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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Nuclear Weapons Facility Overview

Beginning in the 1940s, the Soviet Union undertook a massive program to produce nuclear weapons. To support this program, a network of facilities was built, with most of the major ones located in Russia. Ten closed, or "secret," cities were built to house workers at the major sites. The Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM) is responsible for most nuclear-related activities in Russia, including the weapons production complex and electricity generated by nuclear power.

In the quest to produce nuclear weapons, the health and safety of workers--as well as the environmental impact of production--were not adequately considered. As the threat of nuclear confrontation has receded, the long-term consequences of the Soviet's nuclear program are being examined more closely by international environmental and health experts. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, information about many of the facilities, including levels of safety and environmental contamination, is becoming publicly available.

At least 221 nuclear facilities--other than civil nuclear power reactors--operate in the former Soviet Union. These facilities cover a range of activities, such as (1) mining, milling, and processing uranium ore; (2) producing enriched uranium; (3) producing and processing nuclear materials and nuclear fuel; (4) assembling nuclear weapons; and (5) disposing of and storing nuclearwaste. The largest number of operating nuclear facilities are in Russia. Of the 221 facilities identified, 99 (or about 45 percent) are in Russia, including all of the Soviet Union's facilities to produce or reprocess plutonium. In addition, Russia maintains all of the facilities of the former Soviet Union that were used to design or assemble nuclear weapons. Russia also operates 31 of the 48 research, training, and experimental reactors.

Two operating production reactors are located at Tomsk, and one is at Krasnoyarsk. Prior to 1987, 13 plutonium production reactors operated at these three sites. Ten of the reactors have been shut down. In 1994, Russia announced that it was no longer fully processing weapons grade plutonium at these sites and the plutonium was being placed in storage. The three remaining reactors continue to operate, however, and supply heat and electricity to nearby cities. Although Chelyabinsk's production reactors were shut down several years ago, the site remains a major reprocessing center for spent fuel from civil nuclear power reactors and nuclear-powered submarines. While Russia plans to significantly expand its reprocessing capabilities at Krasnoyarsk, the project has stalled because of a lack of funding. Russia's three operating plutonium production reactors are over 30 years old and share design characteristics with Chernobyl-style reactors, including the lack of a containment structure. However, the Krasnoyarsk reactor is located underground thereby reducing the potential release of radioactive material to the environment.

Certain nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union, particularly those that are part of the weapons complex, present safety risks. The following five factors are the main contributors to unsafe conditions: (1) lack of technology as well as aging facilities and equipment, (2) the lack of awareness and commitment to the importance of safety, (3) the long-standing emphasis on production over safety, (4) the absence of independent and effective nuclear regulatory bodies, and (5) the lack of funds to improve safety.

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