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World: Private Foundation Helping Countries Secure Nuclear Fuel

  • Don Hill

There's a type of nuclear fuel at hundreds of sites around the world that nuclear experts contemplate with dread. It's highly enriched uranium, or HEU, an essential ingredient for making a nuclear bomb. Fresh HEU -- material not yet used in a nuclear reactor -- is low in radioactivity, making it relatively easy for a terrorist to transport safely. RFE/RL describes how an international consortium and a private foundation formed an unprecedented team last week to safeguard enough HEU to make two nuclear bombs.

Prague, 27 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Under heavy guard and security precautions, Russia reclaimed possession from Yugoslavia last week of 6,000 rods of fresh, highly enriched uranium, known as HEU. The shipment weighed only 45 kilograms but comprised enough nuclear fuel to make two nuclear bombs -- with some to spare.

That the HEU is fresh, i.e., never used in a reactor, makes it especially dangerous because its low radioactivity renders it easier for a thief to transport without special precautions.

The air transfer was the first project of its kind. It required the combined efforts of Russia, the United States, Yugoslavia, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and a private foundation established by Cable News Network founder Ted Turner.

Turner and a former U.S. senator, Sam Nunn, formed the Nuclear Threat Initiative, or NTI, a Washington-based nongovernmental organization, in January 2000 to work to reduce nuclear-weapons threats. NTI's initial study discovered that there may be as many as 350 nuclear-research reactors around the world, potential sources of nuclear-bomb ingredients vulnerable to theft by extremists.

The study particularly mentioned the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences in Belgrade and its HEU.

Melissa Fleming, a spokesperson for the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, said the IAEA had been keeping its eyes on the Vinca fuel for years, with inspectors making monthly visits. "However, it makes a lot of people nervous around the world to have weapons-grade material at any kind of facility in a nonnuclear-weapons state," Fleming said.

Russia funded the Vinca Institute in the 1950s and built its nuclear reactor in 1958, and has been eager to recover the HEU. And the United States was prepared to finance its transport back to Russia. But there were complications.

In addition to the HEU, Vinca was also burdened with nearly 2.5 tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel. Yugoslav authorities were willing to surrender the HEU, but only on condition that they receive international aid in decommissioning the Vinca reactor and getting rid of the nuclear waste.

That's where NTI came in.

The U.S. Congress has appropriated billions of dollars to secure nuclear fuels around the world. But U.S. legislators have sought to make sure that the money is not redirected into projects for which it was not intended. NTI Vice President Laura Holgate said that "the U.S. government funds that are aimed at addressing nonproliferation projects typically have prohibitions from Congress on using those [funds] to support any kind of projects that are perceived to be environmental."

The congressional prohibition made no provision for nonproliferation projects like Vinca's, in which the nonproliferation goal wholly depended on environmental cleanup as well. Handcuffed by governmental inflexibility, U.S. authorities appealed to NTI to provide $5 million to help decommission the reactor and to deal with its nuclear waste. Holgate said NTI eagerly agreed. "We made this decision in five days. And it's our biggest single grant. And so this is definitely one [project] where the flexibility of the private sector was an important part of the mix," Holgate said.

The IAEA's Fleming said she believes that moving the HEU back to Russia ensures a high level of security. "Russia has, of course, tremendous experience. It has all the facilities to reprocess this material [to reduce it to low-enriched uranium]. It does have secure facilities with its military. And we have, you know, every reason to believe that [the Vinca HEU] will be secure in Russia," Fleming said.

Russia's Atomic Energy Ministry said last week that the U.S. fuel-rod transfer constituted an excellent example of international cooperation to protect against nuclear material falling into the hands of extremists.

The G-8 -- the world's most industrialized countries, plus Russia -- pledged in a summit last June to raise $20 billion to secure weapons-grade nuclear-bomb materials around the world. Holgate of NTI said she hopes that NTI's flexibility will provide an instructive example. "The challenge of fissile material inadequately secured around the world was specifically mentioned as one of the goals that [the G-8 is] going to be creating a global partnership to solve. So we see this as sort of a model," Holgate said.

She said that with possibly 350 research reactors on Earth that use or have used HEU, the problem is too huge for any private organization to solve.

At the IAEA, Fleming said the next international project to safeguard highly dangerous nuclear materials is to be at a research installation near Tashkent in Uzbekistan, which is also Russian-built. Authorities expect to complete this operation before the end of the year, but are unwilling to say more because of political instability in the region. They have not called on NTI to help in the Uzbekistan operation.