Nuclear Bomb Material Removed from Czech Research Reactor

VIENNA, Austria, October 6, 2005 (ENS) - Fourteen kilograms, nearly 31 pounds, of highly enriched uranium that could be used to assemble a nuclear weapon were safely returned to the Russian Federation from the Czech Republic this week, the United Nations nuclear oversight agency announced.

Safeguards inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitored and verified the packing of the highly enriched uranium for transport last week, on September 26-27, from a research reactor at the Czech Technical University in Prague.

The agency said the transfer of the fresh, not spent, nuclear fuel was a joint effort of its inspectors, the United States, the Czech Republic and Russia, as part of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), a U.S. initiative.

HEU

At the Czech Technical University IAEA safeguards inspectors seal the highly enriched uranium in transport containers before it is flown to Russia. (Photo courtesy IAEA)

The shipment and all related logistics were arranged by the IAEA, while the fuel-removal operation was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The fresh HEU fuel was airlifted under guard from an airport near Prague, Czech Republic, to a secure facility in Dimitrovgrad, Russia. There, it will be down-blended to low enriched uranium that cannot be used for an atomic bomb.

The fuel was originally supplied to the Czech Republic by the former Soviet Union for use in a Russian designed multi-purpose research reactor operated at the Czech Technical University for education and training of physics and engineering students.

Ten months ago, in December 2004, there was another Czech return. Six kilograms of highly enriched uranium were safely returned to the Russian Federation. The nuclear fuel was originally supplied to the Czech Republic by the Soviet Union for use in the Soviet-designed 10 megawatt LVR-15 multi-purpose research reactor, located in Rez near the Czech capital, Prague.

The United States funded the Czech fuel removal, and has recently expanded its assistance to other countries willing to convert their research reactors to low enriched uranium, or LEU, and return their fresh or spent HEU fuel back to its country of origin.

Over the past two years, the IAEA has supported similar operations in other countries including Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, Bulgaria, Uzbekistan, and Latvia.

The IAEA is helping to reduce and eventually eliminate international trade in HEU for use in research reactors or critical assemblies. The IAEA also assists member states to upgrade physical security and improve overall safety of their research reactors. A particular focus is on ageing or shut down reactors and their spent fuel storage facilities, the agency says.

The next most recent HEU return shipment took place in May 2005 when the IAEA has helped Latvian authorities remove weapons grade material from a shutdown research reactor in Salaspils, close to the capital Riga.

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At the Salaspils reactor in Latvia, IAEA safeguards inspectors measure and verify the declared highly enriched uranium. (Photo by P. Pavlicek courtesy IAEA)
On May 25, about three kilograms of fresh highly enriched uranium (HEU) was safely airlifted back to Russia, which had originally supplied the fissile material to fuel a Latvian research reactor. Although this amount is less than what is needed to build a nuclear bomb it still requires stringent security arrangements to ensure its safety, and guard against terrorist acts.

Dr. Andris Abramenkovs, director of BAPA, Latvia's Hazardous Waste Management State Agency, says the fuel is obsolete since the reactor is under decommissioning.

"Such materials must be stored in safe conditions, with very expensive security arrangements for a very small amount of fuel." The fuel is a legacy from the Soviet past, Dr. Abramenkovs said, and so it must be sent back to the country of origin.

The nuclear fuel was airlifted under guard from an airport near Riga to a secure facility, NPO Luch, in Podol'sk, Russia. There, the HEU will be blended down to make it unsuitable for use in a nuclear weapon.

The U.S. introduced the Global Threat Reduction Initiative in May 2004 when former U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham met with IAEA senior officials at the agency'sheadquarters in Vienna.

The program's aim is to identify, secure and recover high-risk vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials around the world so as to minimize as quickly as possible the amount of nuclear material at large that could be used for nuclear weapons.

It will also seek to put into place mechanisms to ensure that nuclear and radiological materials and related equipment - wherever they may be in the world - are not used for malicious purposes.

"We will do this by the securing, removing, relocating or disposing of these materials and equipment - whatever the most appropriate circumstance may be - as quickly and expeditiously as possible," then Secretary Abraham said.

Since 2002, two years before the Global Threat Reduction Initiative was announced, the U.S., Russia and the IAEA have been conducting retrievals of highly enriched uranium from research reactors around the world.

The first HEU return shipment was made in August 2002 when the IAEA helped coordinate the arrangements for and verified the transport of fresh fuel from a research reactor at the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences, in Serbia and Montenegro, to Russia, the country of origin. The reactor at Vinca is shut down and plans for decommissioning are proceeding.

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The Romanian shipment of fresh fuel is prepared to return to its country of origin. (Photo courtesy Vinca)
Then in September 2003, about 14 kilograms of fresh HEU reactor fuel was airlifted from Romania to the Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrates Plant in Russia. The plant agreed to take back the HEU fuel which it had originally supplied to Romania.

Russia stated its intention to re-fabricate the fuel into low enriched uranium, making it unsuitable for use in nuclear weapons. It was originally procured for a Russian designed 2 megawatt research reactor at Magurele, in the Romanian capital, Bucharest.

When the reactor ceased operation in December 1997, the fresh fuel was no longer needed and was securely stored at Pitesti.

Since then there have been three HEU return shipments a year - retrieving the fissile material from Bulgaria, Libya and Uzbekistan.