WASHINGTON — In desolate Siberia, Russia's Tomsk-7 nuclear complex sits atop a mountain of plutonium. Its 20,000 workers operate weapons reactors not to fight the cold war, but to provide steam heat to nearby residents.
Under an agreement signed with the United States last year, Russia vowed to shut the reactors by 2000. But how to accomplish this lofty goal has created an unusual dispute with an unusual cast of characters.
General Atomics, a San Diego-based nuclear equipment manufacturer, believes it has the solution to all of Tomsk's problems: a new reactor said to be meltdown-proof that could burn Tomsk's surfeit of plutonium, generate heat for the city and preserve thousands of jobs.
The company quietly signed a formal contract last month with Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy to begin development of the new helium-cooled reactor, funded initially with $1-million contributions from the company and from the Russian government.
If built, the reactor would be the first in the world to burn weapons-grade plutonium left over from Cold War bomb production. Ultimately, the project will need U.S. financing and approval.
Yet General Atomics is waging an uphill fight to persuade the U.S. government to back the project. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary does not like the proposal, asserting that it involves an unproven technology that cannot meet the schedule to deactivate the Tomsk reactors by 2000 and that using plutonium as a reactor fuel poses a proliferation risk.
"I have said \o7 nyet, nyet, nyet,\f7 " O'Leary said in an interview earlier this year. "I am not entertaining a high-temperature helium reactor. This reactor is contrary to everything we have laid out."
But O'Leary's tough talk does not faze General Atomics Chairman Neal Blue, whose family purchased the company from Chevron 10 years ago. General Atomics is seeking to position itself as a major international player in nuclear energy.
"The Department of Energy is opposed to advanced nuclear energy development," Blue said. "This is an unrealistic policy that ultimately will be reversed in time, because it is contrary to U.S. interests."
General Atomics has been waging a long and tedious battle to win over other elements of the U.S. government, including the White House, Congress, National Security Council, the Commerce Department and the Defense Department. The program clearly has support outside the Energy Department, particularly in Congress.
The dispute highlights the vast gulf that exists between the two nations about the future of plutonium, tons of which remain from the Cold War nuclear arms race. Under U.S. policy, plutonium is typecast as the ultimate toxic waste, both a health hazard and a potent weapon ingredient. Russia, meanwhile, considers its plutonium a valuable energy asset.
The Energy Department would like Russia to take the American approach with its plutonium at Tomsk-7 and other sites. The United States plans to spend billions of dollars to dispose of its plutonium, possibly by encasing it in glass logs and burying it deep underground.
But the United States might as well suggest that Russia bury the czar's jewels. The Russian nuclear weapons complex is virtually broke, unable to pay hundreds of thousands of workers for weeks at a time, and the country is witnessing an exodus of its top scientists.
A desperate Ministry of Atomic Energy signed an $800-million deal in January to complete a nuclear reactor in Iran, putting in jeopardy a range of cooperative U.S. projects. Russian officials, for their part, complain that they only have seen delays in dealing with U.S. officials.
Even if Russia could afford to dispose of its plutonium, it is far from certain that the U.S. plan to bury it is safe. Amid Energy Department efforts to open a disposal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, scientists have raised a long series of concerns that buried plutonium waste might be unstable and cause an environmental catastrophe in the distant future.
"We don't understand the American position," said Nicholai N. Ponomarev-Stepnoi, a vice president at Russia's Kurchatov Institute, a weapons research lab. "Americans have made no decision on the disposition of their own weapons plutonium. Only study, study, study this problem, but no decision. My position is that plutonium is a necessary energy source."
In hooking up with General Atomics, the Russians have found a company that shares their ideas and that is willing to battle the U.S. government.
"It makes good sense to utilize plutonium as an energy source while it is being consumed in a reactor," Blue said. "You can't squeeze toothpaste back into its original container. Tomsk-7 fuel exists, and it is not realistic for some people in the Energy Department to not allow Russia to capture the energy value of that plutonium just because the Energy Department insists on it."