Having cooperated for years on converting research reactors around the world from using highly-enriched uranium (HEU) fuel to low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel, Russia and the USA have now agreed to jointly study the feasibility of converting Russia's own research reactors to LEU fuel.
Following a meeting of the Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Security Working Group of the bilateral Russian-US Presidential Commission in Moscow on 7 December, an agreement was signed between Russian state nuclear energy company Rosatom and the US Department of Energy (DoE). The two organizations will initially consider the possibility of converting six Russian research reactors from HEU to LEU fuel.
In a statement, Rosatom said there is now a legal basis for carrying out preliminary investigations into converting Russian research reactors. The six units initially under consideration are housed in Moscow (including those at the National Research Nuclear University (NRNU) and the RRC Kurchatov Institute) and at the JSC Research Institute of Atomic Reactors (RIAR) in the Ulyanovsk region.
Kiriyenko said that, following detailed studies, the conversion of Russian research reactors from HEU to LEU fuel will be made where it is economically and technically justified. He said that if the results of the studies show that the conversion was feasible, the actual conversion would be carried out under a separate agreement.
Many of the world's research reactors were originally built to run on HEU fuel - that is, enriched to over 20% uranium-235. However, HEU fuel presents a possible proliferation risk, as some of these fuels could potentially be used to make a crude nuclear weapon. Since the late 1970s, international efforts have sought to reduce this risk by converting research reactors to low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel under the Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) program and repatriating spent and unused HEU fuel to its country of origin - either the USA or Russia - for secure storage and ultimately disposal.
Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko noted since the program to return HEU research reactor fuel from third countries to the USA and Russia began, some 2700 kg of HEU - sufficient to produce 112 nuclear warheads - had been repatriated.