: Managing the Atom Program, 2003), p. 158. Russia and the United States have pledged each to dispose of 34 tonnes of this material. International Panel on Fissile Materials, The Global Fissile Material Report 2007 (Princeton, NJ: Program on Science and Global Security, October 2007), p. 33.

[4] Oleg Bukharin, “Analysis of the Size and Quality of Uranium Inventories in Russia,” Science and Global Security, Vol. 6, No. 1 (1996), p. 68.

[5] Global Fissile Material Report 2006, p. 19 gives an estimate of about 1000 tonnes with uncertainty of 300 tonnes.

[6] Uncertainty of this estimate is about 25 tonnes. Of that amount, 34 tonnes is pledged for disposal, and some additional amount, probably 15 tonnes, may be declared excess. Global Fissile Material Report 2006, p. 6.

[7] The number reported in 2005 was 41.2 tonnes. Global Fissile Material Report 2007, p. 21.

[8] “Global Nuclear Stockpiles, 1945-2006,” Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, Vol. 62, No. 4 (July/August 2006), p. 66.

[9] “Russian nuclear forces, 2007,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 63, No 2 (March/April 2007), pp. 61-67.

[10] U.S. General Accounting Office, “Weapons of Mass Destruction: Additional Russian Cooperation Needed to Facilitate U.S. Efforts to Improve Security at Russian Sites,” GAO-03-482 (March 24, 2003), p. 89. Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration, “MPC&A Program: Strategic Plan 2001” (July 2001), p. 4. A DoE estimate of the total amount of material available to Russia is more than 1250 tonnes of HEU and about 150 tonnes of Pu, which is also generally consistent with the numbers used here. GAO, “Additional Russian Cooperation Needed,” p. 80-81.

[11] Russia may choose to continue down-blending, but it is not clear if this choice would be economical – Russia uses more SWU capacity in the process of down-blending than it would have to use by enriching natural uranium. Oleg Bukharin, “Understanding Uranium Enrichment Complex,” Science and Global Security, Vol. 12, No. 3 (2004), p. 204.

[12] Global Fissile Material Report 2007, p. 36-38.

[13] “On restructuring of the nuclear energy industrial complex of Russian Federation,” President of Russian Federation, Order No. 556 of 27 April 2007. Appendix No. 2.

[14] Global Fissile Material Report 2007, p. 31.

[15] Oleg Bukharin, “Russia’s Nuclear Icebreaker Fleet,” Science and Global Security, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2006), p. 29.