Slow, Dirty, and Expensive: Retying the Gordian Knot
By Adam Rodriques, Breakthrough Generation Fellow
From the Department of Obscure But Telling Anecdotes, I present you with the cases of the Zheleznogorsk and Seversk reactors. These represent a case study of why we need to approach any sort of large-scale problem holistically: as we have seen repeatedly, if we act myopically, we rarely (if ever) end up making things any better in the long run.
Zheleznogorsk and Seversk are two cities southwestern Siberia. They also happen to be the sites of the last three operating reactors in Russia that produce weapons-grade plutonium - two in Seversk, and one in Zheleznogorsk. The isotope in question, plutonium-239, has no practical use whatsoever except in nuclear weapons, making it undesirable to have lying around. As such, a few years ago the Bush administration targeted the Zheleznogorsk and Seversk reactors for closing, under the auspices of the Office of Nuclear Risk Reduction, a division of the Nuclear National Security Agency (NNSA).
Unfortunately, though, it hasn't been that easy. In addition to the plutonium, the reactors have historically generated light and heat for the two cities, each of which is home to roughly 100,000 people. Faced with this problem, the NNSA decided that, rather than trying to secure the reactors or dispose of the plutonium elsewhere, it would go ahead with its plans and close the reactors, using fossil-fuel-powered plants to make up the lost electricity and heat production. In Seversk, this means upgrading an existing 1950s-era coal plant; in Zheleznogorsk, an entirely new coal plant is being built.
The twin projects reek of myopia and a quick-fix mentality. In the process of shutting down the reactors, someone is going to have to dispose of any plutonium currently on the premises, so why not just do the disposal and keep the reactors running? Yes, you would incur the cost of future disposal, but the price tag for the new plants is well into eight figures anyway. Furthermore, that doesn't take into account the impact of two new coal plants belching CO2 into the atmosphere, or the future expenses necessary to retrofit the new plants with CCS technology or (in what would be quite a bitter irony) to build new clean energy plants down the road.
There are plenty of things driving climate change that are out of America's direct control. New coal plants built with American funds do not fall into that category. Securing and/or destroying all existing weapons-grade plutonium is undeniably a good thing, and something we should be working to achieve. But it's not at all clear that our actions in Zheleznogorsk and Seversk actually leave us better off in the long run. The world may now be less likely to experience the explosion of a plutonium bomb, but the cost of doing so was higher than necessary. It's a tired refrain by now, but these are global problems we face, which demand global solutions and an expansive, holistic attitude. And until the people in power realize this, we're just going to continue to see more Zheleznogorsks and Seversks.