#12 - JRL 7255
Russia OKs Foreign Power Plants at Cities
July 17, 2003
By H. JOSEF HEBERT
WASHINGTON (AP) - An agreement was reached Thursday between the United States and Russia on Western access to two traditionally closed Russian nuclear cities, marking another step toward shutting down Russia's last two plutonium producing reactors.
The agreement signed in Moscow establishes arrangements for foreign access to the once highly secret cities of Seversk and Zheleznogorsk for the construction of two fossil fuel-burning power plants.
The cities, part of Russian nuclear weapons complex, are among some of the most secret real estate in all of Russia. While some foreigners, with advance permission, have had access to work on joint projects, the cities remain generally off limits to anyone but those working in nuclear programs and their families.
``This is one further step in what has been a long process'' to get the plutonium reactors replaced, said Matthew Bunn, a researcher at Harvard University who has closely followed Russian nuclear issues.
Russia, with U.S. assistance, has agreed to shut down the two plutonium production reactors located at the two cities, but not until two fossil-fuel power plants are built to replace the electricity the two reactors now produce. It still will be five to eight years before the Russian reactors will shut down and stop making plutonium.
``Replacing these reactors with fossil fuel energy is critical to eliminating the production of weapons-grade plutonium in Russia and closing these facilities,'' said Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.
The agreement covers only access arrangements related to building the two coal-burning power plants, a sign of the political sensitivity of the access question. Access to the nuclear reactors to make safety improvements, pending their actual shutdown, still is being negotiated, officials said.
Seversk, formerly known as Tomsk-7, and Zheleznogorsk, formerly Krasnoyask-26, are among ten cities that once were at the heart of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons production complex.
Built in the 1940s and early 1960s, the so-called ``nuclear cities'' once had more than 170,000 people, both nuclear workers and their families. Those living in the closed cities once received the best of everything, but since the end of the Cold War many of the former nuclear workers have fallen on hard times.
Last May, the Energy Department announced a $466 million contract for two American companies to oversee construction of the two coal-burning power plants. Most of the actual work is expected to be done by Russian companies and workers.
The two reactors produce enough plutonium each week to make three nuclear warheads. They also are among the most dangerous in the world because of their design, similar to the Chernobyl reactor involved in the 1986 nuclear disaster in Ukraine. Unlike U.S. reactors, for example, they do not have concrete containment domes to hold in radiation in case of an accident or major leak.