- Russian scientists say they have turned
plutonium from nuclear weapons into reactor fuel for the first time, using
technology invented years ago but never used before now.
- The claim by the scientists, at the Institute
of Nuclear Reactors in the city of Dimitrovgrad, Ulyanovsk, is reported
by the news agency Itar-Tass.
- It says the scientists have already processed
8kg of plutonium using the new technology to heat the institute building
and adjacent residential areas since the beginning of January. "The
fuel they obtained will be enough for heating them until April," it
- Third millennium technology
- The Russians are calling their new discovery
"the technology of the third millennium", because it is a "dry"
technology which allows weapons-grade plutonium to be turned into reactor
fuel with the use of very little liquid.
- This means a drastic reduction in the
amount of waste to be disposed of, which in turn means the process will
be much cheaper than the existing "wet" technology.
- The director of the Institute, Alexei
Grachyov, told Itar-Tass: "Humanity has accumulated thousands of tonnes
of weapons plutonium, but we were the first to use it for peaceful purposes."
- Worldwide interest
- He said scientists from the US, Japan
and other countries had shown an interest in the new technology and were
offering help with continuing the Institute's research.
- A British nuclear expert who visited
the Institute last year told BBC News Online the Russian technology has
nothing to compare with it in the West.
- "It is cheap, safe, and can operate
on a small scale - so you have no problems with transporting the material,
or with transporting waste afterwards. And it works as well with warheads
as with spent reactor fuel."
- Although this is the first reported use
of the technology, its introduction was forecast last year by Russia's
first deputy atomic energy minister, Valentin Ivanov. He told a meeting
in London of the Uranium Institute that his country was considering making
use of the dry technology.
- Extreme temperatures
- The new process is a pyrochemical technology
which involves heating the material to extremely high temperatures. The
plutonium oxide produced in this way is mixed with uranium oxide and can
either be packed directly into fuel assemblies, or made into pellets.
- If the technology works successfully
on a large scale it could help significantly with one of the most intractable
legacies of the nuclear age - the deadly mountain of plutonium which, at
the moment, has to undergo a complex and expensive process to turn it back
into useful fuel.
- The Russians, it appears, may have beaten
the rest of the world to a handy way of turning swords into ploughshares.