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Uzbekistan: U.S.-Russian-Uzbek 'Secret Mission' To Recover Deadly Uranium

The U.S. Energy Department says 11 kilograms of enriched uranium fuel, including the highly enriched kind that could be used for nuclear weapons, have been safely returned to Russia from a lab in Uzbekistan. The one-day secret mission was conducted last week by the United States, Uzbekistan, and Russia and is part of a broad effort to secure high-risk nuclear materials and equipment around the world.

Prague, 15 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A secret mission by the United States, Russia, and Uzbekistan to secure deadly nuclear material before it falls into terrorists' hands.

That may sound like a Hollywood thriller, but it's reality, according to Paul Longsworth of the U.S. Department of Energy.

"It's a very important move for international security," Longsworth said. "September 11 demonstrated that terrorist organizations are very sophisticated [and] very well organized. And we've since then accelerated all of our work to secure and, where possible, to eliminate the materials that they might use for 'evil' purposes."

Longsworth is deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the U.S. Department of Energy. He said the operation last week in Uzbekistan was part of the U.S.-led Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI).

Unveiled last May by the Department Energy, the GTRI is an international effort against nuclear proliferation. Some 70 countries are expected to debate the group's goals and methods at a key conference this weekend in Vienna.

Among other aggressive measures, the GTRI envisages using military means to intercept dangerous shipments from "rogue" states that could be intended for terrorist use.

In the operation in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, uranium was loaded into two special containers and airlifted under guard to a secure Russian facility in Dmitrovgrad in the western Ulyanovsk region. The material will be blended down into low enriched uranium, which can't be used for weapons.
Uranium was loaded into two special containers and airlifted under guard to a secure Russian facility.

Longsworth said the removed material was fresh fuel, meaning that it had not been irradiated yet. Fresh uranium is more attractive to the terrorists than irradiated uranium.

Nonproliferation experts hailed the operation as a small step in the fight to reduce the threat of deadly materials from civilian nuclear plants around the world, many of which are vulnerable to terrorists.

"Highly enriched uranium is a material that in adequate quantities could be used by a terrorist organization to create not a dirty bomb, but a Hiroshima-type nuclear device," said Laura Holgate, vice president for Russia/New Independent States programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington. She added that the challenge of highly enriched uranium is global, involving more than just the United States and Russia.

"There are dozens of facilities all over the world, civilian facilities, that are using this material for research or for producing medial isotopes," Holgate said. "Only recently has the terrorist potential for access to this material been recognized as a national-security problem."

Much of the nuclear material around the world comes from Russia. Moscow originally supplied the uranium removed from Uzbekistan for use in a Russian-designed research reactor outside Tashkent.

Russia is now carrying out a plan, first announced in 2001, to repatriate and import nuclear waste from around the world.

According to the U.S. Energy Department, last week's import from Uzbekistan is the fifth shipment of uranium returned to Russia. In the past year, Russia has repatriated a total of 48 kilograms of highly enriched uranium from Romania, Bulgaria, and Libya. In 2002, Serbia sent back 48 kilograms of Russian-origin highly enriched uranium.

In theory, the Russian plan is supposed to make it harder for terrorists to get their hands on highly enriched uranium.

Another key to the nonproliferation fight, Longsworth said, is converting reactors around the world to use low-enriched uranium. The U.S. official said Uzbekistan has agreed to do just that with its research reactor outside Tashkent. Financed by the United States, the conversion should be completed by 2008.

"Most of reactors in the world that use [highly enriched uranium] can convert to a less proliferation-attractive material, which is low-enriched uranium," Longsworth said. "The reactor in Tashkent will have the same performance. They will get the same results with a low-enriched fuel, which is not useful to a proliferation nation or a terrorist organization."

Longsworth said such conversion is likely to be a key issue on the agenda at the 18-19 September GTRI International Partners' Conference, which is cosponsored by the United States and Russia.

"It's the first meeting of its kind, where countries are coming together to partner [and] to set objectives for themselves and collectively to convert reactors [and] to secure radiological sources that could be used for dirty bombs that would spread radioactivity around," Longsworth said.

Although Longsworth expressed hope that the meeting will reach a consensus on how the global nonproliferation initiative should proceed, analyst Holgate has more modest expectations.

She said the most that can be expected from it are general statements of support for the U.S.-led nonproliferation agenda.

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